Social media’s online diarists have a long lineage

From The Economist:

The tales embrace the mundane and the seismic, from being dumped by a boyfriend before the school prom to the sudden death of a parent. The tone ranges from cheesy to heartbreaking. The storytellers are “journal influencers”, mostly young women reading their teenage diaries to audiences online.

Some videos are mingled with other content, merging pre-teen dreams with make-up tips; others are simple shrines to past selves. One influencer, Carrie Walker (pictured), draws 1.2m views for a half-hour read on YouTube; the shorter content on TikTok’s #diarytok tag has reached 54m. And sharing secrets presents commercial opportunity: selling notebooks and pens on Amazon; auctioning copies of diaries on eBay.

Many people think about writing a diary, especially at New Year. Some start. Some even keep it up. But why write, and for whom? Whether a novice facing a blank page or a seasoned scribbler with years of good meals and gossip in irregular notebooks, almost any diarist has asked themselves that question.

Sally Bayley of the University of Oxford, author of “The Private Life of the Diary”, regards sharing on social media as the antithesis of diary-keeping. The journal is “an attempt to be honest with yourself”. It is “an internal territory, which you are mapping onto the page”, inseparable from privacy. Even Sylvia Plath, a “theatrical individual”, Dr Bayley notes, wrote a diary in order to “generate a voice in private”.

Yet diaries have also long been shared, if more discreetly than on TikTok. Keeping a journal rose in popularity in the 19th century, especially among women. According to Cynthia Huff, an academic specialist in Victorian culture, diary-sharing then was “extremely common”.

Diaries were read aloud, sent to friends or left open for visitors to peruse. “That distinction between public and private really doesn’t hold at all,” says Professor Huff. Some diaries served practical uses, sharing advice on self-improvement, pregnancy or childbirth. British women in the colonies often sent diaries back home. They were “creating an extended family through these diaries” and fostering an ocean-spanning sense of Englishness.

Many journal videos also create a sense of community. They share stories of isolation: of suffering homophobia, struggles with body image or early romantic obsessions. They poke fun at the distorted expectations of youth and the disappointments of adulthood, with the ear of sympathetic strangers.

Some diary-sharers go further. At Queer Diary, a series of events across Britain begun in 2020 by Beth Watson, a performer, lgbtq adults read their old diaries to a live audience. The drama, confusion and mayhem of teenage life are performed to a sympathetic crowd. The celebration, Ms Watson says, is as important as the reflection.

The symbiosis of secrecy and celebration was perhaps best understood by Anaïs Nin, a 20th-century French-born American whose diary was an unapologetic exercise in self-creation. “I am in my Journal, and in my Journal only, nowhere else. Nothing shows on the outside. Perhaps I do not exist except as a fantastic character in this story.”

Nin’s mix of fantasy and truth included an illegal abortion, extramarital affairs and, most notoriously, an incestuous relationship with her father. Her assertions of confidentiality—“you won’t say anything, will you”; “only my Journal knows it” —treat the reader as the sole listener.

And yet, of course, Nin published her journal. Its scandalous content won her fame that her fiction had not. Her confessional texts penetrated the thin veil between public and privateThe diaries are a masterclass in broadcast secrecy, a megaphoned whisper.

Link to the rest at The Economist