Baring your soul to the Web

Online diarists have invented a new art form and gathered a devoted following. But now some pioneers are questioning what they've created.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Last month Alexis Massie presented readers of her online journal with another honest and affecting piece of autobiographical prose.

"Sometimes I wish this had all never happened," she wrote. "I only know how to take what's in my heart and shove it onto a screen, both good and bad, secure in the knowledge that the people to whom it is relevant will read it. And there's nothing wrong with doing that. But it holds little appeal for me and I don't think I want to do it anymore."

In many ways that day's entry was a classic example of the form. Direct, personal, honest, almost painful to read and yet compelling too, it's typical of the best of a genre of Web writing that's finally taking off in popularity -- the online diary.

Yet here is Massie, who's also the creator of the respected personal-narrative Web 'zine AfterDinner, bidding the genre farewell. "It's grown dull. Tedious," she writes. And not only will she no longer be regularly baring her soul to the world, but it seems she's writing an obituary for the whole diary phenomenon. Web diarists are now "slowing down, drifting away, and not publishing at all, abandoning unfinished projects, flailing in redirection and redesign, coming to no real conclusions and no more happiness."

"The true writing talent," Massie concludes, "is hiding, drifting away to other mediums, or not publishing at all."

Can this really be true? For those of us who've become avid readers, even addicts, of online diaries, it would be a disaster. We'll never know if Diane sells her screenplay. Or if the bad vibes Lizzie has asked everyone to send her downstairs neighbor will get the dreadful woman to move out. Kymm's wry reports brighten many of our days. And Justin's only just started his new job. What about the 4,000 or so who check in with him daily to see how he's getting on?

While two years ago there were less than 50 people keeping regular online journals, or diaries, there are now, by one count, nearly 500. Over the past year their collective efforts have been steadily attracting more attention and readers. Can they really have reached not only their peak popularity but also their creative apex?

If you talk to Massie, you discover that her disillusionment is to some degree the price of having been a pioneer. She began her diary back in the Web's Jurassic age -- August of 1995. The first online diarists, she says, didn't really "think anyone else was reading them." But they were read and imitated. Many of the biggest journal "fans" began online journals themselves, and soon everyone ended up mostly writing about each other. Some of them got famous, others got resentful. "After a while," says Massie, "it started getting very negative."

It's a story familiar to anyone who has been in on the start of any online community. Still, is it inevitable that all Web diaries, and diarists, will go the same way? Massie worries that it is. She wanted the online diary to be a vehicle for a raw baring of the soul, an unreflected-upon accounting of ideas and emotion. That's proven to have been a naive hope -- the Web is clearly too public, too interactive, too instant.

But has it really become impossible for writers to broadcast daily dispatches from the depths of their hearts as a sustainable and rewarding creative enterprise? Arguably not. While many of the movement's pioneers may be tired and disillusioned, the genre shows plenty of signs of life -- of blossoming, even, into something remarkable: a new literary form that allows writers to connect with readers in an excitingly new way.

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Online diaries or journals (to use the terms interchangeably, although that's a contested practice within the "journaling" community) grew out of the first home pages. For avid home page owners who wanted to add fresh daily content to their sites, the diary was an available and natural form in which to do it.

The first true Web diary is generally credited to Canadian Carolyn Burke, who began hers in January of 1995. Slowly, more people joined her -- writing daily entries that detailed what they'd been doing that day (and what they wish they'd been doing instead), what they were worrying about, what they were dreaming. A lot of what they wrote was never going to interest anyone other than the writers themselves, and perhaps their mothers. But some of these early writers did have interesting lives, had things to say that spoke to their readers and wrote in raw, dramatic prose. Whether their subject has been a new relationship, a lost dream, adultery or just the riotous story of a surreal party, complete with sawed-off shotguns and skinny-dipping, these diarists have shared deeply personal stories that were often far from suitable reading for their parents.

The first diaries soon spawned imitators, and today the Internet is awash with journals written by every sort of person. Students, fathers, sailors, prisoners, artists and travel agents are all now keeping journals online.

