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Summary:

I started keeping my diary 15 years ago, before Twitter, Facebook and a deluge of email. In a digital era, personal journal-keeping has changed and adapted to the more technological world — but those who privately chronicle their lives still find the practice useful.

On July 8, 1997, a few days after my thirteenth birthday, I sat down at the big old desktop PC in my family’s basement, opened a new Word document and started my first diary. 15 years later, I am still writing in the diary I began back in 1997.

Of course, a few things have changed. 15 years ago, I had a dial-up AOL account, an email address, and Instant Messenger. Throughout high school, although the internet got faster and more of my friends got their own email addresses, the tools I used stayed pretty much the same. I copy-and-pasted some emails, and transcripts of AIM chats with crushes and friends into my diary, but the volume of this content was fairly light: My diary could still serve as an accurate representation of my life (at least, an accurate representation of the way I perceived my life to be at the time — which is, of course, the point of a diary), both offline and off.

Today, it doesn’t quite fulfill that role. With the advent of Twitter, Facebook, digital photos, texting, personal blogs, message boards and apps — and the sheer volume of email that I receive — my diary today can’t come close to fully representing the content I create, because nearly all of that content is created outside Microsoft Word. But does that make a diary any less important? I tapped my contacts — people I know in real life and people on Twitter — to find a group of people who keep diaries and asked them how their diary-keeping practices have changed over the years.

Jack Perry, the owner of book publishing consultancy 38Enso, has been keeping a personal journal for nearly 20 years. He handwrites everything (“I prefer markers and rollerballs”) and said he’s “slowed down his writing in physical journals because of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc., I find I can document events better online.” He also spends less time writing than he used to: “I probably have 100 journals that I have written in over the years. I used to use one up every two to three months. Now it’s every nine to ten months.”

Day One appChronicle of a life, with the help of a few apps

Many of the people I spoke with have incorporated digital tools into their diary-keeping — or are actually keeping their diaries through an app. Several people used Day One, a journaling app for Mac, iPhone and iPad that syncs with Dropbox for backup. (The Mac version is $9.99; the iOS version is $4.99.) Cameron Brister, owner of SquarePlan IT, called Day One “hands-down the best journaling app out there,” and said that because it’s installed on all his devices, “there’s no excuse not to write when an idea hits or it’s time to write.”

Paul Capewell, another Day One user, said he’d “always loved keeping a diary digitally for the ability to search text easily.” He imported his entire diary into Day One, which means “I can open the app on my iPhone, type a keyword, like ‘London’ or ‘depressed’ or ‘amazing,’ and instantly see any posts containing that keyword, whether it’s from yesterday, or nine years ago.”

Caroline Niziol, the digital marketing coordinator at Collinson Media & Events, also uses Day One to write most of her entries, backs them up through Dropbox and sends “important” or longer entries as PDFs to her Evernote account. And out of everybody I talked to, she had the most elaborate system for keeping track of not just her personal thoughts but also her online activity:

“I now send my online activity into a Journal notebook in Evernote — my Facebook status entries, tweets, pictures I’m tagged in on Facebook, and Foursquare check-ins are all automatically saved via a few IFTTT recipes. It’s seamless and just another way to keep track of my days. I will also send images right into Evernote sometimes and bypass Day One entirely. I wish it had direct Evernote integration. When I scan ticket stubs or theatre programs, I’ll edit the date created so it lines up in my timeline. I’m currently expecting my first baby so I’m also saving things like ultrasounds printouts, which I wouldn’t share on Facebook or other social media.”

And one diary writer who chose to remain anonymous told me that her diary-keeping has changed, perhaps, for the better: “I find that my entries now are much less event-focused and more emotional or analytical. There’s no longer any need to record my events, because they’re captured in my Google Calendar, and now also on social media, to a smaller extent.”

Ultimately, private forums still matter

Hearing about other people’s experiences keeping a diary reminded me that the practice is worth it. In 2013, a diary still fulfills the role that diaries have for hundreds of years: It’s a private account of one’s life. In my diary, I don’t have to be nice, funny or interesting; in fact, one thing that strikes me repeatedly as I read past diary entries — including those from this year — is how boring they often are. Most of the entries would make for terribly dull and self-obsessed blog posts, or would make me sound like the bitchiest person on Facebook (and thank god that wasn’t around when I was 13).

In 2013, that completely privacy (assuming that my Dropbox doesn’t get hacked) ranges from rare to nonexistent. While I often cringe at the stuff I’ve written in my diary, it’s still a place where the only person I have to answer to is myself. And I, like others, see my diary as a reassuring reminder: I was here.

“I doubt anyone will ever read my diaries, but I feel as if I have some ‘proof’ that I lived the life I am living,” Perry said. And the novelist John Sundman told me, “The benefit of keeping a diary is that it helps me figure out what the hell I’m doing with my time on earth.”

“Whether anyone other than me ever reads my diaries is immaterial,” Capewell said. “They’re kept for my purposes and sanity alone. If they provide value to my offspring or academics in decades and centuries to come, that would just be a bonus.”

  1. I wish DayOne’s entries were encrypted.

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  2. I’ve been using iDoneThis for my daily journaling for 500+ days in a row now. Every night i get an email from them asking me what I got done, and I reply to that email. I hate having unread and unreplied email in my inbox, so it’s a good incentive for me to do it every day.

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  3. This is indeed a great post. Having a digital journal is the new trend I guess. How about you could directly share your personal life in the form of photos, videos and text to a digital journal? How about you liked someone else’s story and found it inspiring to your own life and wanted to keep it forever? Many possibilities are surfacing, and thanks to this post. Something useful is coming for these situations!

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  4. I’ve kept a personal diary for 22 years, nearly half my life. As a creative I always need a safe place to put raw thoughts without any presumption than anyone else will ever see it. While I write in diary less than I used to as I tweet and blog more often, It’s still the primary way I find insights into my own thinking, insights I can’t get any other way. I never wrote in my diary about daily trivia: it always tended to be more personal, and about my state of mind, rather than the state of my meals, trips or photographs.

    As soon as the presumption is that you are writing for a reader the way you think and write changes, and for self-knowledge, that change is for the worse. Every creative needs a safe place to create things free of judgement and scrutiny. It’s the only way to explore the most dangerous of territories: ones own ideas, dreams and thoughts.

    Every few months since I’ve had a journal I’ve wandered backwards through my history as told in my diary and notice the patterns, the spiral talmudic like commentary, the recurring frustrations and delights, and I understand better what it is I need and feel in the present. Commitment to a diary is an amazing gift to oneself.

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  5. Reblogged this on Angela's Hub On WordPress and commented:
    I reread Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl over the weekend. It’s an amazing book.

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  6. illustratedlibrarian Monday, April 29, 2013

    Excellent post! I’m 37 and I have kept a handwritten journal since I was 7. As you can imagine, there are tons of them. Even though I have FB, twitter, a blog, and tumblr, there is something so powerful and insular about the handwritten account which is why I can never give it up. My brain thinks differently about things when I handwrite it as opposed to typing it out. I also select different subject matter when I commit it to paper with my pen. But in the end, as long as we journal in the way that works for us, that’s all that matters.

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  7. Thank you for this post, it was quite the read! Diaries and journals have also gone into a different direction-now there are those journals you can buy at Urban Outfitters, etc, like “Listography” that are about providing experiences in a less emotional way (sort of like facebook and twitter, but in physical ‘journal’ form).

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  8. You’ve made me want to go back and keep a diary again. Not with an app, though: that would feel like work. Just ink and paper for me.

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  9. exactly what I was thinking Brian.. getting back to pen & paper~

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