Dear E-Diary: Public Confessions and Private Doubts

By Michelle Cross

The Internet is a technology we use for both intimate self-expression and public displays of thrill seeking attention.

Early on, Jennifer Ringley garnered fame and fortune on the Internet using a website and webcam to document her life 24/7 on jennicam.com. The brief but intense press attention that ensued, due to the novelty of her now familiar approach (my life as entertainment), brought Jenni a large, devoted audience, eager to keep up on her day-to-day existence. Recently, some of these regulars publicly abandoned her site when they learned that she had stolen her best friend’s fiancee.

Jennicam showed just how different the website form of entertainment would be from television. Here, we not only get Jenni’s lascivious form in various states of undress, as captured on camera. We also get drawn into the micro and macro details of Jenni’s most private moments. You can’t make us care about stealing your friend’s boyfriend if all you are is a picture on a screen. Which is why no webcam site is complete without the simple, affordable, and complementary mode of self-expression known as the online journal, or e-diary. A varied and flexible medium, the e-diary is to the Internet what personal zines (or perzines) are to publishing: a chance to use yourself and your life as your principal subject matter.

The e-diary is also arguably the easiest way to participate in the World Wide Web: if you’ve got a life and a language with which to discuss it, many free web servers will do the rest. In the same way that many perzines were created as a way of keeping far-flung pen pals updated on the author’s life, e-diaries are a public (or sometimes password-protected) place to refer online friends when writing individual updates to friends becomes inefficient or redundant.

As with zines, creating a single source for your life material means you can afford to give it further craftsmanship and aesthetic attention. This can take your diary entries from the night stand to the artistic community, where you are part of a new genre of confessional writing that mixes the personal (and often the mundane) with the literary, the aural, the visual, the interactive. It’s a style that holds great appeal underground, and is slowly gaining notice aboveground, through projects like former Saturday Night editor Paul Tough’s Open Letters site ( which showcases a polished, bi-weekly sampling of such writing for hungry consumers of the genre.

To zine readers and writers, this will sound all too familiar, as it’s the kind of writing the zine format has been pioneering for the last twenty years. True to zines, the medium is accessible, and accessibility means that “anyone” can do it. With tens of thousands of e-diaries – as opposed to thousands of perzines – the unguided reader must wade through many volumes of crap if they’re ever to reach a diary that’s not only readable, but compelling. Diary registries and award programs such as www.diarist.net can help narrow the search by categorizing diaries and highlighting the best and the brightest. Diary servers like diaryland.com narrow the quest by chronology rather than quality, listing the diaries that have most recently been updated, but this becomes even more hit-and-miss. Using this function, the first site I came upon consisted of this entry: “got my car. a 1991 pontiac lemans. it’s gray and it’s cute. I like it. I’m excited about it and I think Morgan is sick of hearing about it, but it will wear off…i tried to find a picture of it but couldn’t. oh well”.

The average Web-using Joe really can’t be blamed for eagerly adopting this medium, since the writing of an e-diary affords many people with a unique feeling of stardom, albeit a miniature one, as they marvel at the novelties of exhibitionism and public attention. Minute momentary celebrity is a pretty sweet reward, when you think about the fact that the e-diary is free, usually fun to write, and, depending on how fast you type, not necessarily all that time consuming.

Of course, the zine community is only too cognizant of the ups and downs of fleeting celebrity based more on who you are than on any particular accomplishment you can lay claim to. Self-publishers have long experienced a similar sense of excitement, exhibitionism, obsession with public notice, and occasional mini-stardom – and we’re willing to pay to keep it coming! Who do these e-diarists think they are, soaking up all the readership and press attention out there without so much as licking a stamp or enduring a nasty staple injury?

Well, my zine-loving brothers and sisters, if the e-diary is our enemy, the enemy is among us. When zine publishing leaves a little to be desired, zinesters are turning to the e-diary as a means of filling in the gaps of their creative outputs. In some cases, they are abandoning the print world altogether to pursue their e-diaries and related web projects. Why, in the name of the Zine, would our brethren trust their fresh inspiration to the polluted waters of the World Wide Web? And what ills might they be subjecting themselves to in this bi-curious publishing behaviour?

Initially, the reasons for keeping an e-diary are fairly straightforward – speed, technology, accessibility. But a closer look reveals that hardcore online journaling can be as much of a hindrance to true indie creative action as it is a gold rush of instant catharsis and quasi-fame.

Zines vs. E-Diaries
Zinesters are notorious for lagging on new issues and on replies to pen pals. The e-diary is a tempting way to keep on top of the detailed personal writing that might otherwise sit idle in an unmailed letter or an obsolete zine file. “My online journal originally came about as a place for all interested parties to read whatever was going on in my head,” says Katia Roberto, a librarian and former zinester/e-diarist, “without having to send out a bunch of individual emails.”