Yet a recent New York Times CyberTimes piece called the very idea of an online diary "a bit of an oxymoron." Indeed, aren't diaries supposed to be things we keep under the bed, full of secrets never to be told? Is it a wise proposition to attempt to tell all to all?

Walking the fine line between honestly sharing your secrets and putting yourself in danger is certainly something not all online diarists achieve. At some sites, says journal keeper Diane Patterson, her reaction is, "You're kidding me, right? You're telling complete strangers this?" Patterson is the author of "Why Web Journals Suck ," a much linked-to Web essay that offers sensible and thoughtful advice to the prospective journal keeper.

The biggest trap online diarists fall into, she feels, is not acknowledging they've "put [their thoughts] on the Web for an audience." That means refraining from the urge to tell the world absolutely everything about yourself. But, she feels, you can rein in that impulse and still offer your readers personal narratives that remain honest and read true.

It certainly seems to work in her case. Patterson has been keeping an online diary of her own since she moved from Silicon Valley to Los Angeles two years ago and enrolled in the famous USC screenwriting course. A paper journal writer of some 10 years' standing, she began Nobody Knows Anything (originally known as The Paperwork) as a way to keep now-distant family and friends in touch with what was happening in her life. Before long, "I felt as though I had to write, had to tell. Not the manic self-torture of, 'Gee, I gotta write this letter,' but rather an excitement of knowing that I could be as creative or as honest as I liked, and there would be a built-in audience." Her diary -- at turns amusing, thoughtful, outraged and juicily gossip-filled -- is now read by approximately 200 people a day.

The other side of admitting that you've invited an audience to read your diary is to pay them the courtesy of being intelligible. That means having a clear, logical and legible page design and trying to write prose that, however "experimental it is, communicates something, too. Indeed, many online diarists cite the desire to force themselves to become better communicators as a major reason for putting their diary online.

"My expository writing has improved a lot," says Patterson. Thinking about her audience has made her careful to modulate the tone of her entries and has even had a positive effect on her life. "It makes you think: I'm telling the same damn thing again -- why don't I do something about it?"

According to a survey conducted six months ago by Pamela O'Connell, then editor of the Mining Company's "personal web page" guide (still the best source for raw data on the online diary phenomenon), the typical diarist is a single, American, 20-something man or woman. But diaries are being kept online by a remarkably broad range of people all over the world.

There are journals that are predominantly philosophical, humorous, work-oriented, gossipy or aggressive. There are recovery journals, audio diaries, diaries of dreams and, of course, spoof diaries.

Plus there now exists a whole support structure of "notification" lists, Web-rings, list-servs as well as the how to's and how not-to's, like Patterson's. Another meta site about the phenomenon, Metajournals, is just starting up. Current lists sort diaries by their authors' gender, residence, birth date, sexual orientation, frequency of updating -- and, controversially, quality of the site.

Quality is a vexed issue in the online diary world. One of the joys of the movement -- and one of the banes if you are looking for a particular kind of diarist to connect with -- is its variety. Can you even talk about quality in a genre this personal?

Participants in Diary-L, the best-known journaling mailing list, last month informally polled each other for their five favorite online diaries. Interestingly, the diverse results of the survey didn't turn up any overwhelming favorites. But one that seemed to come up more than any other was a diary recently renamed Lizzie's Journal.

Lizzie (she doesn't want her surname used) is a lawyer in her late 20s living in Sacramento, Calif. Her family has its fair share of cranks, her job is tough and relatively poorly paid and she lives in a part of town that's far from quiet.

Lizzie's is certainly a full and not entirely easy life -- but no more so than many people's. So why is her presentation of her life interesting to more people than many others?

"I've always found myself writing a story about what I'm doing," she says when I interview her, and that certainly provides a clue. What Lizzie has is a burning desire to tell us about her life and the ability to make that story interesting.

