January 10, 2004


Emily Nussbaum has a nice piece on teen weblogs in today's NYT magazine. She talks about the role that blogging is coming to play in the emotional and social life of American adolescents:

For many of the suburban students I met, online journals are associated with the ''emo'' crowd -- a sarcastic term for emotional, and a tag for a musical genre mingling thrash-punk with confessionalism. The emo kids tend to be the artsy loners and punks, but as I spent more time lurking in journals and talking to the kids who wrote them, I began to realize that these threads led out much farther into the high school, into pretty much every clique.

On a sunny fall day, M. and his friends were hanging out in front of a local toy store, shooting photos of one another with digital cameras, when a group of three girls sashayed by. They sported tank tops, identical hairbands and identical shiny hair. I walked over to them and asked if they have LiveJournals. ''No,'' one said. ''We have Xangas.''

They were all 15, around the same age as M. and his friends. But the two groups had never read the other's posts. M.'s crowd was emo (or at least emo-ish; like ''politically correct,'' ''emo'' is a word people rarely apply to themselves). These girls were part of the athletic crowd. There was little overlap, online or off. But the girls were fully familiar with the online etiquette M. described: they instant-messaged compulsively; they gossiped online.

These nicknamed cliques have been a stable feature of the American adolescent scene for a long time, though the names, symbols and prototypical characteristics are always changing. Greasers, burnouts, yutzes; collegiates, socials, jocks; and dozens more over changing time and space. And now one that's new to me: emo.

I'm not the only clueless one -- the real word mavens seem to have missed it too (though there was an ADS list posting about jamband whose citation included emo). It wasn't on the list from yourDictionary.com, nor did anybody at the ADS "word of the year" discussion bring it up. But it sounds like a winner to me. Google has 1,010,000 "emo" pages in its current index, starting with this one. Some reference the township of Emo, Ontario; some deal with the comedian Emo Philips; others have something to do with an exhibition of European Machine Tools, or the Emo Oil company. But based on sampling ten page-fuls or so, it looks like more than half of them are "emo the music genre" or "emo the teen social group." By comparison, goth (which is well known even to people like me, and has been around a lot longer) only has a bit over 2 millions hits.

Nussbaum says that emo is "sarcastic" and "a word that people rarely apply to themselves." However, that doesn't seem to be true across the board. The musical reference seems to be used by fans, not by detractors. And Ebay has more than 14,000 items for sale that mention "emo" in the title: "OLD PEOPLE SMELL FUNNY EMO VINTAGE T-SHIRT L"; "Extra Thick Hemp Choker Necklace EMO Goth"; "Vintage Emo Punk Indie WORKSHIRT 'Nadine' XL"; "Punk Emo Retro Skater Hawaiian Shirt XL", "emo grrl Vintage Borg era Fila Tennis Skirt", and on and on. This isn't sarcastic description from the outside, this is people marketing stuff using the label that they expect their buyers to self-identify with.

So let's sum it up: emo is an evocative, descriptive new word for a popular musical genre, also used to label an adolescent subculture or perhaps a family of similar subcultures. It's got at least half a million google hits so far (and as far as I can tell, google doesn't index the 913,000 active LiveJournal weblogs and similar sites). It'll doubtless fade eventually, just like greaser and burnout did. But I bet it grows for a while first.

[Update: see this post for some information about the 15-year-long history history of emo.]

[Update: Nicholas Widdows writes to correct my (mistaken) assertion that google does not index LiveJournal:

Oh but they do. A quick check for Googlewhacks on my own even tells me the date of their last spidering: between 30 December ("shotputting mug") and 2 January (*"shotputting memorization").

Apologies -- I checked strings from a few LiveJournal posts that are a few weeks old, and didn't find them. Maybe google doesn't index all of LiveJournal? I'll say more about this if I learn more...

Ask, and ye shall receive:

I just wanted to mention that the reason not all of LiveJournal is indexed by Google is that it's possible to configure one's individual LJ account so that search engines ignore it.

Some people don't want to be found.

I hope that helps,

--Naomi Parkhurst, a happy reader of Language Log

That makes excellent sense, and I should have guessed it. Several others wrote in with the same information. For instance, David Elworthy wrote:

In LanguageLog (which is great, BTW), you say: > Maybe google doesn't index all of LiveJournal? It's a choice made by each LiveJournal user. There is a setting to "Block robots/spiders from indexing your journal"; so it's not that google doesn't index it, it's that search engines in general don't. I leave this setting checked for my journal (http://www.livejournal.com/users/xxxxxxxx/), mostly because I largely post drivel that posterity is better off without.

I looked through a dozen or so of David's posts, and my considered opinion is that he's wrong -- he has interesting things to say, none of which seem likely to be embarrassing now or in the future, and he should let others find his stuff via search engines! But I've x-ed out his journal title in deference to his choice.

And Kian writes to point out that parental googling is a key issue:

Livejournal includes an option that keeps spiders from indexing your website. Many people young enough to be highly competent with the internet have parents who know you can use google to spy on your kids.

I have to say I am a huge fan of languagelog. I'm a 3rd year linguistics major at UCSD, and languagelog is daily reading for me. Anyway, hope this helps out.

Patrick Hall at (the terrific computational linguistics weblog) fieldmethods.net writes that:

For searching blogs, you might try daypop.com:


Lots of hits for "emo" if you set the search to 'Weblogs.' I'm not sure if Livejournal posts are indexed there, either, but then, Livejournal has often been called "the antimatter of the blogging world."

Patrick Hall

Jessica Skrebes writes with further clarification:

I recently came across your Language Log posting, perhaps not surprisingly through a link from LiveJournal. Simply in the interest of further clarifying the relationship between Google and LiveJournal, I thought i'd offer my own experience. Although it is possible to check a box asking spiders not to index your site, LJ offers the disclaimer that they do not necessarily do so, as I discovered when I googled my own user name. Additionally, even if the spiders ignore your site, should you post in a friends journal which google has listed, you're name becomes traceable. While I have no trouble with people finding my journal, it's unfortunately difficult to ensure that it remains hidden, should this be one's wish. Thanks for the definitions though, I thoroughly enjoyed both of your articles.

A significant percentage of the visitors to Language Log come by way of referrals from LiveJournal links, mostly RSS syndication in people's " friends views" -- recently it's been 10-15%. When I first noticed this a couple of months ago, I looked around LiveJournal a bit, and I was really pleased to find that quite a few LiveJournal users found Language Log interesting enough to syndicate it and comment on it. I was also impressed by the scale, complexity and intensity of the personal expression and social interaction at LiveJournal and similar sites. It's past time for this phenomenon to get the kind of media attention that Nussbaum's article represents.

Posted by Mark Liberman at January 10, 2004 01:31 PM