Once thought of as a private activity, diary writing is shifting from being solely a personal art form to popping up in the public realm of the Internet.
More and more people post their personal lives to an increasingly voyeuristic Internet audience - an audience that holds its breath for the most mundane of subjects: real people's lives. In the process, the popularity of Web logs, or "blogs," has exploded, shedding light on the lives of average Americans, from the computer-savvy college kid to the typical suburban mom.
John Grohol, a national research psychologist who runs PsychCentral.com and specializes in online behavior, has been tracking Web logs since 1997, when he noticed their increasing presence on the Internet. The phenomenon piqued his interest. Since then, he has interviewed about four dozen online journal writers, and he now hopes to publish his research within the next year.
"It just makes a person probably feel a little bit less alone - there are people out there who care, just by the simple act of reading," Grohol said. "It's a very different type of caring in terms of face-to-face interactions, but it's one of those new ways of talking about how people interact online ... caring takes on a different connotation online."
Bloggers write their thoughts and feelings on everything from life and death to love interests to random everyday observations - typical diary fare. The difference, however, is that these diaries are not locked up and stowed away in underwear drawers; they're posted on the Internet for the world to see.
That's sort of the point, says veteran blogger Hillary Ellis, a second-year College student from Fincastle, Va., who has regularly posted to her online journal (www.people.virginia.edu/~hle8d) since last September.
Although her diary's visitors are mostly people she knows, the idea that strangers can take a peek at her everyday life does not faze her.
"I think it would be cool if tons of people were reading it," she said.
She admits, however, that if the hits, or visits, got out of hand - as it did for one of her friends who was stalked through her online journal - she'd take the whole thing down.
She says she feels safe, however, because "I don't think my site is interesting to anyone who doesn't know me."
Yet blogs that chronicle ordinary occurrences, such as Ellis', continue to spring up around the Internet and gain popularity. The trend also has spawned dozens of host sites to encourage future bloggers.
Sites such as blogger.com, diaryland.com and livejournal.com allow even the most technologically inept Web surfers to post their thoughts for the Internet community, even if the writers have no knowledge of the HTML or Java Script programming languages.
The blogging trend, which Grohol says really peaked last year, weaves an intricate tangle of related online journals, creating what he calls "online cliques" that become "horrendously self-referential." It's a lot like a high school popularity contest, he says, except now journal writers are the ones competing.
That's where blog writing becomes dangerous. Authors may begin to spend too much time writing about their lives and not enough time living them.
When used properly, Grohol says, online journals can be good; they allow people to openly express their thoughts.
"On other hand, some people do it to an extreme. They write five- or six-thousand-word entries every day. That can be harmful in terms of taking time out of their lives," he said. "And of course, writing a journal for popularity's sake is not the worst thing a person can do in the world, but it's not exactly a higher calling in life."
Ellis' Web log is a way for her to explore the artistic side of her life. In addition to having piles of chemistry problem sets and lab reports - with which her readers have become familiar - Ellis takes several studio art classes and enjoys fiddling with her digital camera. Her blog is as much about design as it is about sharing her thoughts with the world.
A quick glimpse at her site reveals a funky black-and-white photo collage of her face with clickable monthly entries on the left-hand side - some of the months are even in Spanish. Each month has a corresponding page with various photos and images. The site's design constantly changes.
The backbone of the page, however, is its content. The updates are what keep regulars coming back. She updates her site at different times every day, and the entries are unafraid to broach the dark topics of feminism, sexuality and punk rock music. Sometimes Ellis even writes about her crushes, like the shaggy-haired lab-coated boy in the Chemistry Building.
There are a couple of things she avoids. She does not write about her friends' personal problems; friends sometimes remind her that they are telling her their problems, not her blog readers. She does not include anything too personal about her family and does not explicitly write about her love interests.
A class in the Slavic folklore department last year - Prof. John Alexander's SLFK 204, "Story and Healing" - introduced her to sharing personal stories as a means of healing. Through the class, which emphasized Internet technology and Web design, Ellis explored how to post those stories for her classmates.
"There's a sense of perspective that you gain through reflecting and through retelling the story," said Alexander, who also is manager of Information Technology and Communication's Instructional Technology Center. "It's not just the writing but the reflection."
The writing and reflection combined, Alexander says, lead to a sense of wholeness and, ultimately, to healing.
Writing for the sake of healing is not a novel concept. Diaries have existed for eons and shortly after World War I, people's personal journals were passed around in social groups, Grohol says. "Putting [journals] online and letting other people read it is just another twist to the diary concept," he said.
Posting those entries, however, is unique to the Internet. It has changed the way we communicate with other people - and has allowed us to sneakily view their lives from the other side of the computer screen.
"People are very open, very expressive of their lives and they're amazed when they get these unsolicited e-mails" from readers, Grohol said. "For me, as a psychologist, I say 'duh, I mean, you got to expect that.'"
Still, blogs blur the lines between real life and Internet life and further complicate the structure of the Web.
"There's only problems when I don't communicate things in real life and put them on my Web page" instead, Ellis said.