She has also lived long enough to have a past and has a true writer's interest in mining both it and her present life for meaning. And while she was pleasantness incarnate on the phone, her journal reveals a complex character that can as easily be whipped into anger, righteous indignation or bitchiness -- but which is capable, too, of a humane, despairing love for the world and other people. Often her entries are the online equivalent of page turners.

Lizzie's Journal has its own dramas, too, thanks to her choice of career. Her day job involves defending some seriously unpleasant criminals who are keen, even once in prison, to stay in touch. The Journal has regular, dramatic "get out of town in the dead of night" episodes when Lizzie changes the site's location and requires readers to e-mail her for the new address.

Recently G.K. Nelson, executive editor of the literary Web 'zine Savoy, argued in an interview that the best Web journals "resound with the ring of life." Savoy offers its Whitman Awards to journals they feel epitomize this quality. "When," says Nelson, "the stories are really, really good, we feel about them the way we feel about life. We're enthralled by them and we wonder where they're going to take us."

Questions of how "real" or "honest" they are become, he feels, beside the point. We don't ever know if what these writers say is true -- but then we don't ever know that about paper diaries, either. What matters more, he feels, is "transparency, which isn't so much honesty as an opening up, an evisceration of sorts."

When one journal becomes more popular than another, perhaps it is because it possesses this quality of "transparency." The most compelling online journals -- even in their inconsistencies -- feel too real to be made up. They almost have to be true because they are, to use the title of Nelson's particular favorite journal, stranger.than.fiction.

Of course, diaries can be addictive for reasons other than their honesty or artfulness. There are diarists who are compelling in their idiocy, whose new entries you read through your fingers with a mixture of dread and disbelief and the occasional (for those you've come to loathe) delicious tingle of schadenfreude. One of the guilty pleasures of diary surfing, in fact, is that it engages in the reader the same less than edifying voyeuristic thrill that the personal Web-cam movement has so successfully tapped into.

But online diaries can engage us much more deeply, too. And the diarists the reader cares about -- about whether they'll get the job, the guy, the courage, the health, the happiness, the wisdom they are striving for -- tend to be the ones who are searingly genuine. For all their self-absorption, these diarists are also generous: They understand that, as much as they are working things out for themselves, day by day, they are creating something for the rest us as well.

The piecemeal construction of an online diary, its ability to constantly change tack, to absorb everything in its author's life (several wrote about being interviewed for this piece the day after I called them), is another part of its appeal.

"I never know what I'm going to write about when I sit down," says Patterson. When your subject is your life and you don't want to fictionalize it, you appreciate that flexibility. You can let a riveting, deeply personal story emerge subtly over a long period of time just as easily as having it erupt seemingly out of nowhere.

That freedom can be a recipe for long-windedness and digression, but it needn't be so. In the online diary, some writers have found their ideal medium -- one with which they can construct a patchwork of brief and pointed vignettes that form an exciting living self-portrait.

After reading hundreds of paper diaries for his book about diarists and their diaries, "A Book of One's Own," writer Thomas Mallon became convinced "that everyone writes to be read." Even when you are dead, having kept a diary means, in some sense, "you're alive." It may be at the price of compromise, danger and self-delusion, but keeping an Internet diary allows its writer to make that assertion -- to try and connect with other people while they are still around to know whether they did.

In fact, another hazard of the online diary is the ease and enthusiasm with which readers can respond. It's considered good online diary form to offer readers the chance to give feedback. Longtime diarist Justin Hall gets sent recipes when he is sick; he receives mix tapes when he expresses interest in a new kind of music. But he can also get overwhelmed. "A lot of times people will respond to you with their own diaries, and I don't have it in me to keep up on all that," he says. "You sometimes want to say: you know this is my life," adds Patterson.

But neither would consider posting entries without offering a way of replying. Hall considers the idea "offensive": "You've really got to be permeable on some level," he argues.

Keeping a diary online does mean, to some degree, living with a contradiction: wanting to be both public and private. "I realize I'm trying to have it both ways," admits Lizzie of Lizzie's Journal. Given the nature of her job and the past history of her journal (the front page has an alarming warning addressed at potential stalkers), privacy is a major issue for her. She may have a compulsion to examine her life, but it also takes courage -- some of her friends say foolishness -- to continue to do it online. "Some Web journalers," she says, "I think they chicken out sometimes."

