Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives: Diary Writing on the Web

By Sorapure, Madeleine | Biography, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives: Diary Writing on the Web


Sorapure, Madeleine, Biography


An analysis of online diaries suggests some of the ways in which autobiographical stories and subjects are shaped on the Web. The computer as a writing tool, and the Web as a publishing medium, influence the practices of diary writing, affecting how diaries are written, what is written and to whom, and how they are read and interpreted.

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Alongside the dominant commercial and mass-entertainment applications of the World Wide Web, a number of vibrant forms of self-representation and autobiographical writing have emerged. While complete autobiographies of the kind that define the genre in print do not exist on the Web, there are several types of autobiographical storytelling that are quite popular in this medium. (1) Anthology sites such as The Fray, The City Stories Project, after Dinner, and Noon Quilt publish short, hypertextual, and sometimes illustrated autobiographical stories. In addition, there are individual autobiographical works on the Web, such as Shelley Jackson's My Body: A Wunderkammer &, which Jackson playfully describes as "An autobiography, plus lies," and Glass Ho uses by Jacalyn Lopez Garcia, "a tour of American assimilation from a Mexican-American perspective." Personal home pages are often conceived of by their authors and by the social scientists who have studied them as a space for identity construction and self-presentat ion. (2) Webcams, video projects, and avatar-style role-playing games can also be seen as forms of autobiographical storytelling unique to the Web. These clearly non-traditional autobiographical acts might best be studied through the kind of "backyard ethnography" Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson describe in Getting a Life, as such acts are examples of the "announcing, performing, composing of identify" that is one of the "defining conditions of postmodernity in America" (7). Though Smith and Watson critique the "othering machinery of modern technological culture" (9) that collects, codes, and stores medical, educational, occupational, psychological, and financial data about each of us, the proliferation of autobiographical writing on the Web indicates that people are also finding compelling ways to use computer technology to create and perform autobiographical acts.

Of all the forms of Web-based autobiographical writing, the online diary is likely the most popular and well established. Carolyn Burke has been credited with having made the first online diary entry on January 3, 1995; she and other online diary pioneers are interviewed at the Online Diary History Project. (3) Even as the Web has become more commercialized, the number of online diaries has grown significantly, thanks to faster connection times, cheaper computers, and increasingly user-friendly Web-authoring software. With the introduction of blogging (or Web logging) sites in 1998, and specifically of Blogger in 1999, starting an online diary became a simple point-and-click procedure, and posting entries became a matter of sending an email message. (4) Blogging and diary hosting sites--for instance, Blogger, Diary-X, Diaryland, and Live Journal--have themselves become commercial ventures, generally offering some services for free but charging for others. These sites also serve as virtual gathering places for online diarists, offering both technical and creative advice as well as links to myriad online diaries. By contrast, Diarist. net, from which most of my examples are drawn, is a non-commercial site produced by online diarists who volunteer to maintain the site and to select the Diarist.net Awards, non-monetary awards for excellence in online diary writing given quarterly since 1999. The detailed nomination and judging processes are described at Diarist. net) and are refined through mailing list discussions. (5) Because online diarists themselves determine the criteria for excellence and select the award-winning sites, the Diarist.net Awards provide evidence of what writers of this genre value, as well as a useful starting point for critical interpretation. …

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