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Read this article on the wayback machine: In Defense of Web Diaries

From time to time, certain Web authors have seen fit to make digs at "Web diaries," those sites that chronicle their creator's daily (or periodic) activities, opinions, feelings, or obsessions.

In his recent satire, "If the Great Movies Had Been Websites," Jeffrey Zeldman refers to Web diaries as "substitutes for content." An earlier article entitled "Directions of the Independent WWW" at beatthief.com explains that they don't publish much "'personal' first person content," because, "the music and writing is what people come for. And not journal writing either.

"There is the current flood of 'my feelings' sites," beatthief continues, "...The content is mainly text about 'my real emotional experiences'...These sites often pass themselves off as 'art' or 'literature.'"

Upon reading these critiques, I felt emotion welling from deep within. It's easy (too easy) to poke fun at personal writing, but there's another way of looking at Web diaries, and this alternative viewpoint has not been given its due. I am here to share it with you now.

The Web is A Different Medium

"The World Wide Web and the Internet are not linear, they are holistic."
— Leonard Schlain The Alphabet Versus the Goddess

The Web is a new medium. We know that, right? It's a different medium. We know that, too. So why do we judge Web-writing by "old media" standards?

Perhaps a brief history of the world would provide useful background.

A long, long time ago, in an era known as "pre-history," we did not have an alphabet. We did not have writing. We did not have books or even stone tablets. We did however, have art and literature. We created cookware and sculptures made of clay. We wove baskets. We painted. We sat around the fire singing songs and telling stories. Communication was interactive. When we spoke of the "web" we were talking about what spiders make.

Eventually we learned to write. We created an alphabet. We became literate, and literacy revolutionized society. We could capture words now, and set them into stone, clay, or paper. Words could now assume an existence separate from their creator. The spoken word had been a dynamic formation of voice and breath, while the written word became a tangible "product."

Empires could now be created based on a written code of law. Records could be kept. Propaganda could be spread. And works of literature could be preserved in print. It was nothing short of a revolution.

Written word became king, and remained king. "Put it in writing" we say, when we want to make it real. "Hinc quam sic calamus saevior ense, patet," wrote Robert Burton in the early seventeenth century: "The pen is worse than the sword." This saying was repeated and rephrased over the next three centuries.

Suddenly the twentieth century screeched in, bringing with it a pile of new media. Suddenly we had photography, audio recordings, telephones, moving pictures, radio, television, the Internet, the Web. All at once, we could preserve an image on paper, record a voice on tape, talk to someone in another time zone, watch the world through a programmed screen, share information rapidly and at low cost, show the whole world pictures of our dog.

It's nothing short of a revolution. Revolution means change, and one thing that has been changing is the way we use writing. Writing Web content is very different than writing for print.

Our Words are Made of Light

Web writing is different at its very core. Words (and for that matter, images) on the Web are not set in stone, clay, paper, ink, or any other long-lasting material. On the Web, words are made of pixels — of electricity — of light. How could words made of light behave anything like words made of stone?

Back in the days of paper and ink, publishing was a complicated process. It involved creating a manuscript, editing the manuscript, and then creating a mechanical product known as a "book." To be a published author — to have your words preserved in print — was (and still is) quite an accomplishment. It is nothing less than a step toward immortality.

On the Web, however, self-publishing can be as simple as typing some text and uploading a file. Rather than toiling for years in obscurity to achieve a perfection of technique, young writers can publish themselves immediately.

This, of course, leads to a proliferation of inferior work. The other side of the coin is that it allows authors to experiment, to communicate, and to take risks. What better format for experimental writing than the journal or diary?

The Diary is a Feminine Form

"LADY IZUMI SHIKIBU corresponds charmingly, but her behavior is improper indeed. She writes with grace and ease and with a flashing wit. There is fragrance even in her smallest words. Her poems are attractive, but they are only improvisations which drop from her mouth spontaneously."
— Muraski Shikibu, commenting on fellow court lady and diarist Izumi Shikibu. From The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu AD. 1007-1010

Back in the days of paper-and-ink, diaries were not generally considered to be publishable, much less literature. This attitude began to change in the 20th century.

In the 1920s, a collection called The Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan was published.