There's also the issue of the people you write about other than yourself. Lizzie admits: "I take a lot of liberties with people in my life." But then again, she argues, "I think anyone who writes about anything in their own life, even if they fictionalize it, they'll deal with the same issues of privacy and invading the privacy of others."

Even the most successful online diarists -- whether the most popular, the most critically acclaimed or those who've best fulfilled their own hopes for their writing -- don't want to do it forever. Burke, the Web's first diarist, reached that point at the end of last year. "I don't feel in any way open to expose myself any longer, and I find that I don't find things to write about," she wrote in her final entry.

Most private paper journals are only maintained by their authors at certain times in their lives. Lots of paper diaries get started and forgotten; we just don't hear about them. But public revelation has its own added pressures, and it might be that the two to three years pioneers like Burke and Massie lasted is the natural life span of a journal online.

Perhaps the departure of the first diarists tells us less that the online diary is in decline than that it's over its first flush. Indeed, the fact that the genre has had its first significant casualties -- had its first works go out of print, if you will -- is arguably a sign that it's only just now matured.

Even if it has matured into a viable and worthwhile literary genre, of course, the online diary still poses some unanswered questions: It isn't clear, for example, if anyone will pay money to read one. But if we don't pay for Web diaries in cash, we do pay in our time. The best diaries manage to claim their readers' full attention almost daily -- an extraordinary achievement, when you consider how desperately commercial Web sites struggle to achieve the same goal.

Perhaps because online diaries aren't valued yet (and may never be) in cash terms, there's also been surprisingly little effort made to preserve them. In some ways the online journal, despite being so widely available when online, is a more fragile and transient thing than its printed cousin. Whether by accident, fiat or deliberate censorship, whole years of online diaries can be, and have been, erased in a second.

"I can see a market for first editions of people's diaries on disk," says Catherine deCuir, keeper of the journal writing site at the Mining Company. "It's kind of a unique cultural record," she adds.

That's certainly the way Hall views his diary. Hall was there at the beginning of the Web boom, working at Cyborganic and HotWired. "Someone needs to be chronicling what's happening," he remembers feeling. "How did the Web people make the Web? Who were the Web people?" Without chronicles written from the trenches, he thinks, "we're going to miss a lot of the people below [Wired founder] Louis Rossetto" who made their contribution, too.

But when you get him talking, his journal clearly means more to him than that. It is a constant companion, a free-form "log book of sorts." Every entry has links threading back through past entries, so an event in his life can set off a myriad of resonances for him and us. "I think Proust would have loved this," says Hall.

Traditional ideas of literary value might never catch up with what the most interesting online diarists are doing. You may never get asked to pay money for them (although I'd argue that paying $19.95 for a book-length CD-ROM of Lizzie's Journal would be worth every penny), but journals like Lizzie's, Terry's, Laura's, Maggie's
and even Justin's rambling monster of a site have a value beyond historical interest. Especially when combined with the added one-off memoirs and polemics that many journals feature, they constitute a new form of autobiography of tremendous power.

Internet diaries can be as entertaining, as worth reading, as any other literature. Just as with a fine memoir, or even a novel, they offer us the chance to get caught up in another person's trials and triumphs, their dreams and their daily dramas. Just as with any fiction, we can appreciate them for the quality of their writing as much as for the stories they tell. And in this genre we get to enjoy it all in digestible daily doses and in the knowledge that we truly won't be able to predict what's going to happen next.

So go and find the voice that speaks to you. It might be young Lucy or architect Alethea or The Gus on the East Coast or southerner Meghan. Whoever it is, try not to hassle them. Just tell them occasionally that you appreciate what they are doing. And let them go, too, when, like Alexis, they need to go.

By Simon Firth

Simon Firth is a writer who lives in the San Francisco area.

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