Normally, an e-diary entry hits its site immediately upon completion, without jumping through the hoops of assembly, copying, packaging and distributing. This can inspire a more regular writing routine that can improve the author’s skills in other types of writing.

Zinesters seem to be particularly good at keeping their diaries up to date. “I spend an hour or so a week working on my online journal,” says Jolie of everything you’ve heard is true zine. “It’s usually updated on a weekly basis, sometimes even more frequently than that.” Sarah Maitland, a zinester-to-be from Chesterfield, Virginia, is even more regular in her updates. “I haven’t updated my journal in ten days, which is rare, when I usually do so every other day.”

In a world where print media is frequently obsolete, the prompt updating of e-diaries has a positive impact on a readership, who like to feel that they’re following the author’s life as it unfolds. Also appealing to readers is the availability of older entries in the diary’s archives, a feature that is almost indispensable if you come in on the middle of a dramatic situation and you need some quick updating. Since zines are hard to subscribe to and zinesters are often young people on the move, e-diaries can be a stable source of an author’s writing, and this inspires a readership that returns regularly for updates from their favourite diaries. This can do amazing things for friendships that are threatened by distance or busy schedules. While they were never my closest of zine friends, Ericka Bailie (ericka.pitas.com) and Kelli Williams (kelli.pitas.com) have become present in my life on a daily basis thanks to their e-diaries. Angela, a Brampton Ontario zinester, admits to reading “about five or six regularly. I check a couple on a daily basis, the rest of them are checked every couple days.” Indeed, a regular reading list of a half-dozen is not unusual among the zinesters I spoke with, most of whom had a few occasional reads as well.

With such involved readerships, e-diaries often allow for a heightened relationship between author and audience than is the case with any form of print media, zines included. Feedback is technically much easier to give and take than for print zines, with e-mail address links and guestbooks appearing routinely.

“About once a week someone responds to what I’ve written,” says Angela of her e-diary, noise of the self-involved (cherrybomb.pitas.com). “Positive feedback spurs me on to write more; it’s a huge motivational factor and actually makes me feel more free to express myself in any way I choose.” Kelli Williams once posted a poll function on her site, asking readers to vote on how she should proceed with her hair colour: blonde, red or nothing. The results of the poll (blonde, if I remember correctly) decided her decision.

Despite the fact that most zinesters distribute their zines first-hand, most agree that it’s easier to keep close track of e-diary readers than zine readers. How? Site meters: free CGI script devices that keep track of how many visitors access the site, and in many cases, from where and how they were able to access it. The author gains some insight into the invisible audience, while at the same time leaving them sufficiently obscure, a trait that allows many e-diarists to speak more freely in their writing.

All of the girls I spoke with identified a portion of their readers as strangers. None saw this as a concern insofar as safety or otherwise – if anything, unidentified readers add to the exhibitionist excitement of keeping the e-diary. I like to think of it as the confidence an amateur lounge singer might gain when her audience is less visible to her in a dark, smoky bar.

As I mentioned earlier, zinesters are no strangers to many of the novelties of the e-diary – as such, their use of the medium is often secondary to their zine work. In fact, many zinesters seem to use e-diaries as a drawing board for their zines. For Angela, this is definitely the case:

“Sometimes after writing in my e-diary I think it might be a good topic to explore in my zine and normally I edit profusely or re-write something entirely before it sees my zine’s pages.” Katia prefers to use her e-diary as a casual scrapbook of writing. “Zines get a lot more of my time and energy, since I view my e-diary as a more spontaneous forum.” Also interesting is the recent trend of zinesters printing their e-diary entries in their zines.

However it is that the two mediums interact, the simple, routine activity of keeping one’s e-diary updated can open up creative through-ways in the brain that have been clogged for weeks or years. E-diaries can inspire or fuel new zines altogether, zines where the author reworks or elaborates on the writing provided by her journal.

Ericka’s zine Fragile was sculpted around the raw material of her e-diary, with the transition giving her an opportunity to add further aesthetic impact to the writing, as well as the chance to integrate other offline writing into the body of work. The result was a small-run zine that garnered rave reviews. Portland grrrl activist Ciara McEwen struggled with zine-writer’s block for several years when her e-diary suddenly provided the fresh inspiration she’d been looking for. Finding that the personal-political material in her diary suited her goals well, she decided to reprint her entries, lining them with afterthoughts and new material to better focus her purpose. Like Fragile, the first issue of A Renegade’s Guide to Love and Sabotagewas a strong success, both publicly and personally, as it reaffirmed Ciara’s identity as a writer/publisher/activist.

