the Internet is a crowded bazaar where every bauble is pawed over by all the misfits and reality-refugees on the planet
Life: The Website
Ask anyone over 40 and they’ll tell you
that posting your diary on the Internet is a nutty idea. It defies logic.
Journals are personal outpourings, the precious uncensored scribblings of
your secret soul and the Internet is a crowded bazaar where every bauble
is pawed over by all the misfits and reality-refugees on the planet.
And yet, in January 1995 (shortly after the dawn of Netscape) a woman named Caroline put her diary on the Internet. Others followed. By the end of 1996, 86 people had done the same and a guy named Ryan started the first community of online diarists when she started the Webring called Open Pages. Today there are 957 members of Open Pages and upwards of 10,000 online journal-writers. I am one of them.
In December 1998, I was full of discontent: a trip to Ecuador only reinforced how colorless and job-bound I’d become. My trip notes contained more introspection than travelogue, so I decided to keep writing. Out of curiosity I hopped on the Internet to look for journal-writing advice and discovered people bold enough to keep diaries online. What kind of narcissist daredevil puts her life online? And yet… what better way to add excitement and risk to the bland confines of mid-career? The idea burrowed into to my psyche. Say what was really on my mind? In my own lost voice? It was insane, it was angry, it was over the edge… like Kit in Paul Bowles’ Sheltering Sky, I would lose myself in the desert of the Internet, allowing the risk that I might be ravaged – changed forever and possibly destroyed if I got caught by the wrong person, no turning back.
It was insane, it was angry, it was over the edge.
I ruminated for
six months, the problem being how to design HTML pages and upload them
to a hosting service. Sites like Homestead offer free web hosting and
“easy tools” for creating pages… easy, perhaps, if you’re 16 and
the Web is comfortable as TV. So I paid for the privilege of exposing
myself, by joining Mindspring (now Earthlink), who make it easy for users
of Microsoft FrontPage to upload at the click of a mouse. I gave myself
and all the people and venues of my life new names and joined the caravan
into the vast unknown.
By July 1999, the craft of online journaling had advanced far enough for the bossy-girls to have made rules. If you wanted to drink at their oases (i.e., join their rings of linked diaries), you had to have a clean design, clear navigation, good spelling, frequent entries, a bio, a cast list if you had lots of friends and family (don’t confuse us), and you had to make some attempt to modulate your ranting and whining (don’t bore us). The message was clear: your life must entertain us.
To be entertaining, I decided (after I posted 50 pages and no one came) there were two paths: outright lying or reinventing myself. It’s one thing to tell yourself that you’re involved in an artistic experiment for your own growth and gratification, but offering your true self to a billion shoppers at the global bazaar and finding no one pawing through your goods is a call to action. Was this about poor marketing or about the pallid person I’d become?
Outright lying is disturbing and difficult.
Outright lying is disturbing and difficult. What is the point of spicing up a dull day with lies? It not only underscores how boring you are and but now gives you a depressing pathology. Creating a fiction might be okay for chat rooms and role-playing games, but if you look through journal forums, for all the debate about the masks of anonymity, it’s clear that honesty is a highly prized journal virtue.
I was faced with reinventing myself
wanting to create a persona that was artificial and increasingly distant
from the Real Me, I was faced with reinventing myself. This meant not only
finding the Real Me, but taking charge of how the Real Me was expressed to
others. An online journal is the perfect workshop for doing this. The
private journal asks, “Who am I?” The public journal asks, “Who am I
in relation to the world – my readers?” and allows you, over time, to
give your life a protagonist and a story that’s going somewhere.
The need to reinvent yourself isn’t the province of any particular age. At midlife, we realize that our personalities and our passions have become plastered over with routines and obligations. Our jobs, our marriages, our children have taken over our identities: we are pod people. But youth who are coming of age in their late teens and twenties also fret over the Who Am I question as they realize they’ve been defined by their parents and teachers and peers. Other transitions are equally provoking: getting married, getting divorced, coming out, losing a job, diagnosing a chronic illness, having a baby.
If I got too worried about marketing myself, I’d have to face the fact that most of the reinventing in this virtual Casablanca is done by coming-of-agers. In a Diarist.Net survey of 551 online journalers, 64% were under 25 and only 6% over 40. In a medium dominated by men, most of the journal-writers are female, which may reflect a general cultural norm that “diaries are for girls.” By my own observation and a quick sampling of current Open Pages members, a high proportion of men and boys who write diaries are gay.
Reinventing yourself is not necessarily a head-on conscious activity, although self-consciousness in general is a hallmark of diaries. I took a look at every twentieth diary in the Open Pages list till I saw 20 of them. I looked at their intentions (nearly everyone has some kind of manifesto about why they took their lives online) and their most recent entry (to see the intention played out). The 20-year-old Diarist #5 listed himself as follows: “A literature nerd masquerading as a tech nerd. Coming of age story about a gay atheist in Laredo, Texas. Woo.” His latest entry sent gushy Valentine greetings to other gay journal-writers.
Diarist #4 is a 28-year-old “swinging chick” who was “paralyzed by the fear that people would read what I wrote and wouldn’t like me.” Her latest entry meanders on and on about a dinner party, a family gathering, and thoughts about going back to school for a master’s degree.
Diarist #16 is a young man who figured a journal would be a good way to practice his writing skills and to learn what was happening “under the surface of his mind.” He also decided that putting it online would make him part of “Web Society.” In contrast, #17 was a 35-year-old woman emerging from 10 years of depression, writing out of loneliness.
