Some thoughts spawned by “Diaries, On-line Diaries, and the Future Loss to Archives”

Reading Catherine O’Sullivan’s article, published six years ago, it’s a little giggle-inducing to see “blog” in quotes, alongside “live journal.” (Giggles about the former are a reminder that online life moves quickly and can drag language along with it; the latter made me scratch my head, as I can’t recall ever having heard that construction, only the more general “journal” or the service-specific name.) The blast-from-the-past list of service providers was also amusing, and I’d never heard of Opendiary or Diaryland. Of course the more recent social networking phenomena—Facebook, Twitter, etc.—are missing, rendering it even more of an artifact. The article belongs to the era when you probably weren’t hand-coding your pages any more, even if you didn’t have your own domain your address probably didn’t involve a tilde, and while your mom might read your blog she probably didn’t have one of her own and certainly wasn’t inviting you to join her Mafia Wars crew.*

Which is not to say the article’s uninteresting or useless. It’s certainly a good thing to raise a red flag and point out that there is data of interest to archivists, waiting to be collected, in danger of disappearing into the misty mists of time. And I do like the focus on diaries. While the records of organizations are incredibly valuable, there’s a big part of me that’s just more drawn to manuscripts, the messy and varied creations of individuals. O’Sullivan raises the point that diaries have historically been documents of the privileged, whereas online activity is more diverse.

The definition of “diary” is somewhat problematic in this context. (True, a similar definitional problem exists with pen-and-paper “diaries,” as O’Sullivan notes; writers across the centuries—or within the pages of a single volume—did not necessarily stick to consistent or easily pigeonholed content.) O’Sullivan seems to conflate technology and content, and maybe underestimates the breadth of material available both at the time of writing and in the time before widespread use of blogging platforms.§

It’s certainly common to have diary-style blogs. But it’s also possible to use the platform for publishing more polished essays, or news reporting, or fan fiction, or a host of other things. And it’s increasingly common to see corporate sites eschewing a homebrewed back-end and using one of the more popular CMS options. In this instance, the technology/content conflation could be detangled by an archivist, who would make collection judgment calls and decide what combination of political analysis, Harry/Draco erotica, corporate press releases, and cat pictures fit the repository’s mission.

Another issue only passingly addressed (largely in terms of dead links and intended audience) is the community aspect of so much online activity. Depending upon one’s interest (as contemporary reader or future researcher) blog comments (substantive or trolling) may be as valuable as the initial post. Cross-blog talk—whether spontaneous or as part of an organized blog carnival—is vitally important to understanding the context of posts. I think this is even more true of blogs now than in 2004.**

To return to diversity issues beyond the scope of O’Sullivan’s article, in the past couple years there’s been a fair bit of discussion of online segregation. (This is, perhaps, more an issue for social networks than “diaries”…but the line between blog and social network is permeable, and one does not typically choose a blogging platform in a vacuum.) From a general social justice perspective, online segregation (whether or not the prefix “self” is involved) has some fairly troubling implications. But from an archival perspective, it’s not merely something to be aware of, but potentially a useful marker for developing collections.

* And yes, that statement does make a lot of assumptions about one’s age, technical experience, and family.

Perversely, the risk is both reduced and increased for electronic records. In an absolute sense, online information tends to linger…somewhere. (That embarrassing comment you made twenty years ago on Usenet? Still out there.) On the other hand, distributed responsibility for records means minimal accountability for loss, no clear retention policy, no guaranteed effort to preserve and maintain accessibility of records, and a lack of the archivist’s preservation sensibility. There’s a shorter window to acquire your data properly…but you get more second chances.

O’Sullivan does acknowledge a digital divide, but downplays it due to university and public library access to the web and the lack of technical savvy required for blogging in 2004 (which holds even more true in 2011). I think it’s a fair point, particularly in an article that is a) not primarily about issues of online access and use viewed through the lens of class/race/gender/etc. and b) reaching back into the sixteenth century, in contrast to which the social landscape of 2004 is filled with sunshine and puppy dogs.

§ Admittedly, even in the 90s one did have a sense that there were a countable number of sites dealing with a given topic…but there was still depth and variety, despite the technical barriers to creation.

** Completely unscientific impressions, for which I could perhaps dig up supporting documentation, but I am lazy: Blogging no longer requires special expertise, nor is it the cool new thing everybody’s doing, so many of the people still doing it (or choosing to start) have a better-defined purpose than might once have been the case. Users are also more sophisticated about generating publicity, creating lots of little niches and echo chambers in various corners of the web (with the possibility of any given post breaking out or crossing over; “slashdot” and “boing boing” are well and truly verbed). Diary-style blogs are more likely to be addressed to a specific, known audience (regardless of whether posts are private or fully public), much like the semi-public diaries of Marianne Estcourt and Hester Thrale mentioned in O’Sullivan’s article. A lot of the casual users and the little updates—and a chunk of the “diary” functions of particular interest to O’Sullivan—have migrated to other services, like Facebook and Twitter, which aren’t as friendly to more lengthy posts. People are more likely to maintain accounts on multiple platforms, sometimes cross-posting and sometimes tailoring content for the different audiences and services. They may maintain multiple online identities or cultivate anonymity. And of course there are the people who mainly have accounts to keep track of other people. (Remember when RSS was going to be the answer for keeping track of things of interest? Ah, well.)