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

Sorapure's "Screening Moments"   Thursday, February 23   11:21 AM

Finally delving into the articles in the Winter 2003 issue of Biography, a special issue devoted to "Online Lives." The first essay I read was a work by Madeleine Sorapure called "Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives:
Diary Writing on the Web

Sorapure takes as her primary corpus the weblogs available through diarist.net, a resource of which I was unaware. This possibly more appropriate corpus helps underscore the importance of defending my own choices — the first justification that jumps to mind is that diarist.net is a more insular, diary-centered community, and the weblogs they honor are rarely among the most popular elsewhere on the web. You could say the same for the Bloggies, of course, but judging from the Technorati rankings, I think the Bloggies have more participants. More people reading web diaries not out of interest in the genre but out of interest in a particular diarist or two.

Sopapure's approach comes off as an introduction to the online diary genre for people interested in print diaries; there is some mention of other forms (e.g. research on hypertext) but it's taken for granted (and shown somewhat convincingly) that diaries are the primary influence on online diaries. Her focus on the writings of apparent diary enthusiasts in the same theory universe is too narrow for my taste. Also, the title seems to imply more of a focus on the hidden-media aspects of the genre (web browser, monitor) than is actually there.

First, a troubling attempt to make a distinction. Or acknowledge a distinction others are making; I don't see Sorapure backing this up:

Although many online diarists use blogging software and hosting for their work, blogs and online diaries are not necessarily the same thing — at least not to purists in both camps. According to Ryan Kawailani Ozawa, the founder and lead editor of Diarist.net, "a traditional weblog is focused outside the author and his or her site. A web journal, conversely, looks inward — the author's thoughts, experiences, and opinions." (1)

She compares this distinction to Blood's filter-style vs. journal-style distinction, which seems more fluid than what Ozawa is talking about.

A defense of her corpus, something I'll have to confront:

Because online diarists themselves determine the criteria for excellence and select the award-winning sites, the Diarist.net Awards provide evidence of what writers of this genre value, as well as a useful starting point for critical interpretation.

On the often too-simplified issue of permanence online:

although online diaries do not exist materially in the same way as print diaries do, they may in fact be more permanent in the sense that they can be copied and stored in an archival database. There is, in other words, a "technological rhythm" for online diaries that differs from the "biological rhythm" of paper (5)

Basic background, about as concise as I could put it:

An "about me" or "bio" page is a standard feature of online diaries, used by writers to provide autobiographical background in a more linear, narrative format than the diary entries allow. (6)

Apropos of the "100 list," another important lifelog element, the first discussion of the weblog as a "database" narrative:

The "random facts" motif represents a database model of identity, a non-narrative model in which discrete pieces of information are collected and stored. In fact, the diary as a genre, particularly in its online form, constitutes a database of sorts, with information entered in discrete, chronologically-coded units (7)

More on the database in print and online:

Although a print diary is also structured like a database of entries, the self-representation it contains appears to be more continuous and unified by virtue of its being chronologically continuous, bound together in a book or notebook, and read linearly. For online diarists, writing on the computer and publishing on the network, the database form more thoroughly infuses self-representation. (8)

The digital text and the private self:

Sven Birkerts has pointed out this fundamental difference between print and electronic texts: "The print engagement is essentially private. While it does represent an act of communication, the contents pass from the privacy of the sender to the privacy of the receiver." In the electronic order, however, "engagement is intrinsically public, taking place within a circuit of larger connectedness" (122-23). Online diaries therefore not only challenge our current conception of diary writing as a private act, but also compel us to reconsider the boundaries of the private self in a culture characterized by connectivity via cell phones, email, pagers, and other communication technologies. (9-10)

More useful background, this time on how audience changes the writing. The bloggers:

...modify what they write in direct response to their awareness of the specifics of their multiple audiences. (10)

The paratactic nature of the diary:

as Hogan puts it, "there is no subordination to suggest that one idea or event is more important than another; the clauses are 'equal' in grammatical structure and rhetorical force" (101). For Hogan, the parataxis at work in the diary represents the writer immersed in a flow of events, recording everything (or many things), and only later (if at all) reflecting on certain events and assigning greater significance to them than to others. Parataxis also engages the diary reader in assigning significance, and in the absence of transitions, making meaningful connections within and across entries. This paratactic structure and style distinguish the diary from typical narrative autobiographies. (13)

And why it matters:

because parataxis is also the logic of the database, diaries translate or transcode well into the computer medium. (13)


in contrast to a retrospective, linear narrative that leads up to an ending, a paratactic form doesn't have a logical reason to end, aside from running out of space. For online diaries, this constraint is even less significant than for print diaries. (13-14)
The function of links:

Links can establish connections between entries, and between one site and another; in Manovich's terms, links can provide the narrative that connects different elements in the database of the online diary. (14)

Another observation about blog readership, with not stats to back it up but intuitive nonetheless:

the most common method among regular readers of online diaries and the diarists themselves is to read across diaries — to move from one online diary to the next, reading only the most recent entries of each (15)

Finally, another observation about readership:

Although the Internet has been regarded as a medium more accommodating to men, most online diarists are women. (20)

Cite for this article:

Sorapure, Madeleine. "Screening Moments, Scrolling Lives: Diary Writing on the Web" Biography 26.1 (Winter, 2003): 1-23.

Interesting citations to follow up on:

"How Do Diaries End?" Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 24.1 (Winter 2001): 99-112.

Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994.

Doering, Nicola. "Personal Home Pages on the Web: A Review of Research." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 7.3 (Apr. 2002). 10 Aug. 2002.

Hogan, Rebecca. "Engendered Autobiographies: The Diary as a Feminine Form." Prose Studies 14 (Sept. 1991): 95-107.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001.

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