One afternoon in 1998, I was so bored that I typed “bored.com” into Netscape to see what would happen. That was the year I graduated from college and immediately got a job, which was something you could do in 1998. I worked as a program assistant at the American branch of a Japanese university and made just over $20,000 a year, plus benefits. This was actually a pretty fair salary; I had approximately two hours of work to do each day, which left me with a solid six hours to dick around on the internet. That day, Bored.com had a few suggestions, including “start an online diary at OpenDiary.com.”
When I visited the suggested site, I was surprised and thrilled to find that people kept diaries on the internet for anyone to read. I was — and still am — a lifelong, obsessive diary keeper. I received a diary as a gift from my grandmother the day before my ninth birthday, wrote an entry that night, and have never stopped writing, 33 years later. I was fiercely protective of my diaries, and the idea of someone reading them made me want to throw up, but I was definitely interested in reading other people’s diaries.
The first online diary I really enjoyed was called No Idea, No Spark. The author, Nanette, who was slightly older than me, was smart and sarcastic, had more than one graduate degree, and was really into indie rock. Her diary took its name from a song by This Mortal Coil, which I found impossibly sophisticated. She lived in Chicago and, in addition to music, wrote about pop culture and her day-to-day life in a crisp, funny, stream-of-consciousness style. She was someone I absolutely wanted to be friends with, which at the time was still a weird feeling to have about someone on the internet.
After reading Nanette’s journal for a few weeks, as well as the other journals she linked to, I decided I wanted to do what these online diarists were doing. I had always considered myself a writer, but writing fiction didn’t come naturally to me, and I wasn’t particularly interested in traditional journalism. What came most naturally to me was writing about myself, but I had never thought of that as something I could do in public. Who would care?
But I went back to OpenDiary.com and started writing anyway. I called my journal Love That Dirty Water, because, as the song by the Standells said, Boston was my home. What seems mundane and everyday for me now felt brand new and endlessly exciting in 1998. I was living in a city with my first serious boyfriend in a tiny, shabby apartment. We were entirely responsible for feeding ourselves and paying our bills, and doing so every month and sometimes even having a bit left over felt like a miracle. I rode the subway twice a day, marveling at the existence of public transportation. My friends also had tiny, shabby apartments where we made elaborate breakfasts together on the weekends and drank endless cups of coffee and/or cheap mimosas out of thrift-store mugs. Everything was new, and I wanted to tell the world about it, and I also wanted everyone in the world to tell me what they were doing and how they were doing it.
After writing for about three weeks, I nervously wrote to Nanette, thanking her for keeping me entertained for six hours a day and sending her the link to my diary — not expecting anything to come of it, but secretly, quietly, hoping she’d like it. She wrote back to me almost immediately, and she did like it. She even linked to me on her sidebar, which was incredibly thrilling; during the entire time my diary existed online, about 90 percent of my traffic came from her site.
But unlike Nanette, who at her most popular had about 1,500 regular readers, I never got much of an audience, despite the fact that my friend Shawna, a fellow writer as well as web designer, invited me to move my journal and write along with her on an actual domain, Neat-o.com, that she bought, designed, and maintained. This was a huge and generous gift that made so much more seem possible in terms of people finding and reading what I wrote — but I still couldn’t get the hang of writing about myself in public, and most of my entries were irritatingly coy and lacked any real insight or honesty. (You can read one here.) As you can see, I couldn’t even bring myself to use my own first name; I called myself Hellsbelle, which was supposed to invoke the fun, retro, ironically sexy but definitely feminist vibe that was popular at the time, but just sounded silly and vaguely goth, which I definitely was not.
After a lifetime of writing about myself in private, I didn’t know how to make the switch to writing about myself publicly. I also wasn’t observant enough to realize that online diarists had personas; even people who had more confessional or explicit writing styles were putting out curated versions of themselves. In late 2000, a friend of my boyfriend’s found my diary (via Nanette, of course) and read an entry in which I had said something mean about his wedding. I was horrified and ashamed and never really recovered from it enough to write without second-guessing myself more than I already was. By April 2001, I had stopped updating.
