Why do we do this?

A few days ago I was with a group of people and conversation turned to blogs/online journals, and a non-blogger asked what the attraction is. Someone said he liked to write to get things off his chest, and the non-blogger very reasonably responded “But why would you want to do that in public?” At the time, nobody came up with a decent answer to that, but I’ve been thinking about it since, and wondering, why? What is it about blogging that’s so attractive to so many people?

Actually, now that I think about it, it was that exact question that led me to starting my first diary here. It was back in the early days of blogs, and I read an article somewhere about this interesting new phenomenon on the internet, where people were posting their private thoughts in online diaries that anyone could read. A search led me to deardiary.net, where I discovered that one side of the fascination of blogs was the sheer voyeurism of reading the private thoughts of strangers, but I still didn’t really get why someone would want to write one. So in the spirit of enquiry, I decided to start writing one myself.

In fact, I’ve just gone and searched out my first entry in that diary, 30 August 2001:

OK, so I’ve got a week off, and there’s all sorts of useful things I should be doing around the house, I’ve got an essay to write, and as for the garden… let’s agree not to mention the garden. So, what have I just spent most of one of my valuable days off doing? Sitting at the computer reading the diaries of strangers, and am now joining this mysterious online world myself. No idea why, but I read an article on these shared diaries a while back, and it sounded a fascinating idea – lots of people sharing their own private soap operas. Of course, I didn’t bother actually going looking for any diaries until this morning, when for some reason I thought I’d check them out, typed “diary” into the search engine, and several hours later… here I am!

I remember the idea of total anonymity was really interesting to me at the time, and I made a conscious decision at the beginning of that diary to reveal as little about myself as possible, and find out just how private it was possible to remain, while at the same time writing honestly about your life. Although I was a bit coy about explaining that in my first entry, which goes on:

I suppose at this point I’m supposed to introduce myself, but I don’t think I want to – I’d prefer to let you figure it out all by yourselves. I’m sure I’ll let plenty of details slip as I go along. Anyway, if I tell you everything up front, what’s going to make you want to keep reading – my life isn’t that exciting! If you really can’t cope without knowing all about who, what, where, and why I am, then you have my permission to use your imagination (just as long as you imagine me to be a nice person!).

Two days later, when I got my first comment (from Rudyshoes – remember him?), I discovered one of the biggest attractions of blogging – the sense of community. Suddenly my diary wasn’t just being sent out into the ether – it had real live people reading it (although it’s obvious from the above extracts that I had a sense of writing for an audience from the start). And then when Rudyshoes invited me to his forum, where several other deardiaryists hung out, my diary was no longer a monologue to strangers, but part of an ongoing conversation with friends.

And ironically, I think that in the end became its downfall for me – the anonymity that had first interested me in the idea of blogging seemed wrong as part of that conversation, yet I felt I couldn’t drop that anonymity, because my diary was still public, and I’d written too many of the sorts of things you can only say in private (like comments about the people I worked with). I suppose I could have made my diary friends-only, but by doing that you’re excluding casual reader who drops in to glance at your diary – the very way I met my DD friends in the first place. After about a year my diary entries began to drop off, as I found the struggle for anonymity more and more difficult, and by 2003 I’d completely lost interest – entries were coming months apart and becoming increasingly cryptic.

So what did I learn from the exercise? For a start, that the two main attractions of blogging, anonymity and community, aren’t entirely compatible. And that that sense of community is possibly what we’re all seeking when we start writing an online diary – whether it’s a circle of friends to share our lives with, or just someone to agree with our rants, blogging needs (and assumes) an audience.

Having learnt these lessons, I took a different approach with my FutureCat diary. Instead of trying to stay completely anonymous, I decided in advance which parts of my life would be public property, and which would stay private. As the main point of my new diary was to talk about Bookcrossing, there was no point in trying to keep my location private, because anyone looking at my bookshelf would immediately see that I live in Christchurch. And anyone looking at the pattern of where I release books could probably get a fair idea of where I work, and which suburb I live in. And although I’m careful never to reveal my real name, either here or on the Bookcrossing site, for anyone who knows me in real life there’ll be enough clues in this diary for them to figure out it’s me writing it. So rather than hiding behind anonymity, I write assuming that people I know might be reading this, knowing it’s me writing it. So I don’t write about my private life, or personal stuff about my friends or family, or comment on my employer or my colleagues (you may have noticed I try not to mention work much at all, in fact). When I do want to share any of that stuff with my DD friends, then I write a friends-only entry.

And strangely, restricting myself like that has actually freed me up a lot. Instead of always worrying that I’m going to give away some crucial detail, and having to come up with new and more complex psuedonyms and disguises for recognisable people and places, I can write freely about what I’ve been doing and where I’ve been going, and feel confident that if anyone I know does stumble across this diary, they’re not going to read anything I wouldn’t tell them to their face.

Hmm, I seem to have veered off the subject I started with: why people blog. Maybe that’s because I can really only answer the question of why I blog, and I’m not even sure I know the answer to that one…

(Incidentally, I made my old diary private, so there’s no point googling the above extracts to find it – you’ll just have to wonder for ever exactly what it was I said in there that I didn’t want people I know to read :-p)

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