Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs

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Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs

José van Dijck

FibreCulture issue 3 - general issue

A recent cartoon from a Dutch newspaper shows a man and a woman lying in bed, smoking a cigarette apparently after having sex. ‘Do you keep a diary?’ asks the man to his partner, and upon her negation, he comments: ‘Good. I don’t like it when a woman immortalises her intimate experiences with me on paper.’ In the last frame, we see the woman sitting behind a computer screen and typing ‘Dear weblog…’, while the man snores away on the bed behind her. In this short cartoon, we can detect a number of assumptions about diaries and weblogs, but the clue to this joke is the paradox that the weblog is considered a digital equivalent of the diary and yet it is not.
For centuries, the diary has been characterised as a private, handwritten document that chronicles the experiences, observations and reflections of a single person at the moment of inscription. Although the diary as a cultural form is varied and heterogeneous, it is typically thought to represent the record of an ‘I’ who constructs a view on him/herself in connection to the world at large. Diary writing, as a quotidian cultural practice, involves reflection and expression; yet it is also a peculiarly hybrid act of communication, supposedly intended for private use, but often betraying an awareness of its potential to be read by others. Inviting the translation from thoughts into words via the technologies of pen and paper, the old-fashioned diary symbolise a safe haven for a person’s most private thoughts—even if they are published in print later on. Personal notebooks are often treasured as stilled moments of a forlorn past, and kept in safe places to be retrieved many years later—much like photographs—as precious objects of memory.
With digitisation affecting practically every domain of public and private life, the diary seems no exception. ‘Weblogs’ have become a popular genre on the internet, as millions of people (particularly teenagers and young adults) are now heavily engaged in the activity of ‘blogging’. By the end of 2004, a recent survey predicts, there will be about 10 million weblog users in the United States alone. [1] Weblogs or ‘blogs’ is a rather general container for a variety of genres; the so-called lifelog seems to come closest to the traditional diary genre. But can lifelogs and blogging be considered the digital counterpart of what used to be a paper diary and diary writing? As the cartoon implies, the answer to this question is a paradoxical ‘yes and no.’ Cultural practices or forms never simply adapt to new technological conditions, but always inherently change along with the technologies and the potentialities of their use. In the case of lifelogs, the digital materiality of the internet engenders a new type of reflection and communication. This shows traces of the former analogue genre but functions substantially differently.
Richard Grusin and Jay Bolter (1999) have used the term ‘remediation’ to account for the ways in which new media forms consolidate but also alter existing forms. In a critique of this term,Andreas Kitzmann (2003) argues that ‘remediation’ does not sufficiently account for the intrinsic shaping power of technology, and proposes to focus on the wider phenomenon of ‘material complexification’ to understand the continuities and changes between old and new media, for instance weblogs and webcams. [2] And in their illuminating analysis of the phenomenon, Miller and Shepherd (2004) regard blogging as social action—a‘new rhetorical opportunity’ that needs to be examined in terms of its use. Each of these authors places a different emphasis, respectively on cultural form, technology, and practice. In this article, I suggest to examine these three dimensions of mediated cultural change in conjunction: the diary and lifelog should be studied both as a cultural form or genre, while also taking into account the materiality and technology of (hand) written diaries and lifelogs, as well as the cultural practice of diary writing in comparison to the activities of so-called bloggers. Tracing the transformation of personal records in the face of new digital technologies, I will argue that lifelogs are not outcomes but rather signifiers of cultural change, as they both reflect and construct new epistemologies.

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