Dan's Metablog
Writing about blogging, identity, and narrative

Losing preconceptions with Dijck   Saturday, November 19   11:46 PM

I read José van Dijck's Fibreculture essay Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs quite a while ago but I never got around to annotating my notes. Dijck makes a compelling argument that some common misconceptions about diaries have made weblogs seem far more groundbreaking than they actually are. She's also got a good eye when it comes to spotting features of both formats.

We'll start with something you already knew, in your heart of hearts:

Diary writing, as a quotidian cultural practice, involves reflection and expression; yet it is also a peculiarly hybrid act of communication, supposedly intended for private use, but often betraying an awareness of its potential to be read by others. (par. 2)

Think of the weblog, then, as an adaptation:

Cultural practices or forms never simply adapt to new technological conditions, but always inherently change along with the technologies and the potentialities of their use. In the case of lifelogs, the digital materiality of the internet engenders a new type of reflection and communication. (par. 3)

In paragraph five Djick gets right to what I feel is the heart of the matter. And she's spot on about the theorization:

In contrast to weblogs, the paper diary is commonly referred to as a uniform genre, a private kind of reflective writing produced by a single author. Yet if we closely look at how paper diaries were used in the past, the characteristics of uniformity, privacy and single authorship are, to say the least, disputable; it is surprising to find, though, how these accepted notions about diaries still affect today's theorisation of weblogs. (par. 5)

A note on the taxonomy of the diary:

In general, the taxonomy of the old fashioned paper diary tends to be based either on its contents (personal, intimate self-expressions vis-à-vis daily records of fact) or on its directionality (intended for private reading vis-à-vis public use). (par 6)

Some evidence that diarists aren't usually/simply talking to themselves is found in the use of phrases like "dear reader" or even "you." I've seen both on weblogs as well:

...the notion of addressing is crucial to the recognition of diary writing as an act of communication (Marty, 1985: 87).

Djick finds that letters, the other format often used to theorize blogging, are also more public than we usually let on:

William M. Decker, who theorised the evolution of epistolary writing in the United States, observes that letters, much like diaries, carry the aura of a private genre, whereas the genre encodes itself according to public standards: "What we identify as the private life is a conventionalised and hence public construction." (1998: 6).

More evidence for the digitized diary theory:

Diaries have thus historically been produced by both individuals and groups, regardless of their degree of intimacy or their potential to appear in print. Since its very inception, the genre has been dialogic rather than monologic, hence obliterating the line between private and public.

A note on the taxonomy of blogs:

...the distinction between lifelogs and linklogs is as tenuous as the taxonomy of the paper diary.

Concise reforumulation of one of the essay's major claims:

...digital cultural forms are often erroneously ascribed "unique" features such as interactivity or community building.

We get to some actual differences at this point. Materiality is key.

...diary's materiality forms an essential part of its content: pages, cover, key, colours, ink and paper (its look, feel, and smell) are all part of the act of keeping a diary.


Pivotal to the materiality of diaries, up to the age of computers, has been the notion of script: the concept of diary is commonly associated with (hand) writing, signifying not just authenticity, but personality.


The potential of digital editing at a later stage diluted the concept of diary as a material, 'authentic' artefact, inscribed in time and on paper.

Just as the material aspects of a diary are part of the diarist's art, so too do software options determine who blogs, what gets blogged, and how it's read:

Although they all basically serve the same purpose, the formats may differ in lay-out and digital possibilities. To some extent, these different designs resemble the preformatted paper-diaries for sale at stationary stores. It seems like the various software formats attract different audiences, catering to heterogeneous tastes and lifestyles, much like brand names of fashion products appeal to a particular style.

Finding personality in online writing:

If handwriting betrayed a diary writer's character and level of maturity, the typewriter and later the word processor had already erased that trademark of personality; and yet, through word choice, style, punctuation, and the use of emoticons it is remarkable how much the entries give away a person's character. On top of that, the personality of a diarist is even more traceable through her prolific choices of cultural contents.

A good quote by Jan Fernback:

...as mediated human communication becomes more and more non-linear, decentralised, and rooted in multimedia, the distinction between orality and literacy becomes less evident and less important. (2002: 29)

An observation based on the Nussbaum article, true in my experience as well:

In her sharp journalistic ethnography, Nussbaum (2004) observes that bloggers usually don't talk about what they say online, even though in real life they may speak to each other on a daily basis.

The weblog isn't a pure form but a messy transition, a hybrid:

Although the very medium that enacts blogging shifts the technological condition from isolation to connection, this does not mean that the cultural practices take on a new 'pure' default mode; on the contrary, old habits of diary writing coexists with new connected practices, while they get gradually incorporated by a new medium.

Some observations on the blogger's audience:

The inclusion and exclusion of (potential) readers from one's weblog constitutes an intricate game, the stakes of which are identity formation and community construction.


From a survey held by the MIT Media lab Sociable Media Group, we learn that 76% of bloggers do not limit their readership in any way, and they have no idea who their readers are, apart from a core audience (Viegas, 2004).

Restating the obvious, but well:

Blogging, besides being an act of self-disclosure, is also a ritual of exchange: bloggers expect to be signalled and perhaps to be responded to. If not, why would they publish their musings on the internet instead of letting them sit in their personal files?

But blogging isn't mere conversation. As with diary-writing, there's an importance to the fact that this is being recorded:

Even though blogging is by many considered a transitory cultural practice, just as talking on the phone or sending short text messages, the desire for storage and retrieval is evident.

Finally, an observation about blogger motivation:

Blogging itself becomes a (real life) experience, a construction of self that is always mediated by tools for communication and expression; in other words, the medium is the experience, not the message

Cite for this article:

van Dijck, José. "Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs." Fibreculture. 1.3 (2004). 19 November 2005.

Interesting citations to follow up on:

Fernback, Jan Legends on the Net: An Examination of Computer-mediated Communication as a Locus of Oral Culture, New Media and Society 5:1 (2003): 29-45.

Kitzmann, Andreas. That Different Place: Documenting the Self within Online Environments, Biography 26.1 (Winter, 2003): 48-65.

Viegas, Fernanda. Blog Survey: Expectations of Privacy and Accountability, (2004).

Viégas, F. B. (2005). Bloggers' expectations of privacy and accountability: An initial survey. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(3), article 12.

Nardi, Bonnie, Diane Schiano, and Michelle Gumbrecht. "Blogging as Social Activity, or, Would You Let 900 Million People Read Your Diary?" Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, November 6–10, 2004, Chicago, Illinois.

Gumbrecht, M. (2004). Blogs as "protected space." WWW2004 Workshop on the Weblogging Ecosystem: Aggregation, Analysis and Dynamics.

Update (4/24/06): Speaking of preconceptions, I guess José can also be a girl's name. I'll double-check the pronouns in my paper but I think this is the only place where I brought up her gender.

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