Keep a Web journal, get fired … or worse

Sure, you can pour your heart out online, but it may come back to haunt you.

Topics: Community,

I started writing this article while sitting in the main circle of Tompkins Square Park in New York, latte to my left, cigs to my right, freak show all around me. It was about 35 degrees outside and sunny, with a slight wind, giving me maybe 45 minutes to sit before I got too cold. A lone junkie ran through the park screaming, “Peanut time,” at the squirrels. He had no peanuts.

I gazed up at a tree that had been my favorite since I first visited the park a decade ago, back when it was a very different place: dirty, crime-infested and dangerous. Now, in the Giuliani era, it is merely odd. A group of Hare Krishnas — maybe 50 of them — were marching and singing at the perimeter of the park, beating their drums and dancing in some sort of joyous, delirious ecstasy. They bounced down the winding paths toward the main circle. I could not help but think to myself: Good lord, what a bunch of fruit loops.

They looked pretty happy though, in their flimsy pink pants layered over sweats and long underwear and athletic shoes (New Balance and Converse low-tops, no less!) They approached my favorite tree and circled around it, gently swaying and singing. None of the folks sitting in the park were paying much attention, except for some Latino men, their shiny mountain bikes leaning nearby on a fence, who were clapping along and singing, because, let’s face it, that “Hare Hare” song is catchy.

Then an older gentleman, who wore a suit and reminded me of one of my high school teachers, announced on a microphone that the Hare Krishna movement had commenced in New York 30 years ago at that very tree. In fact, I was sitting in front of a religious landmark! So that’s why I loved this tree so much. Maybe I had a little “Hare, Hare” in me?

I sat there, giggling and thinking: Well, all right, this is what I’ve been doing wrong all this time. I just need a cult, see, a cult to solve all my problems. Of course, it’s not particularly clever to make fun of Hare Krishnas. It’s not their fault that they’re bald, favor pastels and can’t think for themselves. After all, this is America and people can sing and dance wherever they want (except for certain towns in Texas).

And then I realized that this whole moment would make a great entry for my online journal, except it’s gone. I had to take my journal down this week; it’s dead, gone and over. But I’ll get to that later.



The best thing about the Web is the sound of all the individual voices rising. I hear voices from independent zines and Web logs (“bloggers”), but for me, it’s always been about the Web journals. I hear those voices loud and clear. They’re not necessarily always interesting, or angry, or worth your time, but if you talk loud enough (in this instance, update regularly, send a flattering e-mail with your URL to a more popular journal writer who may then link back to you, and make yourself known on message boards), someone is going to listen. Unfortunately, all that talk can get you into trouble sometimes.

Diarist.net, which claims to be the “largest and most definitive resource for finding online journals and diaries,” counts more than 2,000 sites in its registry. That’s 2,000 exhibitionists clamoring to be heard; people seeking community, seeking an audience. And they’re just the people who choose to index their sites. There are probably thousands more, all over the world, who detail the minutiae of their life for publication on the Web. And with the advent of do-it-yourself sites like Diaryland, you don’t have to be Web-savvy to put your life online.

It’s an interesting idea, creating a private space in a public arena. Some journal writers choose to password-protect their site, which is either an incredibly responsible act or a paranoid one. But the majority of writers display their emotional wares freely, even if they seek to maintain anonymity by inventing an alternate name or identity.

When some of the first journals appeared on the Web five years ago, not enough people were online for it to make an impact. But, as we all know, the Internet has exploded in the past few years, and if you don’t have a computer at home, you at least have one at work. Many online journals get the most hits of the day during the lunch hour.

And now people are being held accountable for their words. Initially journals could get you in trouble with your friends, families and lovers. Now journals get you in trouble with your employers and, in some instances, incite legal action.

Take the case of Gus, who writes the Web journal Randomly Ever After, which gets about 400 visitors a day. Gus has been writing online for more than four years and has had three separate journals in that time. Among descriptions of his life with his girlfriend, his dog and his art lies a notoriously critical analysis of his job as a Web developer for an online portal (which he elected never to name specifically.)

In February, on his 32nd birthday, he was fired from his job. He claims on his home page, “They decided that the wild and crazy things said in this site are at odds with their corporate goal of global conquest.”

Gus’ documentation of his corporate existence rings true not only for those working in the world of technology, but for anyone who feels like a victim of a bait-and-switch by their employer: You signed on for one thing, and you got something completely different. Whether or not he was actually fired entirely because of his journal is unclear.

According to Gus, his employers cited three separate reasons for his “de-hiring,” the third of which was his Web site. But it was cited in his exit interview; even if it wasn’t the main reason, the fact that it was raised at all indicates that it was a contributing factor.

In an e-mail interview, Gus revealed the name of his former employer, CollegeClub.com, and commented on why he thought he was fired.

“I was fired for speaking my mind about the cult of superficial money-obsessed Barbies & Kens managing the place. I never used any names, but they could tell I was writing about them. Actually, though, this was a good thing, since I was sick of working for a well-funded Heaven’s Gate. When they fired me, it was their loss, not mine.”

That might seem a wee bit bitter, but his online description of the actual meeting where he was fired is a solid, measured piece of writing. It’s hard to tell what the real truth is, but then again, it’s important to take any journal entry with a grain of salt. We are hearing one side, one voice in the many that are out there.

