Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks: The Diary on the Internet
McNeill, Laurie, Biography
This article examines the diary's transformation from print culture practice to online phenomenon, considering the implications of this change for the diary as a literary genre and as life writing. This discussion explores the challenges the online diary represents to traditional concepts of the genre as private and monologic, investigating the ways in which online diarists attract readers, build communities, and create identities in cyberspace.
Something about the online journal and its generic cousin the Weblog, or blog, makes me distinctly uncomfortable. After several hours of reading these journals, I often feel sick, as if I've watched too many tell-all talk shows on daytime television. I've learned too much I didn't need to know about too many people's everyday lives--lives without anything particularly extraordinary to recommend them, except the diarists' own sense of importance and relevance. Some journals make me feel guilty, as if I have been looking at texts I should not be reading, that are too personal and not intended for me to see. I "lurk" on diary sites, refusing to participate in the communities by posting to their forums or signing their guestbooks. I am cross when the diaries are badly written, and occasionally offended by their contents; I continue to visit these sites--for academic reasons--but I read with an entirely unscholarly sneer. When I find a diary I like, though, I engage in a marathon reading session to get caught up, then frequent the site daily, anxious for new entries. Such sites feature diaries that are much more literary and coherent narratives, in generally grammatical English. The diarists adopt self-reflexive and self-deprecatory perspectives about their online lives, and acknowledge their personal and textual shortcomings with tongue in cheek. Though my own life has little in common with the diarists' daily life experiences, all are my age or older, and share similar political views and other values.
I mention these personal reactions as starting points for my exploration of the diary's place in the "global autobiography project" of the Internet (Murray 252). Since I do not respond as viscerally to print diaries, why do online journals provoke me in this way? Perhaps my feelings reflect the collision between traditional (i.e. "offline") reading and writing practices, and the new media that comprise the Internet. Undeniably I have brought my book culture values to bear on texts not meant to be read in this way, and therefore am drawn to Web diaries that most closely resemble traditional literary texts. Certainly, literary and aesthetic snobbery informs my dismay at many online diaries. They have not been properly "vetted," properly shaped for a reading audience, before being made public. But Web diarists do not need to prove the marketability of their lives and stories in order to be "published," and Web diaries, though the contemporary equivalent of the vanity press, nevertheless have a potential readersh ip of millions. These sires often reinforce the stereotype of the diary as a genre for unbridled narcissism, and indeed, since all these diarists write for a public readership, they "super-size" the narcissism factor. And yet, if online diarists presume that their lives and their narratives merit our interest, attention, and time, in terms of readers' responses and in terms of the theoretical issues their texts raise, their presumptions are nor unfounded. Some diaries receive thousands of visits, and many diarists have become famous amongst the cyber-community, even parlaying their diaries into commercial success in "real life." In their immediacy and accessibility, in their seemingly unmediated state, Web diaries blur the distinction between online and offline lives, "virtual reality" and "real life," "public" and "private," and most intriguingly for auto/biography studies, between the life and the text.
I am particularly intrigued by the fact that the diary, this centuries-old practice associated with the spiritual, the therapeutic, and the strictly private, has become one of the genres of choice for Internet life-writers. …