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In defence of online diaries

I found Erika Meyer’s article on the defence of web diaries fascinating. There is not only enormous personal value to those posting entries to these sites but there are broader benefits to be gained by society, at work and in communities, by sharing experiences. Esther Dyson in Release 2.1 calls this ‘disclosure’ and it’s something we’re going to have to live with and love over the next few decades. The online diary could have a multitude of personal and business applications. For the last few months I’ve used this as an excuse to spin through many online diaries during business hours, not looking for secrets, or for entertainment, but to understand their value to the individual and others posting such entries.

Paper vs Online Diaries

As a boy and teenager it took me four years to fall into a diary writing approach that was sustainable; I hope it won’t take as long to suss the online diary format. In those days, aged 13, I kept one of those Five Year diaries that offered you less space than a Post-It Note to write the day’s entry and obliged you to complete it every day or leave a glaring gap. Over the years it was fun to look back at what you were doing exactly a year, or two or three years previously, though too easily one day could blend into any other. For a time I tried loose leaf arch-leaver files, but on both occasions the exercise got out of hand and was unsustainable. Eventually I settled for a hardback book of lined A4 pages and I committed myself to a single page entry every day. Days were missed, but not often and sometimes I’d stretch an entry to several pages. Later, when the purpose of the diary changed, it became as much a place to put notes on books I was reading or on ideas that I was developing. Any form of diary writing clears the mind at the end of the day (assuming that’s when you write it all up). It helps to put ideas down, record the events and feelings of the day. These are often picked up in dreams and dealt with overnight in that way.

The Web is different

The Web is different. Alerted to the services of Diaryland in September 1999 I took the opportunity to revise a diary writing habit begun 25 years previously and only recently gave up as I settled into married life and parenthood. For the last three months then I have kept an online diary. It is flawed, though at times the experience and the challenge has been exhilarating. I love climbing learning curves. For the last month I’ve transferred some of my allegiance to Tripod under the banner ‘The Contents of My Brain.’

So why not keep all the entries offline?

So why not keep all the entries offline? There’s something about the medium, the expectation that these entries could be read, that someone may notice if you miss a few days and ask why. In an online discussion at Talk.Diaryland the views of thirty or more contributors are shared in a debate between paper and online diaries. It also makes it easier to pick things up whether I’m at home or the office. I use a database, and file articles, proposals and what not the best I can, but time and again, I find it easier to find something I might have written in the online diary, because the entry is associated with a day, in a month and will fall in a group of linked ideas or concerns that were being addressed at that time. It’s not that I simply wish to justify spending office hours visiting this or other diary sites, but I genuinely see there is business value to this approach. The process of logging, or observing daily practice begs you and others to identify ways to improve a process, or fix a problem, or share best practice. As the entries accumulate I need a way to search through the material, something that is offered through online diaries posted at Diarist.net

An excellent way to exercise the brain

I think it was Jonathan Swift who remarked that he couldn’t know what he meant until he’d written it down. In this respect, keeping a diary, especially in the fluid digital environment of the Net helps the writer to elucidate their views. My quality of thinking and the arguments at my disposal have improved greatly since I went online with a diary because I found ways to express. Simply put, this is an excellent way to exercise the brain. But it can be taken too far. I’d just been introduced to Diaryland when I came across an article in the Washington Post on 24th September 1999.

‘Ellen Levy has got the write project for the Internet Age. The main points of every conversation she’s had and taken pictures of, almost every one of the more than 1000 people she’s encountered since New Year’s Eve 1998. In all, to date, 800 single pages of text, and 1,100 photographs.’

But will Ellen share these pages with us? What insights has she gained? Has she anything to say to the world? The article continues:

‘By recording everything that comes her way Ellen thinks it is possible to track how chance meetings develop into critical business or personal relationships.’