John Halcyon Styn, himself a proprietor of two personal Web sites Prehensile Tales and Cocky Bastard, is a senior editor at collegeclub.com. “Everyone knew about it (the journal). It wasn’t a big surprise,” Styn said. “I don’t know why he was fired, but it wasn’t about that. We hired him because he was a free thinker, and he was not fired because he was a free thinker.” Adds Styn, “Gus is great. I gave him a reference for his next job.”

Reading Gus’ writing, one definitely gets the sense that he wanted to push it as far as he could, that he never had any intention of developing boundaries in his journal beyond not naming names. Was he responsible to his employer in his journal? Perhaps not. Does he have any obligation to be responsible? Well, I haven’t seen the contract he signed with Collegeclub.com.

Even if you make every effort to act responsibly with your journal, it can still be held against you. Terri Polen maintains *Footnotes*, a journal that dates back in its current form to 1998. (Polen has also included personal entries from as far back as 1981.) She documents her life as a recovering alcoholic, her relationship with her partner, David, whom she met online and her experiences with non-custodial motherhood. Her site receives about 50 visitors a day.

In the past year, the estranged wife of Polen’s partner, David, has attempted to maintain sole custody of their children, using Polen’s entries as a basis. According to Polen, the bias was, ” … based mostly on things I had written about my drinking, and a half-hearted suicide attempt 20 years earlier.” The children were kept entirely from David and Polen for three months, though he now has partial custody. It wasn’t until her journal entries were brought up yet again, in January, during a settlement hearing, that Polen actually began to document the struggle. Until that time, she had focused her writing on the rest of her life.

Polen has no regrets, as she comments, via e-mail, ” … The bottom line is that I’m extremely proud of *Footnotes* and of the work I’m doing there, and I have David’s 100 percent support in this project, and I would unhesitatingly drag printed copies of any entry into any court of law. The Web site documents all of the ways I’ve fucked up, yes … but it also documents all of the ways I’ve tried to atone for those fuck-ups. And I think that’s the important thing.”

So, there’s a sense that many people are using these journals to heal, as well as to vent. At the recent South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, I attended the panel on Web journals: “Life Online and Confessional Web Sites.” There was almost a group therapy feel to the discussion, as participants went around the room and introduced themselves, adding their experiences with their online journals. Some said they did it as a way to communicate with friends who lived far away. Others did it to get to know themselves better.

Sarah Bruner, of syrup.org, spoke eloquently about her struggle to test her boundaries and learn lessons about “the definition of truth, the definition of honesty.” Several people mentioned in introductions whether or not their mothers read their sites. (It always comes back to the mother, doesn’t it?) When one attendee introduced himself as a psychologist who was fascinated with journals, there was a collective palpable discomfort, followed by nervous laughter

Later, I spoke with the psychologist, John Grohol, and asked him about his interest in online journals. “Therapists have been using journals for years to encourage clients to write out their feelings. A journal allows you to keep an ongoing commentary about your life and reflect upon it … We tell the story in a different way when we write it down.” He’s been following them for years, and, in fact has written open-source software to encourage people to post their thoughts online.

Another nervous moment during the panel came from Mark, a 15-year-old who bore a strong resemblance to a young Tobey McGuire. He announced he had a private, password-protected journal that had spun off from his Web log. “I can’t let my family read it. I can’t let my friends read it. I can’t let my girlfriend read it,” he said. “I’m scared.”

I ran into him later that night and asked him what he was writing about in his private Web space, and why he felt like he couldn’t share it with anyone.

He mentioned that his father was a conservative Christian and added, “I’m discussing my issues with my sexuality. I’m not sure if I’m gay, but I just want to be able to talk about it somewhere. My father isn’t into me putting myself on the Internet. If he read it, I wouldn’t be here (at SXSW) right now.”

There was no one in Mark’s personal community he felt he could go to, so he placed his thoughts in a controlled space where he could get feedback. He created his own community, in a simultaneously public and private manner. It’s a fitting tribute to the many possibilities of the Web, though a precarious situation, particularly for an adolescent: substituting interaction with strangers for real communication with friends and family. But Mark is one of thousands — there are a lot of isolated people out there posting their stories in hopes of anyone, anyone at all, listening.

As for me: How isolated was I to post my thoughts online? It initially began as an experiment, a step toward developing an online writing voice vs. my existing print voice. It eventually helped me to create a career as a multimedia producer, and I made some friends in the process.

My journal was never fancy, nor did it garner a lot of attention. (Lately I’ve been receiving 150 hits a day.) I never used my last name, and I certainly never used the name of my employers. I didn’t want to piss anyone off; I just wanted to document my experiences in New York, get some feedback on my writing style and, in general, just keep myself writing on a regular basis. I wanted to maintain it as long as my identity remained a secret.

I recently published my first article on Salon, and damn if smart, curious readers didn’t suss me out. I thought I had erased any connection of my first and last name to my journal, only to discover that former band mates had used my name in the meta tags of their site, as well as indexed me on certain search engines. A persistent investigator would find a link to my journal on the band’s site. My journal was suddenly flooded by people who knew exactly who I was. Worlds collided. I shut down the site.

My private life became public, and the worst part was, I did it to myself. I’m not too upset about it, to be honest, because I haven’t lost my ability to write, just my ability to self-publish temporarily. I’ll get over it. It’s just a little difficult on those bright, sunny days in New York when Hare Krishnas dance wildly around trees.

I want to raise my voice up high with them.

Jami Attenberg's fourth book, "The Middlesteins," will be published in 2012.

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