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

McNeill's "Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks"   Thursday, February 23   1:08 PM

Laurie McNeill's essay, also in the Winter 2003 issue of Biography is another attempt to connect the blog to the diary, though I find her methods and choice of blogs somewhat haphazard. She also seems to think she can prove a point (or at least imply that she has) by quoting a single blogger and saying his/her writing "suggests that" some broad claim is true.

Her attempt to connect the two genres relies on a broad view of both — in the end only the new media features of a blog separate it from the traditional print diary. Interactivity, both for readers looking at links and pictures and for the blogger, who now craves commentary from the reader-as-public, is key. As I note below, she also makes a distinction between online journals and blogs (based on the thought going into posts?), both apparently subsumed under the "online diary" category, which I can't follow.

On the individualistic nature of the lifelog:

Bypassing the commercial, aesthetic, or political interests that dictate access to traditional print media, and that decide whose life stories deserve to be told, online diaries can be read as assertions of identity, and arguments for the importance of an individual's life. Even as their authors retain a degree of anonymity, these texts make very personal connections to a reading audience that recognizes and confirms these individual life assertions. (26)

More evidence that diary weblogs come up against our prejudices:

the long-held popular assumption that the diary is a private, for "oneself alone," genre. Web diaries' public nature but private — that is, personal, often intimate — content confounds traditional distinctions between public and private writings and functions. (26)
The relationship between blogger and reader:

In a contemporary print diary, that confessor would typically be an imagined or projected addressee; in cyberspace, however, he or she actually receives the confession, and often responds. The reader of an online diary therefore actively participates in constructing the text the diarist writes, and the identities he or she takes on in the narrative. Though active and even intimate, however, that participation remains virtual, disembodied. The confessor stays behind the "grille" of the Internet, allowing the diarist — and the reader — the illusion of anonymity necessary for "full" self-exposure. (27)


Online participation in this genre allows writers to carry on diary conversations that will no longer be monologic, where the response will not be just imagined but actual. (28)

An attempt to bring the blog back into the fold. At this point in the paper McNeill has tried, and failed in my view, to set up a distinction between the blog and the online journal, while noting the diary elements of both. Hopefully she picks this up later.

Despite [veteran web diarist] Steve Schalchlin's belief in the Internet diary as a "new artform," its practitioners in many ways reproduce the traditional diary, upholding instead of resisting the genre both in form and content. (30)

On hypertext, audio, video, etc:

Many of the accessories found in an online diary reflect its nature as a public document, meant for readers other than the diarist. (30)

Background on the imaginary (now real) reader:

Of course, writing a text to suit an imagined reader is hardly a new concept, even for the diary. (32)

On a more banal variety of post:

[Some] entries fulfill the diary's traditionally personal functions of logbook and memoranda, but when written on the Internet, diarists give these functions a public purpose, presuming that others will want to read these records, and even comment on them. (32)

Bringing the reader into your life:

A reader from or visitor to New York may feel a sense of identification with Nora because he or she also frequents the "Morning to Midnight" store, or is familiar with "11th and third ave." These diarists' use of proper nouns, place names, presuppositions, and explanatory asides are traditional strategies by which both on- and offline public diarists create intimacy. Web diarists, though, also have the option of adding links to external sites to help the reader feel a part of their personal lives. (33)

More of that "all bloggers are unsatisfied with nanoaudiences" nonsense I often see peddled:

...online writers extend the invitation to read not only to intimates but also to the reading public at large. They post their diaries in the hope of reaching a wider audience, an imagined community who, by reading and responding, will become an actual community. Writers who create online diaries express their desire for acknowledgment, perhaps praise, for their life or their writing — some assurance that their voice is being heard. (35)


For online diarists, who write explicitly to be read, the absence of an (active, responsive) audience would be a significant blow. (36)

Contact the genre police! This blogger is violating the rules!

To attract and maintain engaged readers, online diarists must anticipate and meet audience expectations. But since bloggers write in a familiar genre that predates the Internet, they must also satisfy that genre's requirements even though they have taken the genre into a new forum. (37)

But here's something interesting, a discussion of truth as contract:

Even in a public diary, Schalchlin extends the promise of total and unmediated honesty: "Part of the 'deal' we have together — as diary writer and diary reader — is that I do not hide the times when I am an ass or a fool" (26 Apr. 1997). [...] Schalchlin's "deal," so reminiscent of Lejeune's autobiographical pact, underlines the popular concept of autobiography as requiring some kind of participation from, or even communion with, the reader, who accepts the writer's claims of identity and facticity, and believes in the autobiographer as a "real" person. (37)

Bringing in identity construction:

Unlike the players in MUDs and MOOs, who take on the identities and characteristics of characters in a larger game, diarists play "themselves," but in a venue that seems disconnected from, if based on, their offline lives. Though these readers do not know the diarist outside of the context of her text, they believe her textual representation is "real," the flesh made digital. (37)

Cite for this article:

McNeill, Laurie. "Teaching an Old Genre New Tricks: The Diary on the Internet." Biography 26.1 (Winter, 2003): 24-46.

Interesting citation to follow up on

Miller, Carolyn. "Rhetorical Community: The Cultural Basis of Genre." Genre and the New Rhetoric. Ed. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway. London: Taylor & Francis, 1994. 67-78.

Yes, our old friend Carolyn Miller, co-author of one of the best blogging essays, has an interesting essay on genre out there.

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