Apr 24, 2012
When I was a child, I received a bumper-sized colouring book every Christmas. I’d immediately set to work with crayons, filling the pages with a chaotic scrawl that each year got closer to staying inside the thick black lines. Eventually, I outgrew this activity and a different type of book began to appear among my presents. When I was perhaps eight or nine years old, I opened my first diary.
Just like the colouring books, the diary demanded that I filled it in, albeit in a different way. First, I’d dutifully enter forthcoming birthdays and family occasions, the the pages in between would wait to be filled with thoughts and missives from my tiny life. Each day brought its own deadline, demanding that something would happen that was exciting enough to write in the diary. But nothing seemed important enough to be recorded, not even on the cheap ruled paper inside my nylon Filofax wannabe.
As a child, recording my own story was a terrifying responsibility. With new platforms for self expression such as blogging and social media, it’s become a casual habit. But are we also recording our stories in ways that we barely notice?
Perhaps reality TV redefined the diary before blogs and social media became a scratch pad for our feelings. Contestants would be left with a cheap camera to record their “video diaries” when the camera crew had packed up for the evening. Elements of the late 1990s trend for video diaries haunts YouTube video blogs to this day. In Big Brother, the Diary Room was a private haven from the rest of the house where, ironically, the diarist’s personal comments would be broadcast to millions of viewers. It was as if the nation was recording the exploits of nano-celebrities via word of mouth and Sky+.
We don’t need a celebrity host to hand us a camcorder or the pressure of a blank page in order to diarise our lives. For instance, tattoos act as indelible mementos, telling stories and marking turning points. Many people with tattoos can tell you the stories behind them. In prisons, they can reflect the wearer’s rap sheet or mourn the passing of loved ones. The idea of someone ending up drunk and tattooed on hitting a milestone in their lives is a cliché, but it happens. Ask comedian and gonzo statistician Dave Gorman, who ended up with a Texas driving license tattooed on his arm after a night of debauchery during his Googlewhack Adventure.
Scars provide a similar map of our lives, acting as a badge of honour or a reminder not to [insert foolish act] ever again. Major events in our lives such as illness or injury leave scars, and sometimes people scar themselves. Their association with pain, fear and shock leave visceral memories.
The world beyond our bodies also tells our stories. It’s human nature to encode our experiences and emotions into the things around us. It may be something physical like a tattoo, but we attach symbolic meaning to far more ethereal forms. The olfactory bulb reacts to smell and forms part of our brain’s limbic system, which controls long-term memory and emotion. Our sense of smell can trigger memories in an instant. Similarly, music becomes anchored to stages in our life and we can manipulate our mood simply by changing the CD. Music’s role in recording stories is perhaps most direct for the musician at the time of creation – Jimi Hendrix described his albums as “nothing but personal diaries”. Although Purple Haze had a specific meaning to Hendrix, it also had a million meanings to a million other people – all based on the listener’s own personal experiences.
One man’s bric-a-brac is another man’s memory (or a memory waiting to happen). Image: Ardfern
The physical objects we collect are perhaps the most powerful representations of events. These range from the literal (like a photograph of a special occasion) to the symbolic (a book we buy because it reminds us of our childhood). If a diary is a series of symbols that we can read to recall a sensation, we can read a shelf full of trinkets in the same way.
In the 21st century, our collections also exist online. The internet gives us many ways to record ideas, emotions, photos, images and conversations. Even when we think of these interactions as only existing in the present, they still have a habit of hanging around. If we want to, we can use our Twitter or Facebook histories step back in time and relive past experiences. Between the updates, posts and photos there are also the private moments and meta-narratives that only we can decode.
As we record our lives-in-progress on the internet, older chronicles are being repurposed for new platforms. Phil Gyford is the mouthpiece of Samuel Pepys in a digital world. For nearly a decade, Gyford has published entries from the famous diarist exactly 343 years after the day they were written. This time-warping weblog gives an insight into the past with the benefit of real-time delivery. However Pepys’ diaries where never written for public consumption; the private details of the naval administrator’s life, concerns, insecurities and sexual relationships were not published until 1825, 122 years after his death. To read them in a blog format (and more recently on Twitter) seems natural and the content feels surprisingly contemporary, as if Pepys was writing with an internet audience in mind.
Pepys’ legacy was his diary, but what of ours? Don’t be surprised if it’s your social media presence. It’s notoriously hard to leave Facebook and not even death’s a guaranteed escape – two of my friends on the site are sadly deceased. In 2010, one blogger calculated that departed Facebook users total over 5 million by using the worldwide annual crude death rate. Whatever the accuracy of this number, we may be writing our own epitaphs on Facebook right now, and for some of us our last words will be uttered via social media. Our profiles have the potential to become both a shrine and a diary that future generations can pick over. And one day the dead may outnumber the living on social networks.
It seems that almost 25 years after receiving my first diary, I have no problem externalising my thoughts. However, there’s a fundamental difference between my internet activities and keeping a diary. My tweets, Facebook posts and blog entries are aimed at an audience and sanitised, something that a diary doesn’t need to be. As much as they’re a journal of events, diaries are a private place for freedom of expression that will be seen by our eyes only – the most trustworthy of confidants. I have little doubt that faced with a blank diary and asked to record what matters to me the most, I’d still pause. There’s always an indecision about who I’m trying to please when writing about myself. Perhaps Freud’s trinity of id, ego and super-ego all fight for a voice when we’re faced with the prospect of being ourselves. Whoever that is.
So even if we’re recording the events in our lives through diaries, blogs, trails of objects, signs and digital footprints, do we ever really tell the whole story?