If Ellen has been able to track the way meetings develop, all well and good. If this is a yearlong audit of her business activity, what has she learnt that will allow her, or her colleagues to become more efficient? I’m reminded of a scene in Terry Gilliam’s film ‘Brazil.’ While some poor sod is being tortured by Michael Palin his secretary is outside typing up verbatim what is being said. All she types is, ‘Ahhhh! Ggrrrrr! Aeeeehh! Ouch ouch ouch! No! Grrrrr! Aaaah!’ Is that was this is all about? What life will Ellen’s entries get online? None, it would appear. She won’t publish. While not doubting the PR value inherent in this kind of front-page coverage in the Washington Post for Softpage, I doubt that Ellen is the first to keep track of her day to such lengths.

There are over 2000 diaries in diarist.net alone, and twenty times this figure scattered about the web. Diaryland.com, launched in September 1999 had 6000 writers online by the New Year.

Evolution not revolution

Erika Meyer suggests that we are witnessing a revolution with the rapid expansion of the Net. She also calls the development of an alphabet, and of the printed word as revolutionary, I’d prefer ‘evolutionary.’ Language and an alphabet took millenia to develop, the printed word took hundreds of years to take off and even now the use of the Net must be seen in the context of the growth in use of personal computers over the decade or two that proceeded it. Revolution implies destruction and conflict over a short period of time, evolution implies growth with no end in sight.

‘What’s new about new media? Not much!’

When you strip away the technology that allows the Net to exist you find much that is familiar. Diaries are not new in themselves and the many online diaries I have scanned have much in common with diaries I have kept in Five Year lockable books, in A4 hardback books, in scrapbooks and Arch leaver files. The best online examples have simply learnt how best to operate within the medium, just as we all write differently whether it is an essay written in exam conditions on sheets of lined A4, a letter to a relation on unlined Conqueror, or a post-card to Mum when we’ve been somewhere fancy.

Erika suggests that writing web content is very different than writing for print, on the contrary, the writing process is the same, only the platform is different. For a time I thought this was the case because typing and clicking on the keyboard you could find your words ‘published’ on the Net almost as quickly as they could be written. Whilst there are those who can write well, straight from the mouth, most of us benefit from the simple exercise of writing, editing and redrafting – if not from a modicum of preparation followed by a careful look at grammar, spelling and punctuation. Indeed, when asked recently to make a presentation on new media the title I finally put to the piece was ‘What’s new about new media? Not much!’ My audience of corporate communications professionals from around the world were delighted by what I had to say, especially that whatever the medium, good writing, for video, for presentations, for in-house newsletters, or for a PR Release, or for the Web depends on the same fundamental considerations: What do you want to say? Who is the audience?

Anais Nin

Self-publishing or vanity publishing occurred in print where no publisher could be found. The worst work of this type comes from writers who lack the self-discipline to edit what they write, or have nothing worth saying. Anais Nin self-published some of her fiction – it isn’t very good. Her best and most read work remains the erotica she had published and her diaries. Here you need to read the seven volumes of her Journals. These Anais wrote, rewrote and edited, not simply to protect the names of some of her lovers, but to make the diaries worth reading.

Web journals are flexible containers, even more so than the hardback books and arch-lever files I once used. However, the web is at a disadvantage by not having pages. In the past I could go a year or two committing entries to a diary and never feel the need to turn back the pages. However, with the web you are limited to look again and revise entries from last week or last year and to make such changes seamlessly.

Journal writing is a natural vehicle for daily content

Journal writing is a natural vehicle for daily content. In fact my excuse for spinning through dozens of online diaries has been to identify online diary best practice in the expectation of defining criteria for use in corporate intranets or extranets. However, whilst there is a benefit to refresh and update website regularly, an ill-thought through diary like posting on the Internet is not good corporate practice. Rather I see the value of the online diary in the corporate arena as a way people can collectively, and rapidly, build a database of activities and roles. Instead of a team visiting a production line, or a cost centre in an office to undertake an audit to observe and measure functions the individuals within teams can build their own picture of how things are being done and so more easily identify ways to improve things. Keeping such diaries could harness our natural desire to network in an office environment. Recently a student was in the office on placement and kept a diary, when this was shared around the office it was remarkable to realise her perceptions of what it was we did as a business and the roles each of us played.

