Journal-Ism

What do you want to say? How do you want to say it? What’s more, who do you want to know about it? We are a society of graphoholics. We all have a life. We all have an opinion. And, it seems, the majority of us have the need to write about it. And why not? A pen and a paper cost very little these days. The overhead for small-time authorship is next to nothing. We don’t need to be the next James Frey of the world. And hey, at least we are honest about ourselves. Besides, it’s not like we’d ever dream of publishing something like our very most personal experiences for all to see. Those things are private. Well, maybe you’ll tell your best friend. Or perhaps leak some gossip to the book club on Thursday nights. Once and a while you might let your support group know “how does that make you feel” but that’s as far as it goes. Communication and shared experience is one thing, our deepest darkest secrets are another.

Social networking aside and laundry lists not included, most of us write on a semi-regular basis to keep track of things in our daily lives. To remember the good times, explore the bad, banish the intolerable. Those of us who keep a journal do so for a myriad of reasons. Some free-write to let the ideas flow, unshackled from self-judgment in a stream-of-consciousness sort of prose. Some of us choose our words very very carefully so as to capture that perfect transcription of thought with just the right turn of the syntax. journaling is as long as the pages of the records themselves. Some of us simply log the day’s events for easy recall, sentimental or otherwise, at a later date. The list of reasons for personal What ever our reasons for writing personally, it is becoming evident that more and more of us are making our personal writing public. What once was kept under lock and key and guarded by big sister, is now accessible, and in some cases, advertised for public rummaging. Our innermost thoughts now worn on the outside. On the whole, the modern society used to be more akin to a shy pubescent teenager than to our present parallel with the prosaic and moderately annoying college philosophy major spouting his thoughts across the quad. I want to tell you what I think. I want you to know. As our notion of privacy has changed in the age of virtuality, so to has the fundamental notion of “ourselves.” The more we represent ourselves on-line, the less likely we are to be entirely truthful about that representation.

The tradition of writing in one’s journal usually involved a semi-private space with semi-private thoughts. You and your mind, free to think and write and express and explore and conspire as you please. Being able to admit things to ones-self has an enormous impact on the make-up of one’s being. Consistent journal-writers might even attain the level of pure disclosure to the page with no form of self-censorship whatsoever. We confide in the medium which is all our own. We dance a different dance however when we know that others may be watching.

25,595,766 hits to PostSecret and counting. PostSecret is a weblog whose simple rules state, “You are invited to anonymously contribute your secrets to PostSecret.” Ah. Anonymity. That’s where the popularity comes from. Catharsis with no consequence. But what about something more in line with our traditional notions of privacy. My-diary.org posits, “Everyone can have their own personal diary or journal on the Internet.” My own personal diary on the internet? What could be better? Reading other peoples personal diaries on the internet! The very first category heading on my-diary.org’s site entreats, “Read what others have written.” I would put forth that the overwhelming majority of my-diary.org’s users are not only well aware of the fact that their “personal diaries” are for all “on the internet” to see and read, but that they long for this kind of exposure. It changes the make-up of what they write. Dresses it up. Truths become liquid.

There is certainly nothing perverse about the human need for empathy and connectivity to a greater community. It is my position however that the more our society tends towards peddling our emotional wares through the annals of the web and the more we continue to raise future generations with this notion of personal expression, the less private, the less personal, the less meaningful, and the less truthful a web log or journal become. This is to say, the more we make it a habit to journal online rather than in a real-world journal, the more our relation to the truth of introspection changes due to the expectation of the content coming in contact with an eventual audience. As Sarah Boxer of the New York Times writes in a review of PostSecret from May of 2005,
The secret sharers here aren’t mindless flashers but practiced strippers. They don’t want to get rid of their secrets. They love them. They arrange them. They tend them. They turn them into fetishes. And that’s the secret of PostSecret. It isn’t really a true confessional after all. It is a piece of collaborative art.
Of course it’s exhibitionist, it’s modern art.

LiveJournal is another online “communication tool” that boasts some 9,861,091 journals created since 1999, and 307,253 post on the day this paper was submitted. The site informs us “you can use LiveJournal in many different ways: as a private journal, a blog, a social network…” A private journal and a social network? When deep in introspective thought, how does one reconcile the fact that the filtering mechanism one is using to funnel the bandwidth of stream-of-consciousness to the page is being affected by the fact that there is a good chance that a lot of people will read the content someday. Sites like these encourage us to take part in communities we may have otherwise never experienced, however, empirically they also encourage the creation and modification of our own attributes. We put our best (or worst) selves forward. But as we continue to experience reality in our lives ‘virtually’ and the line of separation gets dangerously thin between the two, we start to actually become the content of our own fabrications. We become self-fulfilling prophecies.

What does this mean then for future generations of would-be journal and diary keepers. If the current trend toward publicly viewable content continues, there will be no need for privacy concern any longer in our privacy obsessed United States of America. There will be laws passed against privacy. We will beg to be the next to have our secrets aired by the likes of Oprah and Dr. Phil. We are losing more and more ground in the fight for privacy because of our insatiable hunger with the concept of celebrity and the accompanying tendencies towards performative journaling. As our personal text becomes histrionic we sit back and laugh ourselves into oblivion and we will never question our methods, so long as we are entertained.

Online journaling removes the padding of privacy from writing and thus diminishes the truth and connection that a writer has to her text. I have decided to conduct an experiment with these thoughts in mind. I keep a student blog at http://www.itp.nyu.edu/~ajs510/blog. I invite people to see this blog and can imagine directing future collaborators to this site to get sense of my aesthetic and a cross-section of my graduate work here at NYU. For many years, I have also kept a physical journal. This journal, while mostly unread by anyone but myself is not at all private. I regularly leave a volume out in the open, flipped to a past entry that I may have been reading. Sometimes I’ll even voluntarily put my thoughts forth by reading from this record of daily thoughts and experiments in writing. A look back at some of the samplings of entries runs the gamut of the insufferably mundane to the eerily personal. Well, if I claim to be so frank and honest when documenting the day’s thoughts in this closable and geo-specific notebook even though it is not a private thing, then I should have no problem doing so on the internet. For the past couple of weeks I have been journaling as usual in my Mead Graph-ruled notebook on a semi-daily basis. The only catch is, now I scan it in and post it on the internet for all to see. The amount of privacy is relatively the same. Anyone can view it, however I do not advertise its existence often. Will my most personal writing change as a result of an expansion of possible readership? We shall see.

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