Tools of Mediation and Association: Writing the Self

This chapter discusses personal writing as it has evolved from the days of the analog diary to the (at the time current/present) digital blog. While its datedness shines through a little in the lack of discussion of social media, which today would be a huge focus of this theme, I think it’s relatively easy to extend her ideas and see how they have played out in the social media landscape.

Is this what a diary looks like?

Is this what a diary looks like?

What about this?

What about this?

In chapter 3, van Dijck explores how journal writing or autobiographical formation has changed with the introduction of blogs, online platforms that have transformed the way we write about ourselves based on the audience and purpose of this type of writing. Let’s unpack a bit of her argument:

Diary writing, as a quotidian cultural practice, involves both reflection and expression, but it is also a peculiarly hybrid act of remembrance and communication, always intended for private use, yet often betraying an awareness of its potential to be read by others.  (pg. 54)

Embarrassing personal story time: I have made various diary entries throughout the years, but never kept an actual running consistent diary for very long. It ends up different places – on the computer in Word files, typed on the typewriter, in random notebooks, in the inside covers of paperbacks, on napkins, etc. But the interesting thing is that I nearly always write with an audience in mind, and it always has bothered me, that I can’t seem to get out of that mode of writing and just purely write for myself. It’s not that I think someone might accidentally find it, it’s that I have these weird fantasies about reading those entries to whatever person it might be someday. In high school I wrote stories and journal-style entries with my English teacher in mind, hoping one day I might email these to him (who knows what I was thinking after that). The past few years I’ve had a friend or two in mind, and then I’ve actually started acting on my impulses and reading people my journal entries and it’s been great fun. Imagine sitting on a porch in Georgia during the only week of snow in the whole year, and you’re snowed in on top of a crazy hill and the places you work and go to school are all shut down, and you’ve got some wine and some time and a friend, and in the midst of some philosophical conversations you bust out your old notebook and read them something you wrote that may or may not be about them or feelings or life – it’s great. It’s great for someone like me, for whom conversation doesn’t always flow easily. Getting my thoughts out in a journal-style entry, pouring out the contents of my brain, and then referring back to them later is an interesting and different way to communicate. It helps me capture so much more of an idea than I could possibly remember otherwise.

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“…when people read or hear reminiscences narrated by others, they often feel triggered or invited to contribute their own memories…Anna Gibbs labels this phenomenon ‘contagious feelings,’ which she describes as a process of ‘neural firing,’ eliciting a positive feedback loop ‘in which more of the same affect will be evoked in both the person experiencing the affect and in the observer…'” (pg. 56)

Media in its various forms, van Dijck goes on to say, amplifies the effect of this phenomenon. Thus watching personal accounts of a traumatic event on the news on TV, while a far-reaching and impersonal form of media, can cause us to identify with and think of ourselves in relation to those narratives, enhancing our sense of belonging to (or not belonging to) a given community and thus enhancing our sense of self. Think about this too in terms of museums or memorials that have personal narratives attached to them, and how this adds to the spectator’s connection to and identification with those people.

Do personal items left at places like the Vietnam Veterans memorial encourage connection or disconnection from the trauma by those who haven't directly experienced it? What about if you were there and someone told you their personal story?

Do personal items left at places like the Vietnam Veterans memorial encourage connection or disconnection from the trauma by those who haven’t directly experienced it? What about if you were there and someone told you their personal story?

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“Reading one’s own scribbles at a later moment understandably elicits a tendency to rework hindsight experiences into one’s personal reflection and to edit the original entries not only for grammar and punctuation but also for content. The diary’s contents, when reread at a later stage in life, may either yield nostalgic yearning or retroactive embarrassment, in some cases even leading to a definitive destruction of the object.” (pg. 57)

Has this ever happened to anyone here? How does a digital platform change this? For example, personally, I have definitely burned, torn up, shredded, and thrown away physical analog journal entries before. But for the journaling I do in word documents, I can simply delete a person’s name if I want to or take out paragraphs and even rewrite episodes in my life. The digital format makes things more easily changeable, but how much does this allow us to rewrite and recreate our memories and ultimately our past?

“Diaries produced by a word processor, therefore, are fundamentally different from diaries produced by means of handwriting or typewriters: the personal computer provides a textual paintbrush that allows editing of one’s personal records without leaving a trace. The potential of digital editing at a later stage dilutes the concept of the diary as a material, authentic artifact, inscribed in time and on paper.” (pg. 65)

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Applying the book’s arguments to today’s world: Social Media

While van Dijck almost exclusively discusses blogs as the digital counterpart to the paper diary, we thought that her general ideas have definitely played out in the social media-saturated world that we currently inhabit. For example, her examinations of defining readership as well as the purpose and motives behind posting personal things online definitely translate into the realm of things like Facebook and Instagram, etc. On these platforms, people are constantly editing their lives for their audience, which is people chosen and allowed to view their profiles by them. In my own experience, I definitely feel that I post things from a certain category of my life to Facebook. I post mainly photographs, using few words or descriptions or captions and rarely posting a status update. I think photographs communicate a whole lot without words (of course!). But I definitely don’t just upload my daily life onto the internet for people to see, with all the good bad and ugly. I curate, I self-edit, I create my own persona that is definitely true and real, yet lacking in some fundamental emotional variety. Such is life!

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“…their default mode seems to be connectivity and communication, as opposed to the default mode of diaries, which is isolation and reflection.” (pg. 62)

This idea is complicated a little bit by the idea of publishing diaries or letters, things that are meant in the beginning (maybe?) to be personal and reflective and not public. What are the non-default modes of blogs and paper journals? For example, you can definitely make a personal private blog, even on wordpress, that is locked (I have one!). You can make a digital tool perform as a platform for isolation and reflection, if you really want to. Similarly you can bend the rules of paper diaries by publishing them or simply sharing them.

Did anyone ever have one of these? The password journal.

Did anyone ever have one of these? The password journal.

Let’s think about the power of passwords and locks. Diaries and journals with locks were all the rage when I was in elementary school, whether physical locks or electronic, voice-activated locks like those on the password journal. In the digital realm, we use passwords to restrict access to our computers or just user accounts on a shared computer as well as to our Facebook accounts, blogs, et cetera. How does having a password protected account or a locked diary influence the way in which we use a given media? Does it make it more appealing to the outside world if something is locked? A bit of reverse psychology? Think of Harriet the Spy’s private notebook, or the “burn book” in Mean Girls.

burnbook harriet2Is there a place for the personal online? You betcha. As van Dinck points out, she is

“…touched by botched attempts of teenagers to hide their intimate revelations in their Xangas and LiveJournals, and I suspect they will long remember this painful lesson in their future dealings with the machinations of privacy and publicity.” (pg. 76)

This is truly PAINFULLY real to me! When I was in middle school, I had a Xanga account onto which I dumped every last drop of my teenage angst. I wrote about everyone I knew (without naming them… smooth) and everything that happened at school, and I used some (ahem) inappropriate language. In a backwards plot twist, my anguish-laden blog was printed off (reverted from digital to analog) by a concerned parent and sent through snail mail, this is real, to my mother in the mail. I got in a lot of trouble for the contents of my blog and ended up going to a different high school than I wanted to because of it! Long story short… I learned so much from that and it took a long time, longer than pretty much all of my peers, for me to be willing to jump into the world of social media even when Facebook started becoming huge and difficult to avoid. The moral of the story is that online environments can be tricky when not handled properly, but I would argue that it’s not just the age of the internet user but the overall outlook of our society that can facilitate proper use of online reflective spaces. There’s a lot that could be better, to be sure.

//EC

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