The more you sing, the better your voice

There are other benefits to be gained from keeping a diary beyond what is written down, simply put, ‘The more you sing, the better your voice. The more you write, the better your writing.’ The Net has a vociferous appetite for new material, so the more we practice our writing skills the better, keeping an online diary is one way of doing this. The best advice for a wannabe writer is to read a great deal, the same advice is relevant for any of us using the web – take time to read and review as much as you can until you identify styles and approaches you admire and that work.

I’m encouraged by something I picked out of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Capricorn.”

‘I had to learn, as Balzac did, that one must write volumes before signing one’s name. I had to learn, as I soon did, that one must give up everything and not do anything else but write, even if everybody in the world advises you against it, even if nobody believes in you.’

Flexibility in the online diary format has its problems

Flexibility in the diary format has its problems. Whilst each of us will find a way forward that suits us we would all benefit from identifying and sharing what we consider to be online diary best practice. My own 25 years of paper diary writing taught me many lessons, not just how to write, but what to write where to write it and how much to put down. Those early entries in a Five Year diary are rarely insightful, nor was the time I filled loose pages in an A4 ring-binder, because before I knew it I’d be writing for two hours a day and filling gaps with bus tickets and sweet wrappers. For me, a single A4 sheet in a hardbound book worked for over ten years. A full page was the minimum (say 400 to 500 words) though special times would warrant a few extra pages. Having different diaries for different things can work too, but again, before you know it the diary spreads like a wild strawberry plant.

Anais writes about how her Journals must be selective:

‘It seems to me that I follow only the most accessible thread. Three or four threads may be agitated, like telegraph wires, at the same time, and if I were to tap them all I would reveal such a mixture of innocence and duplicity, generosity and calculation, fear and courage. I cannot tell the whole truth simply because I would have to write four journals at once. I often would have to retrace my steps, because of my vice for embellishment.’

(Henry & June, Journals, July 1932 Anais Nin)

Mel Brooks put it differently.

‘Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him.’

For a number of months I kept a dream diary. During this period not only did I find I was recalling three, four even five dreams a night, but I was spending what time I could stay awake during the day analysing them. It’s vital to be selective, to recognise a natural ebb and flow of interest.

There is no rigid answer, different formats will work for different people and depend as much on the amount of time that can be given to it each day.

Three months online with Diaryland and a pattern is emerging.

Three months online with Diaryland and a pattern is emerging. Despite believing I’d do so I have not gone back to a paper diary. In fact reliance on electronic gizmos is increasing. I use a Sony IC55 solid state recorder to take notes (acquired a week ago, already indispensable) and a Psion 5 palm top (acquired a year ago). Entries get written up on the Psion 5 on the train. The IC55 is used in the car, on foot and around the house. Entries from a variety of old hard-back paper diaries, childhood ‘Five Year’ diaries and folders from expeditions abroad, are being typed up too. Once a week all entries are backed up and downloaded from the Psion 5 to either a MAC or PC. Here they are spell-checked and edited, then placed online. So far I have the last six weeks posted online, with a smattering of entries from October and November 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1990, as well as various other more memorable childhood and teenage excerpts from the 60s and 70s.

For simplicity and readability, good humour, and decency take a look at the diary posted by Claire Warnes here is a fine example of the art of keeping an on-line journal. For a selection of worthy homepages take a look at those promoted regularly Tripod

Of course, I now want someone to pay me to do an ‘Ellen Levy’ for YEAR 2000. Like Ellen I would use modern tools to help me with the task. I’d use a solid state recorder (Sony IC-55) in place of a notebook, and a hand held computer (Psion 5 Series) rather than a laptop. Content would be loaded onto a PC every night. Voice recognition software would turn my audio notes into text files and the two sources combined, then edited, and then posted on the Web.

I’d undertake to post the first draft of all entries within 24 hours of writing them. Entries would be edited or left, at my discretion over the next week during which time I’d also decide whether or not to add pictures, audio-files and even video-clips.

On the other hand I might find living life more pleasurable than observing it.



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