From jaded teens to aging bachelors, online diaries give us a glimpse into the average life
She is 20 years old. She was born on September 11. She hates Toronto girls for being so skinny. She hopes her father will kill himself. She feels like a loser and a poseur for discovering cool bands through eye Weekly, not through the so-called “scene” she desperately longs to be part of. She is self-deprecating and depressing, but also brutally honest. I have never met her, but I feel like I know her.
I discover her real name is Sher. For the last year, Sher has religiously updated her online diary on LiveJournal, Blurty or Xanga. These websites are part of an online community culture that allows people to post the details of their everyday lives to potential millions. Sher is pretty much the typical online diary user. LiveJournal stats show that the majority of users are female in their teens to early twenties. About one million accounts are active, meaning updated on a regular basis.
Sher updates her journals frequently, sometimes nine times a day. Her Blurty is publicly updated most often, followed by her LiveJournal, which appears reserved for subjects like music and school. According to her LiveJournal, “Most Blurty journals are about teen angst and all those other tortured teen clichés whereas LJ is about making fun of people, seeing bands, talking about shopping and doing some hip thing or another.”
LiveJournal is also the most elite site on which to maintain an online diary because, until recently, you needed a secret code from a friend to open an account, whereas with the other sites you could just sign up. Desperate, Sher went on a Blurty community where people traded LiveJournal codes, since she didn’t know anyone in real life who would give her one. Right now, her Xanga diary is dying. “I only got that to keep in touch with a former co-worker,” she says.
Sher and I meet for the first time at Humber College, where she goes to school. Unlike many online journal users, Sher does not have glamorous photos of herself posted. Given what she has written about her appearance, I expect a somewhat pudgy girl (“must get thin…must get thin”), with bad skin (“my recent surge of acne”), low self-esteem (“I am such a loser”) and no social skills (“I’m shy and a shitty talker”). After about 30 minutes, an alert looking young woman plops down on a bench beside me. She has remarkably clear skin, a petite figure. She gives me a funny look. “Sher?” I utter.
I’m two years older than Sher. Our generation grew up with cell phones, pagers and the Internet. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I’ve had great difficulty embracing the online diary format. I always thought a diary was supposed to be a private scripture chronicling a writer’s deepest secrets and insecurities. Wasn’t the plan to shamelessly write about how boring your life was (although it seemed exciting at the time) and hide the evidence in the back of your panty drawer?
I discovered my first Internet diary in high school. It was written by a girl my age. She was a lot like me – half Japanese, planned to study journalism, obsessed with Weezer’s sophomore album, Pinkerton. But I didn’t like her. I thought she was needy for attention. I thought she portrayed herself in a flattering light. And I thought I was a better writer. Why was I reading it?
“Online journals are driven by ego and by communication,” says professor Liz Podnieks, who created The Art of Diaries course at Ryerson University. “People have always wanted to tell their story, and that’s why people have always written diaries. Before it was only the famous types or a person who had access to publishers. The Internet provides everyone with the opportunity to be noticed.”
Anonymity is not a concern for many that write online journals. I’m always surprised to see photos, usually tiny digital snapshots, of users posted in diaries. Typically, the comments directed to a diary posting increase when personal pictures are up. It’s not uncommon to read, “You should be a model!” “Will you marry me?” and, for the less photogenic, “Cool, photos!” Whatever the reaction is, it’s usually positive and readers encourage more. If someone dare writes a cruel comment, the user’s “friends” (people who regularly read the diary and are linked to the user) will jump on the negative post like personal bodyguards. The writer is worshipped, protected, adored – all because of what they’re projecting to their readers. And Sher believes she is projecting the truth to her readers. “Deep down inside I’m like a mean nasty person and I just can’t show that all the time or everyone would hate me in real life,” she says, happy she can show this side of her online.
“We wake up and we shape ourselves,” says Podnieks. “We decide how we are going to dress and how we are going to do our hair. When we talk to people, we put on different faces and personas. An online diary is an extension of personality control.”
When I woke up that morning before the interview, I shaped myself. I wore my Anna Karina pin because Sheree’s LiveJournal title, “À bout de souffle” is a reference to a Jean-Luc Godard film. Maybe I wanted her to notice my reference. But as it turned out, she had only seen one Godard film. I guess I didn’t know her as well as I thought. By the end of our first and last meeting, I asked if she was going write about this interview in LiveJournal. She gave me a guarded “Yes,” but told me it would be a private entry. After awkwardly saying our goodbyes, I walked away. I did not think about what I was going to write about Sher. I thought about what she was going to write about me.