The Flip Side
So you’re a zinester and an e-diarist. Perhaps you’re a veteran, like Kelli or Ericka, or a newbie, like Sarah Maitland or Jolie. You’ve got paper pals offline, and an avid audience online. You’re pumping out verbiage on a daily basis and you know peeps are listening. You’ve got your life recorded to your liking for the last month, as well as half-formed ideas for that new theme zine you’ve wanted to put out. You’re even doing some underground community service, as your diary readers and your zine friends learn about each other through your site. You’re living a double high life as a self-publisher, and you’re loving it.

If you’re really blessed, this utopia of indie self-expression may prosper for a time. If you’re average, you may soon begin to encounter some of the flaws of this dual creative identity. The simplest, most uncontrollable and upsetting aspect of online publishing is the fact that it is completely at the mercy of technology. Granted, zines are susceptible to fires, floods, incompetent copy shop employees and various sharp objects, but for the most part they tend to dodge these fates dextrously. E-diarists entrust their words to online servers, generally with little intimate knowledge of the server and no promises that their brain-children will be well cared for. Servers are usually chosen on the basis of the hands-on functions they provide, with little attention paid to the server’s technical or ethical profile. A technical failure can be anywhere from irritating to traumatic, on both personal and professional levels. After publishing the first issue of A Renegade’s Guide to Love and Sabotage, Ciara lost the archives of her diary. While the entries still existed through her zine, the issue had a limited press run, so the writing therein became more or less inaccessible to readers who hadn’t ordered the zine. Ciara was able to recover her archives; not all e-diarists are so lucky when such glitches come their way.

Generally, though, what hurts the most is the loss of what many feel to be a piece of themselves. “I’m sure I’d be moderately to completely hysterical if my page was damaged or I didn’t have a copy of my zine,” admits Jolie, while the more self-deprecating Katia “would probably think it best for everyone concerned.”

One of the more common differences between an e-diary and a zine is the selectivity employed in the creation of both. A zine may be made up of drastically edited pieces, whereas a diary entry is typically published to its site as it was first written. And e-diaries are immune to the factors that limit zines – space, copying, postage, etc. Writers with basic self-editing skills may very well prosper in this fast-paced, large-spaced writing atmosphere. But for the average writer, this kind of writing project can distance them from the editing skills necessary for good writing.

The immediacy and linearity of e-diaries discourages not only revision, but also the pre- and post- structuring of one’s work. As the unused editing side of the brain begins to atrophy, the reader gets more quantity and less quality. Sarah Maitland, who began as an e-diarist, is approaching her new zine with the same minimalist editing allotted to her diary: she checks spelling and grammar, but won’t make changes or deletions, “even if I feel bad about something I’ve written.” Angela says she is “more picky about the final product in zines. They seem much more permanent. In my zines I have much higher standards. My online diary is more of an open playing field.” So it seems that readers get what they pay for – or more appropriately, what they work for, since ordering a zine takes more effort than accessing an e-diary website, though, all told, it’s probably cheaper than the computer and Internet service used to read an online journal.

In the pre-Internet days, stories of personal diaries being stolen and read were a common trope to advance the plot of a bad TV show — the ultimate invasion of privacy, but also the ultimate indication that Mom or Boyfriend really does care. Nowadays, we want someone to stumble across our personal musings and confessions, we want them to care, and so we electronically self-publish to make it happen. But even the most exhibitionist of underground writers don’t usually wanteveryone to get hold of this material.

In a society that overvalues mass accessibility, the public nature of websites can become a source of trouble for many an e-diarist. Katia was unpleasantly surprised to learn of whom had been accessing her writing. “I took down my e-diary site after I started applying for jobs and saw that one of my potential employers had seen the site.”

Usually, the concern for zinesters and e-diarists falls more in the area of family and friends; many zinesters like to distribute their projects selectively, allowing family to read one, or only letting strangers read another, due to the varying degrees of intimacy of their projects. “I have had in-person friends come across my websites when I would have preferred they didn’t,” said Sarah Knowles of her diary. “It’s not that any information was divulged that I didn’t want them knowing, really, just that I wanted a very free and safe space where I knew I could communicate whatever I wanted to an objective audience that I wouldn’t have to face the next day.”

Sarah brings up one of the main problems with being an e-diarist: on the one hand, you want to have the people close to you share in the experience of reading your work. On the other hand, you need a space where you can write your feelings about those loved ones. A zine can be physically censored from unwanted readers. E-diaries, once obscured from public view by the colossal and disorganized nature of the World Wide Web, are now easily located by snoopers or by accident – sites like google.com search documents with an unparalleled textual precision. Password protection is an option, but it takes away a lot of the excitement of gaining new, anonymous readers.