On the whole, the daily entries are pedestrian and predictable. My sample included car repair, gardening, the cat, the cold, the cat, the irritating job, lack of money, dinner with friends, the cat, challenging today’s horoscope, challenging Ted Koppel, organizing closets, playing games, recording dreams, and the cat. Some entries got deeper. A woman who had devoted her whole website to the search for answers about her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome was in a panic over the possibility that she’s had Lyme disease all along. A teenage girl wrote a stream of sharp sensory images while lying on her bed, yearning for candy and hearing her mother drop a bottle of fragrant red wine in the other room. A woman described in the Open Pages index as a “recent college grad” had taken down her whole site to post a single-page eulogy to her father and a long grief-stricken account of his freak accident on a ski slope where he had just taken his dream job and was inexplicably caught in the path of a giant grooming machine.
For those who would reinvent themselves, Jay Gatsby, born Jay Gatz of North Dakota, is our tragic hero.
Reinventing yourself – turning your life
into a narrative, a plot that pleases, your own movie – has a long
tradition that Neal Gabler explores in Life: the Movie (How
Entertainment Conquered Reality). For those who would reinvent
themselves, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, born Jay Gatz of North
Dakota, is our tragic hero. The narrator tells us: “The truth was that
Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his platonic conception
of himself… He was a son of God … and he must be about His Father’s
business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he
invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would
be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end”
[The Great Gatsby].
Gatsby was fiction, but from a book like Great Dames: What I Learned from Older Women we learn from author Marie Brenner that imperfect women with trouble-plagued lives – Jackie Kennedy, Kitty Carlisle Hart, Pamela Harriman – knew how to put on their red lipstick and high heels and to take ownership of themselves, reinventing their lives as often as necessary to prevent the world from ever seeing them as whiney or weak or defeated. (And we can only ponder in awe the mental movie-making that kept Bill Clinton going.)
Trauma is apparently best endured by “positive illusionists”
Gabbler ends his book with a discussion of psychological studies that refute the idea that realism is the basis for mental health. Trauma is apparently best endured by “positive illusionists,” people who can put the best spin on the plot of their lives.
And so I dove in
to create a more entertaining Me, not by fabricating but by tearing away
the gray façade of a woman who’d lost her own voice to professional
agency-speak. Sarcasm about the job quickly ran its course, so I told
secrets: sex play at the age of five; dark rumors among school girls about
a parish priest; who I wished I slept with during college; and how I managed to
first marriage. My
Dark Side revealed, I was able to move on to a new stage. Who was I when I
didn’t have to shock anyone with my Badness? Posted trip diaries, which
I originally thought everyone would be fascinated with, now seemed
telegraphic – neither good travelogue nor good inner drama – but they
became the framework for real exploration of my character and my themes.
Who did I think I was, running off to Pakistan, to China, to Central
America, to Indonesia, taking risks that made my parents cringe, yet never
at any given moment feeling truly adventurous?
Along the way,
I tinkered with HTML, added photographs, experimented with color, and
joined various web communities that put value on creative expression. More
importantly, I got a feel for managing the tension between who I was and
who I wanted to be. I want to be worldly and edgy and cool, but I am shy
and bookish and well-organized. How interesting and funny and genuine
could I make that gap be?
But while I see
the online journal as an emerging art form, a positive-illusionist
workshop for exploring logical, visual, and verbal passions, more and more
people are traveling into the diarist world on vehicles that are less and
Services such as Diaryland, LiveJournal, and Diary-X allow you – free of charge – to log in and start writing. Someone called them “just add text <poof> instant journal sites.” The journals are automatically linked together forming fast communities and the most recent entries are listed on the service’s dynamic homepage so you can tune right in to the latest buzz. I scoff at them, just as the most recent immigrant assimilated into a new country scoffs at those getting off the boat. I started to review a random sample, but there was just too much sloppy misspelled crap to wade through. To be fair, there is immediacy and the opportunity for drama. One entry recorded the streaming rage of a teenage girl on a drunk, reflecting on all the promises she made to her mother to stay sober, and making plans to cut herself. It was riveting.
As more diarists join the fray, it becomes harder to sift for good ones. Diarist.Net, in addition to offering quarterly “Best Of…” awards is now trying a survival-of-the-fittest approach, not only to allow the most-read diaries to surface, but also to bring traffic to its own site. In an innovation called CLIX, you put a link on your pages and every time someone clicks through to the Diarist.Net page you get a point. They display the logos of the Top 250 most-clicked journals. It brands the popular diarist as a complete hit-slut. It’s totally tacky, but of course I signed on. After all, your life ain’t reinvented unless somebody sees it, reads it, appreciates it, then tells you somehow.
Of course, the
illusion is broken if you delve too far into your site statistics. It’s
one thing to realize that, after all your work, you get only 100 visitors a
day. It’s another thing to come face to face
with what people were looking for when they found you. One feature of the
Urchin site statistics collected by Earthlink is the exact search-engine
phrase that brought someone to my site. It creeps me out to find that the
largest percentage of my search engine hits comes from people looking for
“painted toenails.” An innocent, illustrated entry about how painting my
toenails reminded me of childhood summers and my
grandmother’s love of red nail polish made me a hit with foot
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.
But then there was the 75-year-old woman who went searching on the name of the Missouri hometown of her great-grandfather and was directed to my site. My mother. “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Didn’t Bogey think he’d reinvented himself in Casablanca till Ingrid Bergman walked in and reminded him where he came from?
“So why would you put such personal things on the Internet?” she inevitably asked.
So you could
find me, mom, the Real Me. Oh, I might have said that, but I
didn’t. I stammered and sputtered some b.s. about experimentation and
“You can run from your mother, but you can’t hide,” she said. “Wherever you go in this whole wide world, I’m going to be right there behind you.”
How’s that for turning your life into entertainment?