I’m still friends on Facebook or Twitter with all the people whose journals I read, but these days, I don’t really interact with them aside from the occasional “like.” So when I decided to reach out to a few of them, I was nervous. Was it creepy and invasive to me to say, “I remember reading your journal from 15 years ago, give or take a few years! Want to talk about it?” Did they want anyone to remember? Did they want to remember what they had done on the internet long ago? They managed to do what I longed for and feared and ultimately failed to get at the turn of the millennium — an audience for my writing — and I wanted to hear how they felt about it.
I reached out to Nanette first, once again. Like a lot of former online diarists, she has a pretty low profile on the internet these days. In her words, “I’ve thought about starting another blog, but the world doesn’t need another mommyblog or library blog, and I can’t get with all the sponsored posts and professional-level photography and dealing with comments.” She has, however, continued to help people looking for something to read as an adult services librarian in Champaign, Illinois, and co-author of a reader’s advisory reference on women’s fiction, and that makes me happy. Eventually, I asked Nanette if she remembered anything about Love That Dirty Water, and she said, “Oh, yes! I thought you were hilarious, Hellsbelle!” That, of course, makes me happy, too.
Another writer I used to follow, Kathy, started her first online journal, Exercises in Futility (an extremely relatable title when it comes to writing on the internet, to this day), in 1998. She wrote about her life, memories, dreams of the future, and politics. You can tell she’s a natural early adopter because her Twitter name is @kathy (which is a giant pain in the ass for her every time Kathy Griffin does anything noteworthy).
I don’t remember how I first found Kathy’s journal. I might have been one of the many people who discovered her after 9/11, when she began writing in raw, evocative words about living in New York and her journal began amassing tens of thousands of hits each day. One reader even fell in love with Kathy and traveled by bus for more than 30 hours to spend Christmas with her, an event she detailed in an entry called “Only in New York: Part II.”
That entry has almost everything I loved about online diaries. First of all, it’s more than a thousand words long. Online diarists wrote longform essays with character development, story arcs, genuine suspense, and intimate details — often several times a week! It was thrilling to me that people could be so open with their thoughts, feelings, and relationships; that they could tell what seemed like all of their secrets day after day and do it all again tomorrow. There was a popular joke at the time that writing on the internet was about everyone sharing what they had for breakfast, but in fact, people were not only sharing what they had for breakfast, but also what they had fought with their partner about and how that reminded them of their parents’ loveless marriage and the effect that growing up with those parents had on their psyche.
This was addictive and intoxicating to me. In the case of Kathy’s aforementioned entry, here was a stranger meeting another stranger and telling thousands of other strangers all about it in swooping, cinematic prose. Reading it again 16 years later, it’s so perfectly of its time. Her reader took a bus from Oklahoma City to New York to meet a woman whom he’d only seen in “fuzzy webcam photos taken in questionable lighting.”
Some people started keeping an online journal in addition to writing they were already doing. When Wendy McClure started writing on the internet, she was a recent graduate of the University of Iowa MFA program, where she focused on experimental poetry. Post-MFA, Wendy worked in publishing by day and watched Dawson’s Creek and yelled at the screen by night. She wondered if anyone else was also yelling at the screen — and went online to find out. Sure enough, on the site Dawson’s Wrap, other people were watching, cringing, laughing, and yelling. There, Wendy found a new lease on writing: She learned she could be funny. Dawson’s Wrap expanded to become Television Without Pity, and Wendy was one of the site’s first recappers, covering Law and Order: SVU, as well as other, less-memorable shows like Glory Days and Wasteland. In 2000, she started her own site, Pound, around the same time she started doing Weight Watchers.
“It was a case of writing what I wished I could find,” says Wendy today. “I worried about the subject matter; I wondered, ‘Is it feminist to do this?’ But I didn’t see anyone else writing about that stuff. It gave me an angle. I didn’t want to write about my whole life, but I could write about that, and I could keep being funny. It was still a revelation to me that I could write funny stuff.”
Wendy was funny and smart. The only “funny” material I’d ever seen on diet and exercise were Cathy comics, which were not at all funny, no matter how many times Cathy screamed “ACK!” at herself in a dressing room mirror. Wendy, on the other hand, had this to say about exercise equipment in February 2001:
Of all of these options, I like the elliptical cross-trainer the best. I like how it has the word elliptical in it: I like the idea that I am exercising my sense of obscurity. The treadmill, I think, is all about plain old existential banality; the NordicTrack just takes things way too literally, and as for the StairMaster—well, you can tell the StairMaster reads The Fountainhead and that kind of crap. I’m not sure about the dogma of exercycles. I’ll have to think about that.