Composed in the early years of this millenium (AD 1000-1050) The Diary of Izumi Shikibu, The Diary of Murasaki Shikibu, and The Sarashina Diary, gave modern men and women an insiders view on the color, the poetry, the love and disappointments of the Heian era, an era famous for its refinement of art and culture. Murasaki Shikibu went on to compose the world's first novel: The Tale of Genji.

Probably the best known 20th Century diary to be published was Anne Frank's. This diary showed a face of the war that could not be seen from newspaper articles, radio broadcasts, or newsreels.

Anaïs Nin published her diaries in the 1960s. Many who knew her considered the diaries to be fiction, disparagingly referring to them as "liaries."

Diary writing has traditionally been a feminine activity. Women who don't write articles or books may be prolific diary and/or letter writers. Perhaps this is because women are attracted to more personal forms. Perhaps it is because women's writing had been considered "unpublishable" for so long, that women naturally took to these private forms, forms which enabled them to communicate at least with themselves, and with friends and family.

Whatever the reason, the tendency of women authors to gravitate toward the diary form seems to have continued on the Web. Unlike other Web genres, the "Web diary" may in fact, be dominated by female authors.

This is good. The Web needs to become more diverse, and an increase in female authors and "feminine" writing is a step in that direction.

Web Diaries are Good Practice

The diary or journal is naturally suited to Web publishing. The journal is a flexible container into which we can pour content of any and all types, whether it be a daily record of events, an exploration of our deepest emotions, or experiments with language, image, even sound.

Web journals are essentially different than the journals we keep locked and hidden under our beds. Web diaries are personal, but not private. We know our Web diaries will be read by others. Yet the diary format is casual enough that we can include whatever moves us at any moment.

The ability to be casual is important to a developing writer. It helps us let go of inhibitions, of fears, of the "internal editor" who insists nothing is "good enough."

"You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination," says author Natalie Goldberg. "I've had students who said they decided they were going to write the great American novel and haven't written a line since."

Web Diaries Keep Sites Alive and Growing

Journal writing is also good for Web sites because it is a natural vehicle for daily content. The Web is alive and in a constant state of growth and development. Daily content helps keep a Web site fresh. Even Webmonkey has changed its format to highlight daily content "bites."

While experimenting with my own Web site, I discovered that adding small tidbits of daily content was far simpler than trying to refresh the entire site on a less frequent basis. And as a Web viewer, when I find a site I enjoy, I'm far more likely to become a regular visitor if I know that something changes daily.

The diary format is good for Web sites also because it is flexible. I think that authors of personal Web sites should do whatever they can to avoid being hemmed in or constricted by format. The Web is too new, too strange. We aren't accustomed to it, quite.

It's About Process

"We must continue to open and trust in our own voice and process. Ultimately, if the process is good, the end will be good. You will get good writing."
— Natalie Goldberg, from Writing Down the Bones

We are still learning the Web. We know we are dealing with something powerful, we just aren't sure how to use that power fully. So we experiment. We fail. We learn from our mistakes, and continue on. The diary format enables us to try, to fail, and to try again. No one is born an expert. It's a process of learning and growth.

Perhaps we've forgotten about that: the process. Perhaps when we removed all the "under construction" signs from our sites, we forgot that the Web, like all of us, is a work in progress. We are still thinking in terms of "paper and ink," with the attitude that work should not be published until it achieves a state of completion.

Phooey. The Web is alive, imperfect, and beautiful in every way – just like each one of us. Experiment, I say. Every day. Explore your feelings. Embrace the process. Take risks.

Don't be safe. Your words are light. Let them shine!
— ERIKA MEYER

References and Further Reading
  • Bair, Deidre. Anaïs Nin: A Biography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
  • Frank, Anne. The Diary of a Young Girl. New York: Globe, 1958.
  • Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. New York: Bantam Doubleday, 1986.
  • Omori, Annie Shepley and Kochi Doi, translators. Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1920. Introduction by Amy Lowell.
  • Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1998.

::: Erika Meyer owns Seastorm Web Design. She has kept a pen-and-ink journal for twenty years, and a web journal for two months. Her dreams for the next millennium glisten like a dew-covered spiderweb at dawn. December 29, 1999

Read this article on the archive.org's "wayback machine": In Defense of Web Diaries