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Why would anyone want to publish their personal diary on the internet? And why would we want to read it? Catherine Jarvie explores the pleasures and pitfalls of blogging
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To many people, the idea of writing an intimate account of their private life for scores of strangers to read is about as appealing as streaking across the pitch at Old Trafford. But out there, in the anonymity of cyberspace, no one can see you squirm. Weblogs - the independent websites known as "blogs" - form a record of the owner's thoughts and opinions. They range in style from the jokey "best of the Web" compendia to those which filter local and world news. But one of the most common trends is to use the format - with its easy chronological layout - as an intimate online diary, left open for anyone to read.

It's a soap opera world where startlingly frank admissions sit beside anodyne accounts of everyday life. "So we ended up having an argument about the cost of a pint of milk (yes, really). Apparently, because I can't name it, down to the last penny, it means that I'm crap with money. The fact that when I go shopping it's never for just a pint of milk (unlike some) doesn't matter. Our ability to value a pint of milk, I'm told, says everything about our individual financial outlooks."

So, is this shameless self-promotion, as one blogger jokingly explains it - the logical extension of "look at me" culture as exemplified by reality TV - or is there something more complex going on?

Barney Powell, 25, a London-based IT systems developer, has been running his blog (barns.blog-city.com) since the beginning of this year. He was keen to keep a record of his activity and thoughts but a normal diary wouldn't do - he wanted it to be publicly read and he insists that the benefits of publishing online go deeper than mere attention seeking.

Powell's blog quickly became a "test-bed" through which he could gauge public reactions to private information about himself. "I wanted to know how people would react to the fact that I'm a bloke who wears what is to all intents and purposes an article of female clothing (see below)," he confides. "But I didn't quite know how to broach the subject with my friends, my family, the people that I knew and could talk to in person."

And so he broached it online and the encouraging responses left on his site made him feel more able to speak freely about the subject. "The blog has given me the confidence to say 'this is who I am'," he happily states. "It levels the playing field. Not only are you unknown physically, but you're also unknown in terms of race or gender or any preconceptions about your background or who you are." And he retains control: if he didn't like where it was going, he could "snip the scissors" and call it a day.

It's a commonly expressed theme, this ability to find a voice through online journals. "It hones the way you speak, it hones the way you think," agrees 26-year-old library assistant Christine Groundwater (polkadotmittens.co.uk), from Glasgow. "It certainly encourages me to consider my opinions rather than read various commentators' opinions on this and that." All this comes as no surprise to Douglas Rushkoff, an author and media critic from the United States. "There are very few forums in the real world, other than maybe psychotherapy, where strangers can be intimate and share stuff they actually believe and think," he says. "If you're not getting any feedback you're probably going to stop doing it."

It's all part of what Dr John Suler calls in his online book, Psychology of Cyberspace (rider.edu/suler/psycyber/disinhibit.html), "the online disinhibition effect": physical invisibility heightens anonymity and can tempt people to write things they wouldn't dream of discussing face-to-face. Great if you want to get something off your chest, but there's a flip side. "Flaming", whereby users attack an opposing view with a vehemence they would be unlikely to display in a face-to-face encounter, is particularly prevalent in newsgroups and chatrooms. And while bloggers' circles tend to be more supportive, Powell notes that this too can be dangerous, giving a distorted view of your opinion and the numbers of people who share it. More worrying, perhaps is the issue of how what you say in your blog can affect your daily life.

Powell has learnt that being completely honest about yourself is not the same as being completely honest about others. He nearly got into trouble a couple of times. Once, he almost posted a family story which he realised at the last minute was too private to go online; another time he was confronted by a friend who was upset at being mentioned without her permission. "Some people are very cagey about their privacy," he now realises. "I felt I'd really let someone down."

Many bloggers who start out with a strict list of what they will and won't discuss, find those lines are quickly redrawn. One blogger, who writes anonymously and hasn't told his friends that he blogs, confesses that he initially promised himself he would not discuss his relationship online but he succumbed within weeks. "There's a feeling that you can do or say what you want and it will never come back to you," explains Adrian Skinner, a clinical psychologist and secretary for the International Society for Mental Health Online.

"Most people feel relatively powerless and they don't realise when they're sitting alone in their bedroom typing on to their screen that a lot of people are going to see it," adds Rushkoff. "The expectation is not that the world will see it, but the possibility that the world might, really charges it in a way."

Victoria Wheeler, a 22-year-old legal secretary from London (vix-j8.blog-city.com), has written extensively and in detail online about her relationship and acknowledges that some of what's on there "could be taken the wrong way". That her partner chooses not to read her blog is "probably a good thing," she said. But even if he did, she wouldn't change a thing. "The blog is me. If he said he didn't like it then he doesn't like the way I think, and if he wants me to stop thinking about those things or writing about those things then, theoretically, he's saying change - and I won't change."

Both Wheeler and Powell confess to wanting to publish their life story. Perhaps this is where the drive behind diary-style weblogs lies - more autobiography than private journal. Still, it must take a certain amount of confidence to think people would want to read about your life? Paradoxically, it would appear not. IT specialist and blogger Gavin Gough, 35, who admits he's no wallflower, admits he is "surprised when strangers read it and write a comment saying they find it interesting". For while millions are potentially able to peek Big Brother-style into his world, from where he's sitting it's just his world, after all.

And, in our media-savvy, media-hungry age, the weblog's voyeuristic appeal can't be ignored. Via email, Gough tells me about the blogs he regularly reads: "I have learned what one blogger had for breakfast, what another really thinks of his mother-in-law, and that another recently slashed her wrists," he writes. "Who needs reality TV?"

'I had chicken satay with rice for lunch. It was delicious'

Saturday 1 March, 2003:

Alexa found me in the studio. It was lovely to see her again and she was looking very smart indeed, if a little tired. Not that I blame her of course - last night had been the first night of the play she directed and designed. Once we'd finished up, we went for lunch. We chatted about films, stories, juggling creative projects and normal working life, and I had chicken satay with rice for lunch - it was delicious.

We decided to see the space in which Alexa's play was being performed. By this time it had started to rain - heavily. I have no idea how that much water got on to the back of my trousers, but they were dripping wet from the rain, puddles, whatever. As I was drying them (and complaining) Alexa asked if I was wearing socks. I plucked up the courage to tell her that I was wearing tights. I explained that because of the problems with my right leg & knee, the support made it far more comfortable for me. I wasn't having the same issues of stiffness or pain. She asked about a Tubigrip, but I pointed out that you can't wear those for long periods and tights are more comfortable and look & feel much nicer anyway.

An excerpt from Barney Powell's blog: barns.blog-city.com