I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Weblogs and Web Journals: Historical Perspectives

Curious about the early history of online journals and diaries, I examined "The Online Diary History Project," a collaborative effort started in 2000 to "preserve some memories of what online journaling was like in the beginning." For this purpose, organizers of the study chose the three-year period from January 1995 (when, they claim, the first online diary was posted) to the end of 1997. The thirty-two respondents who share their recollections are listed in a chronological ordering based on when their entries first appeared, beginning with Carolyn Burke, and proceeding from there.

Guided by her beliefs in free expression and free information exchange, Burke used "Carolyn's Diary" to present "a snapshot of what a person is like on the inside." She presented her writing on her personal Web site, which was hosted by the first ISP to open in Toronto. At its peak, her diary received 100,000 hits per week. Burke participated in 24 Hours in Cyberspace, a "24-hour time capsule of life in the emerging online world" that Rick Smolan produced in February 1996. (The event has been documented in a book and a CD-ROM of the same name.) With three other online diarists (Justin Clouse, Willa Cline, and Bryon Sutherland), Burke was featured in a segment called "Sex, Lies, and Websites: Dear Diary, The story of my life -- is anyone listening?"

An influential online journaler that several respondents mention in their recollections is Justin Hall, who began "Justin's Links from the Underground" in January 1994. Justin states, "I started a web site to detail my questions about life in an era of increasing connection. . . . I helped other people share their minds in the space that became journals and blogs and personal web sites." "Justin's Links" has been covered extensively by the media, as an annotated list of print references indicates. He was featured in Doug Block's 1999 film documentary Home Page. Now a graduate student in the Interactive Media Division at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, he is taking a break from personal blogging, an event that Reyhan Harmanci commemorates in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Ryan Kawailani Ozawa, founder and lead editor of Diarist.Net, emphasizes distinctions between the web journal ("looks inward — the author's thoughts, experiences, and opinions") and weblogs or blogs ("focused outside the author and his or her site") while also noting that these genres sometimes converge. As histories of blogging suggest, the private and the public often commingle online, and new approaches to self-expression continue to emerge in cyberspace, thus redefining notions of diary writing and journalism. An entry on blogs in Wikipedia provides an overview of these developments.

From the perspective of American literary history, Viviane Serfaty, an Associate Professor of American Studies at Université de Marne la Vallée in the Paris metropolitan area and at ENA, the French School for Government, offers a scholarly view in her book The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs (2004, Rodopi). So far I've read only an excerpt, but her analysis seems insightful.

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