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Quebec teens vs. little old me

October 23, 2008 |  2:55 pm

Quebec_statue On the L.A. Times blogs, we’re encouraged to have a little voice, show a little attitude and write things a little differently than we do in the print version of the paper. But sometimes you can be too tongue-in-cheek. When that happens, you may get barraged with angry comments from teenagers from Quebec who think you don't understand them at all.

That's what’s been happening to me of late after I wrote a post on this blog about a study that found teens think cellphones are an important judge of social status. I'll admit the posting was a bit snarky. "Teens are notoriously judgmental," it began. "Wear the wrong shade of jeans, and you'll be branded L for Loser for the rest of your life."

One person posted a comment the day after the post, and I promptly forgot all about it.

But weeks after the post ran online, more and more comments started appearing. Since notification was sent to my e-mail (we manually approve all comments, which is why you sometimes see delays if, say, we're eating breakfast, at a movie or sleeping while you post it), I started noticing a strange similarity between the comments. Many of them accused me of being “notoriously judgmental.” Many rebutted the notion that teens need a cellphone to be cool. Many of the names sounded French. And many started their comments addressing me by my full name, which I’d never seen other commenters do.

Then the comments started getting angry. On Oct. 12, one month after the posting ran, a commenter wrote: "To be honest with you, my friend Alana Semuels, I think you are hallucinating. I’m even surprised that you have the courage to put an article like that in the Los Angeles Times.”

The next day, another commenter wrote “Hope you enjoyed your article because I think you may be the only one!” On Oct. 16, another posted that “For conclusion, the article you wrote is a REAL INSULT TO ALL THE TEENS IN THE WORLD” (The caps were his).

I was impressed. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d provoked so much anger. And I'd certainly never insulted all the teens in the world before with just a few keystrokes. I was curious, too. Who were these teens, how had they found my blog posting, and why did it make them so mad? I tried to find the answers by ...

... using the only foolproof method out there for reaching teenagers: the Internet. Few of them had left e-mail addresses, so I Googled their names. The Google searches turned up Facebook pages, so I sent them messages through Facebook asking how they’d found the blog and why they decided to respond. I also sent e-mails to the few who had left their addresses.

For days, radio silence. I wondered if I’d scared them away. Or if maybe they were going to start sending me nasty letters in the mail (not having cellphones, they probably wouldn't call).

And then: an e-mail from Bruno Bertilotti Barreto, the commenter who had begun the onslaught by telling me I was "hallucinating."

“I’m quite glad that you, a writer from Los Angeles Times, decided to answer to me, your average Joe, about the comments that I posted,” he wrote. To my question “How did you find the blog?” which was my attempt to ferret out where he had first seen it, he answered: “I thought it was ok.”

Turns out Barreto is a 14-year old ninth-grader in Quebec whose teacher showed his class the blog post and asked them to comment on it. He and other students are studying English at the collège Saint-Charles-Garnier.

Soon, I got an e-mail from his teacher, Renald Bouchard. He said that the post had been featured on Yahoo and that he had held a debate in class about the article. Then, as he wrote, “I simply told they that as citizens, they had the right to post a comment if they wanted to. I did not expect to see so many, nor did I expect the tone of their comments. Some were well written and thought out, while many were just anger filled.”

In a following e-mail, he apologized for his students' reaction, and then signed it “Letting teens think and speak for themselves!!"

Meanwhile, the comments continued. One on Oct. 20 read (I haven't changed any spelling) “And To Finish you sholud check all the comments you've received Then reconcider your article. GOOD BY!”

I have to admit -- I have reconsidered it. What may seem snarky in Los Angeles may seem just plain silly in Quebec. And maybe all teens aren't teenage mutant ninja texters, as I wrote in the article. Or else my reference to the awesome 1980s cartoon and comic book, a pop-culture reference point for my generation, flew right over their heads. Maybe it just doesn't play well across the border. Either way, the fact that people in other countries may interpret my words differently is an issue reporters 20 years ago probably didn't have to worry too much about. But it's certainly something to consider now.

The whole exchange has made me marvel at the power of the Internet. A class debate in Quebec ends up on a technology blog in Los Angeles, which then turns into a blog post about the class debate. And the whole exchange can be couched as a "teachable moment" about citizenship. Try doing all that without the World Wide Web.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Statue of Joan of Arc in Quebec. Credit: Djof via Flickr