That Different Place: Documenting the Self within Online Environments

By Kitzmann, Andreas | Biography, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

That Different Place: Documenting the Self within Online Environments


Kitzmann, Andreas, Biography


This article is based on a very straightforward question: what are the differences between conventional handwritten diaries and the online diaries that are increasingly appearing on the World Wide Web? I argue that an important aspect of the differences lie in the experimental and material conditions of the Web itself.

Imagine two scenarios. The first takes place in a small study with a straight backed wooden chair, a scuffed desk, and a dim lamp. On the table sits an open diary, over which a young woman is bent in concentration, writing with what seems to be some urgency. Her words appear to come quickly, sometimes echoed by her own voice, sometimes written in total silence. After a few minutes she closes the diary and carefully hides it at the very back of an over-stuffed drawer. The second scenario also takes place in a small room. But instead of writing in a diary (with potential hand cramps), the young woman sits in front of a computer terminal (with potential carpal tunnel syndrome), noisily typing and pausing occasionally to peer into the screen, as if awaiting a response to what she has just entered. She smiles, and then laughs. Indeed, something seems to have surprised her. After a few mouse clicks she continues typing, and then yawns, and leaves her computer. While she is in the bathroom, the screensaver comes on- -a simulated starry night over the skyline of an impossibly generic city.

**********

These two scenarios frame the obvious question: how do written diaries compare to online diaries? One likely response is to invoke the twin models of adaptation and progressive evolution. To understand the nature of Web diaries, on this account, one should list the features of conventional diaries, and then compare them to what happens online. The resulting differences and similarities could then be charted along trajectories of departure, with the broad aim of identifying probable trends. Viewed in this way, Web diaries are by definition progressive, extending and developing preexisting phenomena.

The aim of this paper is to escape this seemingly appropriate mode of analysis, for I contend that the concept of adaptation is not sufficient to explain the complex relations among the different modes of diary writing, or more generally of "self-documentation" such as home movies or Webcams. An "adaptation model" implicitly constructs a temporal hierarchy of formal and cultural elements in which, by virtue of their essential "natures," successive "new" media usurp their predecessors. Much of the critical work on the World Wide Web or multimedia, for instance, stresses the way specific characteristics of hypertext--its non-linearity, its ability to accommodate multiple authors, its interactive relationship with readers, and so on--challenge and potentially revolutionize print culture, for good or ill. (1) The basic approach is binary. One medium is pitted against the other, with the inevitable result of one being championed, either as victor--celebrating the advent of a more advanced technology of communicat ion--or victim-lamenting the loss of a prior "authentic" mode of expression. Given my topic of comparing online and conventionally written diaries, such a binary analysis is tempting, allowing me to pinpoint the merits and limits of each medium, and thus justify a host of evaluations and predictions.

Instead, I would like to propose an approach that pays much closer attention to the material and experiential conditions of self-documentation, and to the manner in which those conditions are integrated into the much wider phenomenon of material "complexification." In constructing this approach, I am drawing upon the insights of Jean Francois Lyotard, Walter Benjamin, and more recently Mark Hansen, who each explore the interplay between technology and the structure of human experience. The word "technology" is important here, for I contend that comparing online and written diaries requires considering how the respective "technologies" involved are related to the whole of existence. …

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