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In 3 Years, Teen Turns Tech-Savvy to Voice His Views

Tim Sweetman
Tim Sweetman, a 16-year-old Maryland resident, started his own blog in 2004. (Photo courtesy of Tim Sweetman)

By Lindsay Diokno
Maryland Newsline
Wednesday, May 17, 2006

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - At the age of 16, Tim Sweetman has built an impressive resume as a blogger, an online magazine editor and a co-creator and co-host of an audio podcast.

And he’s done it all in three years, forging far-flung friendships along the way.

At the age of 13, Sweetman had just started to visit forums – online chat areas – to talk about and trade ideas on computer programming. He went to visit a Web site another forum user was building without knowing it was a blog, and quickly latched onto the concept of blogging.

“I really enjoyed reading about what he was thinking on certain topics and what was going on in his life,” said the Calvert County teen. “Before I knew it, I had my own blog (agenttimonline.com, launched in October 2004), and my first post was about ex-Muslims who had a ministry which reached out to Muslims.”

Sweetman met other like-minded teens – 17-year-olds Alex King of Augusta, Maine, Jake Smith of Broken Arrow, Okla., and Travis Henry of southwestern Oklahoma – through programming forums.

“For the first year they were Internet buddies; I knew them by their screen names,” he said. “Now I’m friends with all of them.”

The four started talking on the phone, holding conference calls about their blogs and views and whatever they had heard about, such as podcasting. During one phone conversation about their blogs, the four teens realized people might find their phone conversations interesting.

From these recorded conversations evolved SquareTalk, a podcast of the foursome's conservative examination of issues. Despite being spread out across the country, “we’re going in the same direction, have the same goals and the same focus,” Sweetman said.

The first five podcasts were conference calls recorded by King. Now, with practice and the aid of Google searches for podcast-creation sites, their operation has become a little more sophisticated in content and production.

Podcasting 101

Podcasts are sound or video files put online for people to listen to or watch on their MP3 players and computers.

Podcasting News offers step-by-step instructions for making podcasts.

“We all find a topic and then Tim typically outlines the whole thing, what we’re gonna talk about,” said Smith of the content.

Instead of recording phone conversations, the four bought microphones to record their discussions onto their computers. Then they e-mail everything to one person, who produces the podcast.

“Our recording software was free, but the mics cost from $20 to $50, and adding a mixing board to that, it adds up to about $50 to $100 for one person,” Sweetman said of the set-up. “Overall, we spent around $150 to $200 betweent the four of us.”

They try to do podcasts – which are usually produced by Smith or Sweetman – twice a month, said Smith, but they’re still working out the schedule.

Given the safety issues with younger Internet users, such as talking to people online and producing blogs and podcasts that can be heard by anyone, Sweetman’s parents have been careful. In addition to keeping the computer in a central location, they kept tabs on the sites their son wanted to go on and let him use the Internet when they were at home.

Keeping up with Sweetman’s Internet use has proven to be an educational process for his parents. They had no idea what blogging was when Sweetman first approached them with the idea.

“We were asking him a lot of questions,” said Chrissy, Sweetman’s mother. “We didn’t let him start until we knew it was beneficial, not superficial.”

Even now, Sweetman’s parents keep up with his work. Sweetman said his parents supported his blogging since the beginning, advise him on topics he’s considering and read all his entries.

Being involved in his blogging has also allowed Sweetman’s mother to be influenced by the blogging trend. “I have considered (blogging), but there’s a time factor,” she said.

Since people can contact him through his blog – which has received more than 500,000 visits in the past year – Sweetman has been just as careful as his parents about his Internet use. “You never know what kind of person is lurking around waiting for you to slip up and give them your address or something,” he said.

But his blog and SquareTalk have opened new doors for Sweetman; through them, he’s met other blogging teens who are homeschooled, as he is.

“I found like-minded teens who were doing something amazing: rebelling against rebellion,” he said. “As my site grew in readership, so did the connections. The networking of these like-minded teens is starting something amazing.”

Regenerate Our Culture is a reflection of that. Launched on March 15, the conservative Christian online magazine is run by about 15 homeschooled teen bloggers, including Sweetman. According to Regenerate Our Culture’s site, “It can't be denied that many in our nation have turned away from God in politics, religion, and their everyday lives. Our vision is to help bring about a positive change in these three important areas, and equip others to do the same.”

Audio

Listen to an episode of Tim Sweetman's podcast, SquareTalk.

SquareTalk is now part of Regenerate Our Culture, but it’s still run by the original four podcasters. Both the podcast and magazine try to share themes for each edition; past issues included government, education and prayer.

Being homeschooled doesn’t give Sweetman more time than the average teen to blog or podcast. While his mother instructs him and his four siblings, he also takes classes through Bob Jones University Press, a Christian-oriented company that provides educational material for homeschooled children and teens. Some of the classes Sweetman takes are taped, others are live via satellite. He also gets assignments for all his classes.

In an attempt to balance his schoolwork and Internet work, Sweetman tries to save blogging and podcasting for evenings and early mornings after he’s finished schoolwork.

“It’s either good grades and not updating my blog, or updated blogs and podcasts and lower grades,” he said.

Not everyone tries to keep the balance. Smith stopped updating his blog (http://www.mission36teen.com/), saying he doesn’t have much time anymore for updates. He’ll have even less time once he starts attending Oral Roberts University as a computer science major in the fall.

With his fellow podcasters likely starting college soon, Sweetman is debating the future of the podcast. While they haven’t talked about it, he thinks everyone will try to stick with the show.

Sweetman is also debating the future of his own blog.

“I’ve actually thought a lot about this,” he said. “At this point, I’m gonna keep going and see how it works out. If my workload is really high, I won’t, but I would probably try to continue.”

Copyright 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism


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