Often, the act of censorship must happen within the writing itself, and this can be detrimental to the therapeutic and exciting free flow of personal writing. When Ericka’s boyfriend began reading her e-diary more regularly, he decided to ask her to stop discussing him on the page. While it didn’t seem to bother her too much on the surface, the decision definitely impacted the draw of her diary, since her relationship with her boyfriend was of key interest to readers. (Thankfully, he revoked his request soon after, to the delight of many regular readers such as myself.) For Katia, the need for privacy outweighed her desire to publish a public e-diary. After the employer incident, as well as the arrival of several unwanted readers, she decided to “regress” to an e-mail list where she sends out diary-esque material to a sanctioned readership. Lately, Sarah Maitland has let the challenges of public diary writing nudge her back to pen and paper. “Some of the things I’ve written recently, I’m not even ready to put online to get opinions on.” Other e-diarists simply struggle to come to terms with the realities of the technology they’ve romanced – often becoming more honest, open people in the process.

The zine community has survived and will continue to survive the loss of creators who prefer the perks of online journaling. And of course, ‘loss’ isn’t the right word at all, since an awful lot of authors are enjoying the interplay of print and online publishing. Nevertheless, it seems that as the proliferating world of confessional writings continues to expand, we will one day have to reconsider how the e-diary impacts on everyday life, particularly if you are a regular reader and a regular contributor to your own electronic diary. After all, the more we read and write about our lives in our e-diaries, the more our lives take place on the Internet/alone in our apartments. What, then, will the contents of our diaries look like? “Sunday: spent the day reading online diaries. My eyes hurt. Going to bed now.” If anything, the zine might become a much-needed getaway from computing.

For the time being, I’m just going to enjoy the two formats and their users as they mix, mingle and prosper, building bridges between and around them. From my perspective, the merging of the personal zine and the e-diary is a good thing. There are many online diarists who are just coming to the medium, not realizing that what they are doing is well within the broader tradition of personal self-publishing. With the rise and accessibility of the e-diary, no inspired individual will miss out on the opportunity to share their quotidian existence with the public, and a greater acceptance and understanding of reportage as an activity available to all – as opposed to just the expert journalists and novelists – will ensue.

That said, there’s still reason to hold aloft an obstinate beacon for the beloved zine, a literally hand-crafted piece of self-expression that, unlike a website, won’t be wiped into oblivion if left idle for sixty days. I find it hard to imagine returning to some obscure URL in fifty years, but I may well fondly rediscover my teenage self one day, when I accidentally unearth an old zine of mine pressed between paperbacks on the bookshelf. The e-diary is painfully temporal. Last week’s entries might as well be last year’s. Paper suggests a permanence not just physically but aesthetically and even psychologically.

New technologies and an ever-shifting cultural zeitgeist make it clear that the e-diary craze may be no more than a temporary phase. The prospect of all those words, all those lives, disappearing into the digital haze reminds me why we continue to write zines and books: there’s a lot to be said for the illusion of permanence.

Michelle Cross is an e-diarist, songwriter, parking lot attendant, and zinester-on-hiatus. She is studying English and Creative Writing at York University, where this year she will be running the Vandoo college paper, which she hopes to corrupt thoroughly.

Zinesters/E-diarists from this article
Angela publishes Open All The Time zine and the e-diary noise of the self-involved. Contact 90 Porteous Circle, Brampton ON, L6S 5C5.

Ciara McEwen publishes the zines Cherry Cherry Red (a women’s project resource guide) and A Renegade’s Guide to Love and Sabotage. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Ericka Bailie is the author of the defunct long-running zine Power Candy, and of the recent one shot Fragile. She currently operates Pander Zine Distro She lives in Minneapolis.

Jolie publishes everything you’ve heard is true zine. Contact 3539 Windy Acres Drive, Imperial MO, 63052, USA.

Katia Roberto is in-between zines at the moment. Visit for links and information on her diaryesque e-mail list. Contact 338 Hudson Avenue #6, Albany NY, 12210, USA.

Kelli Williams publishes the zines that girl and 20 Bus, and an e-diary. She lives in California.

Sarah Knowles publishes Cataclysm Girl zine and the Goodnight e-diary.

Sarah Maitland is working on a first zine and publishes an e-diary. Contact 6343 Statute Street, Chesterfield VA, 23832, USA.

Diary Servers
(some of these servers are dedicated to diary-esque creations, while others are free web servers which accommodate online journals among other projects)
www.mydeardiary.com
www.pitas.com
www.diaryland.com (run by the same server as pitas.com)
www.scribble.nu
www.angelfire.com
www.globo.org
www.opendiary.com

For More Information on E-Diaries and the Art of Online Journaling
www.diarist.net
www.metajournals.com

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