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A BLOG by any other NAME

Online diarists throw Pepys Rule to the wind and let it all hang out in cyberspace

by Mark A. Rayner

(Appeared originally in The Ottawa Citizen, March 31, 2002.)

If all the world’s a stage then the soliloquy belongs to the diarist. The diary has been a monologue, a confessional, a historical document, and usually not for public consumption until its author was dead. The famous 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys knew the rule. He kept his journal entries secret by writing them in an enciphered shorthand.

But today diarists are more likely to post their thoughts on the web than they are to encrypt them. These journals called web logs — or blogs as they are known to netizens — are online diaries authored by Internet users who’ve turned the web into their own personal soap-box, sharing their innermost thoughts, feelings and opinions.

It cost Heather Hamilton her job.

Hamilton, a web designer and writer in Los Angeles, began her lively and entertaining blog (dooce.com) as a way to flex her writing muscles. She liked the built-in audience of family and friends that came with her blog. Several months ago she began posting stories about her annoying coworkers; she described them not by name, but by characteristics.

“These were stories meant to entertain an audience made up mostly of people who have worked in my industry, people who would most likely recognize some of the same mannerisms in those that they’ve had to work with themselves,” says Hamilton.

One of the audience members took exception to her blog, and sent an email to every vice-president in Hamilton’s company, directing them to the offending entries. “They laid me off immediately, with no warning and without giving me any opportunity to explain the motives behind my website,” says Hamilton.

Hamilton is one of an estimated 500,000 blog authors – or bloggers – worldwide. Web logs are created using free software that makes it easy to post messages on the web, without having to know much about HTML or web publishing. New entries go at the top of the page, pushing older ones down chronologically.

When blogs first appeared in 1999, they generally included a mix of links, pithy commentaries, and personal notes, but now the vast majority are more like private diaries than anything else.

It’s a sign of the times, says Allan Gedalof, professor of English, film and popular culture at The University of Western Ontario. He thinks web logs are in the same order as people going on the Jerry Springer show to reveal intimate details of their lives. “What is more important,” asks Gedalof, “privacy or a desire for their 15 minutes of Andy Warhol fame?”

A recent linguistic phenomenon helps to explain it. “The distinction between ”˜fame’ and ”˜notoriety’ has been lost,” says Gedalof. Now they’re synonymous. It doesn’t matter if you’re being recognized for something good or something bad. All that matters is that you get recognized.

“Putting your journal on the web is another way of getting into the public eye. It has the same kind of significance, and it outweighs any kind of shame or embarrassment.”

All bloggers wouldn’t agree with Gedalof. Natalie Brahan, a blogger originally from Ottawa now living in Toronto, says her autobiographical writing is heavily filtered. “If I don’t want someone to read something, I don’t put it on my page – there are details I deliberately leave out, for various reasons.”

Still, Brahan achieved her own kind of fame when her appealing blog (luminescent.org) won a Bloggie Award for “Best Canadian Web log”. First given in 2001, the Bloggies are an ad hoc set of awards that are somewhat controversial in the blog community. They also drive up traffic to the winners’ sites. “I never expected my site to become popular, certainly not to that extent,” says Brahan.

Sheryl Hamilton, professor of communications at McGill University, says blogging is not so much a new form of diary as it is a kind of monologue. Essentially the author is a performer who doesn’t have some of the same risks as performing in a real social setting. She says the pleasure of reading some blogs lies in the knowledge of that performance.

Are blogs a way to seek celebrity? “They may be related to a trend towards narcissistic display in our culture,” says Hamilton. “It might also be seen as a site of confession in an historical or social context that seems increasingly anonymous and alienating.”

Brahan has never taken her blog so seriously.

She enjoys the community aspects of the activity. “It’s very supportive and welcoming of new voices. Most web logs have links to other blogs, often on their main page, and that reinforces the community feel.” There’s even a name for this cross-linking to other blogs: blogrolling.

Mark Federman, Chief Strategist with the University of Toronto’s McLuhan Program, is not surprised that web loggers enjoy the melding of private and public. “Another way to view this sharing of our private thoughts is as a form of socialization – after all, that is the way in which most of us socialize with our friends, by sharing our private thoughts.”

For Federman and other McLuhan scholars, the blogging phenomenon gives us a chance to examine the paradox of the web. “We regard the Internet as public, but we treat it as private,” says Federman. “In fact, for most of us, our interactions with cyberspace are done mostly in private in the seclusion of a cubicle or bedroom.”

Blogging, says Federman, “is not blurring the line between private and public so much as it is making us aware of a paradox that has existed for some time now.”

Mark Pilgrim is another blogger who had that paradox slap him in the face. Last October, he posted a moving essay about how he overcame a number of addictions and like Heather Hamilton the blog cost him his job.

His manager found the essay and told him to shut down the site, which he didn’t do. Though the site was in no way connected with the company, they terminated his employment .

But for Pilgrim, the community his blog was part of also came to his rescue, and he landed a new job for a North Carolina web consultancy. “I was hired by the CEO, who read my web log when I got fired and knew a good thing when he saw it.”

Pilgrim says that everybody has their own reasons for blogging: “Some people want to grow up to be professional writers; some people want to be a part of a community and can’t do that locally for whatever reason; some people want to be famous; some people are just vain.”

Gedalof ties these desires into the loss of immediate communities, which force us to enter virtual communities. It’s all part of a continuum, from the mass public mourning of Princess Di, to chatrooms, to talk shows, says Gedalof. “It’s a sign of a really deep problem. We’re not getting the kind of sympathetic hearing we need from anybody else. I find it desperate. Sad.”

While some might find it sad others see the blog phenomenon as just part of the zeitgeist.

“One could argue it is serving a cathartic function of release,” suggests Sheryl Hamilton, “but at the same time, it is not a form of interaction in any strong sense of the word, so it doesn’t actively produce social solidarity.”

Meg Hourihan, a freelance web developer from San Francisco, and a bona fide blog icon, says the web allows writers to reach a much larger audience than they could before. “Reality TV programs like the Real World and talk shows certainly blur the line between public and private. Voyeurism seems to be a cultural trend these days, and the web is one way people can participate in it.”

Hourihan began her blog (megnut.com) three years ago, about the same time that she was co-creating a popular web application called Blogger. The program can be used free on the web and is one of the tools that launched the blog phenomenon. Blogger alone has more than 250,000 registered users, and recently one of them published the 10-millionth post to a Bloggerï·“powered web log.

What keeps Hourihan posting to her log is the enjoyment she gets out of writing and the feedback she gets. “I love the connection with the audience that’s grown out of the site. But mostly, I just like the outlet. I like having a place to share my voice,” Hourihan says.

Like Brahan, Hourihan is aware of the McLuhanesque “paradox” of the web. “At this point I consider my readers my friends. But I am very aware of what I write on the site and I definitely have boundaries I won’t cross. Though megnut is personal in nature, I don’t share the details of my personal life much at all.”

That seems to be a trend among some web logs. Though many blogs read like personal diaries, the best of them are thoughtful and interesting. “Some web logs are very well-written,” says Brahan, “with different voices than those you usually see in mainstream media. And there are some great storytellers out there, too.”

Perhaps it is more appropriate to think of web logs as a kind of performance instead of a new form of diary. And even Samuel Pepys, who kept his diaries secret while he was alive, was aware that someday, somebody would read them.

“He wanted to keep his diary secret,” says Gedalof, “and at the same time he wanted to preserve it for posterity. He wanted the world to know how important he was.”