Dear Diary...

penA 16-year-old girl wrote in her diary last night, just like millions of other people have done for centuries, but this diary was read by an artist in Baltimore, a law student from Oregon, and a retired salesman in Chicago -- all of whom she did not know. These people and many others are a part of the online journaling community, a new phenomenon thriving especially among youth. For their own reasons, all of those who use online journals feel the need to type details of their life and take the risk of someone out their seeing it.

Diaries have always been traditionally considered a good form of therapy, but conventional diaries (pen and paper) just don't seem realistic with this generation. It is difficult to be inspired to keep up with a pen and paper diary because it takes so long to finish each entry. On top of it being exhausting, it can also be inconvenient. Most young people today find themselves in front of a computer screen for hours everyday, so why not take 20 minutes and do a little self- reflecting in an online journal?

There are several sites that offer free journals, the most popular being Blogger.com, LiveJournal.com, and Xanga.com. Among the more than 600,000 active users of LiveJournal.com, 80% are ages 15-24, peaking at 18-year-old users. Young people like Karen*, a 24-year-old college student from Seattle and 17-year-old Joshua* from San Francisco, are two of the millions of people who use online journals. Joshua uses his journal as an outlet for his frustrations. He writes about what he's feeling "just to get it out of me and feel better instead of letting it out by other actions." It's a means of therapy, and helps him control his anger. Joshua is also a part of a newly formed musical band, and he uses his journal as a way to reflect on the band's troubles and progress.

Joshua uses his journal as a personal outlet, but some people use their journals as a means of communicating with others around them. Karen writes about interesting projects that she's involved in, local happenings that she recommends and also posts photos of the places she has traveled. But most of all, she talks about "what's going on internally, things like emotions and memories."

Joshua and Karen actually prefer people they don't know reading their journals versus people they do know. For Karen, that was her "initial goal and preference." She started writing in an online journal because she was heartbroken over a failed relationship and needed an outlet. Like many other people, she didn't have anyone to talk to because her friends were tired of hearing about her troubles. Then it hit her: She could write about her struggles with love in a journal that could be viewed online. That way, only random Internet users would be able to read it, and "they could just click somewhere else if they were bored," jeers Karen.

Advice from strangers seems to be an option that many young people are comfortable with because it's anonymous and read by people at their own free will. Not only that, but strangers are more inclined to be honest. "Our whole society is built on the concept that it's unkind to be completely honest," explains Karen. A stranger is less likely to know what she wants to hear and will instead give her the blunt truth.

Yet, this kind of public view into one's personal life can seem negligent -- even down right dangerous -- especially when it concerns young people. And with the reccurring new dangers of technology where strangers meet up with children through instant message programs, parents are becoming more and more wary of all the new ways for predators to attack their children. At the same time, technology concerning security has also advanced and some teenagers are arguing that they have power over what they reveal in their journals. Joshua has no problem with strangers reading his journal because first of all he doesn't know them, and secondly, he can protect his entries. "It's something that I am able to do with my journal and if I choose, it just lets me see them and not the public," assures Joshua.

However, beyond the fact that other people can read one's diary, they can also leave a message or comment for the author to read. Though neither Karen nor Joshua have been victims of any serious harassment, it can be an annoying issue at times. "I do sometimes get sleazy/creepy people sending me messages," admits Karen, "but that's what the delete key and ignore button are for!"

Of course these online journals will get their occasional unwanted comment or viewing, but "most of the time, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks," adds Karen. She gets continuous public feedback on her writing, and getting back into the habit of writing actually inspired her to start writing for a local newspaper. Joshua, too, has enjoyed the comment feature of his journal. He has met a lot of friends because people have left him notes and then he writes back, and before he knows it a friendship has formed. It's amazing to see that when I asked these young people if their friends read their journals, they actually said, "My real life friends, or my online friends?"

Many youth today have a whole different set of friends that they only know through the Internet and consider them equally important in their lives. A lot of the time they tell them intimate details about their life that they would never discuss with their real life friends because of fear of embarrassment and judgment. For Joshua, it has been very useful to have others comment on his journal because a lot of the time they have gone through the same thing, and they say the right words to get him through it. He has made one good friend and they get along together very well. "Its great! I'm really thankful for him and it's a blessing because we can help each other," raves Joshua.

Yet the benefits of an online journal are not limited to just advice and everyday problems; many people like Karen use their journals to actually meet new friends and share interests. Not only does she gather readers, she also frequently visits other journals of interesting people she just happens to stumble upon. Because the tone of many journals are like a confessional, readers often feel they intimately know the author without ever actually meeting them.

"I enjoy the voyeuristic aspect of peeking into other people's lives. The journals inspire me to create. The authors have also suggested music, events, websites, etc. all of which have [been] good. Often I end up meeting the strangers at a later date and then they are no longer strangers," recounts Karen.

Karen has even made friends in her own city and has traveled abroad to Europe to stay with someone she met through LiveJournal.com. This kind of action may seem outrageous, but it happens, and happens often. Of course, "people should observe basic safety and common sense online (i.e. don't meet people you don't know from the Internet unless it is in a public place, don't automatically trust that everything a stranger says is true, etc.)," reminds Karen.

However, do all online users observe basic safety? Well, they can block their real name and location, monitor what they approve as a public entry in their diary and they can block or delete any unwanted stranger. Basically it's up to them to decide on how much they want to reveal to the public. But most of the time, users just reflect on everyday occurrences. It can be a healing process and even give you a stronger sense of identity. Not only has this new phenomenon reached communities that have not been traditionally interested in diaries, it has also helped link these communities, creating bonds between the old and young, rockers and artists, geeks and jocks, and even those living in different continents. For whatever reason that journaling has exploded within the younger communities, it's clear that it has given youth a voice that is booming and an expanding circle of friends -- real life or on-line. As voiced by Karen, "the benefits definitely outweigh the drawbacks."

*names have been changed

Annette Shreibati is a senior at Westmoor High School in Daly City, California. She is an avid Instant Messenger user and Online Journaler.
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