Wendy was the first person I knew of to have something go viral. On March 13, 2003, she posted a series of now-infamous Weight Watchers recipe cards from 1974. I remember it well: At the time, several people forwarded the cards to me, and I wanted to respond, “I know her! I know Wendy!” Even though, of course, I really didn’t. I truly cared about Wendy and was excited to see her succeeding and getting an even larger audience, but she had no idea who I was; our “relationship” was entirely one-sided, and my happiness for her made me feel a little silly. Within a month, there were two mirror sites up to cope with the traffic; one reported 1.4 million hits in a week. The cards soon moved to their own site, where they live to this day.
Soon enough, several editors and agents reached out to Wendy about publishing a book; I’m Not the New Me came out in 2005. Predating later “blog-to-book” deals, Wendy’s book isn’t only about weight loss and self-discovery; it also serves as a meta-narrative about the act of writing about those things on the internet, which in 2005 was still something you had to explain and justify to quite a few people. Internet personas functioned separately from “real life” personas in a way they just don’t anymore.
“I remember being fascinated by that,” Wendy says. “We were ourselves, but we were also not quite ourselves. It was also so funny that we knew each other by the names of our journals rather than our actual names. You also didn’t really think about where people lived. It was just sort of this…other space. God forbid anyone knew what your last name was! The people who did use their last names had professional investment in their personas, and they were a little different. If they weren’t, say, John Scalzi, it was a little pretentious to use your last name! I’d think, ‘Who are you to use your last name?!’”
Today it’s hard to imagine someone like Roxane Gay—someone extremely good at writing on the internet in both long- and shortform—using a code name or hiding the fact that she lives and works in Indiana and Los Angeles. Of course, people still present curated versions of themselves online, but the line between life online and life offline is no longer so stark, strict, and new.
Right around 2005, everything shifted. Blogging had almost entirely replaced longform internet journaling. In 1998, lots of journalers kept blogs alongside their online diaries — Nanette, Kathy, Wendy, and I all had them. The difference was that blogs were shortform: Entries were usually written off the cuff and often included links to articles, sites, or, eventually, videos the writer liked, as opposed to the more inward-focused journal entries.
Blogging also had its own software (Blogger and Greymatter, for example), so it wasn’t necessary to go through the entire process of hand-coding entries and loading them via FTP. As Wendy points out, traditional journal entries were so long in part to make it worth the effort of uploading an entry!
By 2005, bloggers were quickly becoming a useful tool for companies seeking new, more “authentic” ways to connect with consumers. Bloggers got more and more book deals and, suddenly, corporate sponsorships. Heather B. Armstrong, for example, who just three years before had been famously fired for writing about her workplace on her blog, Dooce, went pro in 2005 and turned writing about herself on the internet into an empire. People no longer tended to write longform, confessional essays about their lives in their own journals. Many bloggers sent this type of writing to xoJane’s It Happened to Me series or wrote them for other “ladyblogs,” where only the most outrageous or revealing stories stood out from the crowd and drew attention that was usually short-lived and often hostile.
It all felt much less personal — but, of course, the kind of closeness readers feel toward people who write about themselves on the internet is often a very mixed bag for the writers. “When you share details about yourself with an audience, you create a kind of intimacy,” Kathy says. “It’s very one-sided — you know nothing about the person who’s reading your words, but that person feels as though they know you very well. I found that often led to a lot of resentment for me. Here I was just trying to talk, but I felt responsible for how other people I didn’t even know might feel about what I said. Ultimately, I don’t think fame is a thing I’m equipped for. I take things personally, and I seek to make personal connections with people. That’s not a thing you can do effectively with hundreds or thousands of people wanting your time.”
These days, I see a revival of the kind of longform, diary-esque writing I loved in the past happening in personal email newsletters. It surprised me at first that people would willingly fill up their already overcrowded inboxes with more emails, but like the elusive letter in the pile of bills, newsletters fulfill the need many of us have for writing and reading about people’s lives, memories, and dreams of the future. I no longer have an online diary, but I have a newsletter — though I’ve only sent out 10 installments and haven’t updated since October. I still can’t get the hang of writing about myself in public, nearly 20 years later, but I keep trying again and again in whatever new format presents itself, hoping someone else somewhere wants to read about me, hoping they write something I can read about them.