It was a small blurb in an unobtrusive sidebar in a 2006 issue of PC World. It advertised a citizen journalism site, where "anyone can write their own column". I loved technology, I loved writing, and I loved sharing my knowledge. So I signed up for a Newsvine.com account.
I was 13.
Newsvine was my first real experience with writing for an audience larger than my homeschool writing co-op. Like any 13 year old, I made some mistakes. I overused commas and exclamation points. Many of the comments on my technology writing went way over my head. But I persevered. I learned more about computers than I ever would have as a passive reader. Just as importantly, I learned how to write by copying excellent writers around me.
I also started branching out past "online apps". Newsvine was never really focused on technology; its strength has always been news. As a 13 year old, I had basically no idea why I believed what I believed. Going into the virtual world of Newsvine changed all of that. After a few years, I could defend my positions on abortion, Iraq, or taxes. I was sometimes wrong, but at least dogmatism no longer defined my political views. The comment threads also strengthened my logic and my rhetoric. In high school, I competed in both policy and Lincoln-Douglas value debate, placing at the national level in both. I doubt that my skills would have been anywhere near what they are now had I not engaged in more informal debate with my fellow 'viners.
It was really the community that means the most to me, looking back on my time at Newsvine. Before the MSNBC.com acquisition, the community was much smaller and much more closely-knit. With the exception of a few, almost everyone was cordial and respectful. They would disagree with you, but they would do so politely. I still read Kyle Baxter's technology column, Elliot Vos's shared RSS items, and Duane Lester's blog. Half of my LinkedIn connections are ex-Newsvine colleagues.
And of course, I would be remiss to leave out the wonderful Newsvine staff. Despite all the grief everyone gave the moderators, the staff was excellent. They really cared about the user experience. Calvin and the moderators always were polite, attentive, and willing to work to resolve conflict. They also did a great job providing ways to keep the community fresh. I still remember the Last Viners Standing 2 contest (I still have and use the iPod Touch) and the invitation from Calvin to cover the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Newsvine acted as an effective springboard into other journalism ventures. One day, while reading Free Software Magazine, I noticed that there was a link on the sidebar saying "Write for us!" Had I not been a Newsvine columnist, I wouldn't have thought twice about it. But with my "experience", even if it was from an non-peer reviewed, non-edited column, had given me confidence in myself as a writer. I submitted the article, got it published, and later became a regular columnist.
A few months after starting at Free Software Magazine, I noticed a Digg posting advertising "issue 0" of Full Circle Magazine, a free online magazine covering Ubuntu. After noticing they needed staff, I signed up as a columnist. To this day, I still write the back page column, reviewing the "Top 5" apps in various categories. Again, I doubt I would have even thought of applying for the position had I not had the experience Newsvine brought me.
My columns springboarded me to new heights. After learning that James Mowery, a fellow Newsviner, had just started blogging at Mashable, I decided to try to apply for a position as a freelance journalist at my favorite blog. Mashable accepted me, after looking over my credentials. I also wrote a few freelance articles for Linux.com (owned, at the time, by Sourceforge Inc.), where I learned how to sign a contract, request payment, file W9 tax forms, and work for a publicly-owned company. Finally, I got an article published in Linux Journal, an actual print magazine. All this happened before my sophomore year of high school was over. And none of this would have happened without Newsvine.
All the top-tier schools I shot for wanted to see a "hook" in my application, especially in my essays. I did debate, but so did just about every other Ivy applicant. I did choir, but I didn't even bother trying for All-State. I played club ultimate frisbee, but no varsity or even town sports (my town didn't let homeschooled students play varsity, and didn't have rec for high school). I didn't do very much community service. When I sat down to start writing essays, it looked like they would be either about homeschooling or summer camp counseling. But then, I remembered something. I did online journalism.
I played up journalism throughout my entire application. I talked about it in my main Common App essay. I mentioned it in every interview I could. I redid my website to focus on my journalism, just in case a college admissions officer happened to see it.
On March 30, 2011, after disappointing results from several other schools, I received my acceptance letter to Princeton University's class of 2015. Besides God (to whom I attribute all my successes), I don't think there was one single factor that got me into Princeton. But, out of all the things on my resume, I'm fairly certain that my writing stood out the most.
On September 3, I'll step through the gates of Old Nassau and become a Princeton freshman. I have no idea what I'm going to major in, or what I'll do after college. But I do know one thing. I really did "get smarter here" at Newsvine. I can't wait to continue getting smarter there.