The pleasures and perils of posting your private life online
It doesn't bother Kelly Griffith that her friends read her diary. In fact, she expects them to. But the 23-year-old Goddard College grad student and Winooski resident doesn't need to pass around a battered leather-bound book; she displays her daily musings online through a service called Live Journal. Her friends -- or anyone else, for that matter -- can simply visit her LJ webpage and read about a wedding she went to, her new shoes or her pet philodendron, Roxanne.
Griffith's readers are invited to respond, if they feel so moved, and have their replies posted beneath her entries. In a recent post Griffith swoons over her girlfriend, and a tiny kitty face with a three-heart halo at the bottom of the entry announces her mood is "smitten." One of her friends has left a note: "I'm really glad to hear that things are going so well between you two :)"
This is what Griffith loves about Live Journal -- it's interactive. "It's a diary," she says, "But it's also therapy, and community, and a way to keep up with my friends."
Writing an online diary may sound counterintuitive -- isn't the point to keep your most intimate thoughts secret? But discretion and privacy are so 20th century. Online journals are part of the same cultural shift that produced self-published 'zines and reality TV. Now more than ever, Americans are able to see what goes on in real people's lives, and inquiring minds want to know. It's not surprising that millions of Americans, including thousands of Vermonters, post the mundane details of their lives on the Internet and spend hours reading about those people they'll never meet. What's surprising is that this information is posted online, but unless the person in question gives you directions to their site, you still have to be a real snoop to find it.
Live Journal isn't the only online diary service, but it's one of the most popular. Launched in 1999, LJ now boasts three million accounts, though only roughly half of them are active. One reason for the site's popularity is that it's cheap -- 97 percent choose the basic free service. But for just $2.50 a month, the tech-savvy can purchase additional layout features, access to the LJ database, and the ability to post to their journal via cellphone.
And LJ is easy to use. Web newbies don't have to learn complex computer codes to create their sites. Customization is always an option, but beginners can simply choose from pre-packaged templates, fill out a profile and start posting.
It's a recipe for self-revelation that tortured souls, particularly young women, find irresistible. Demographically speaking, LJ users tend to be American females (65 percent) between the ages of 13 and 25.
Shenna Smith-Connolly, one of Griffith's twentysomething LJ friends who lives around the block, drops by during our interview. She speculates that most of the adults on LJ have office jobs -- posting can be a way to survive the boredom and absurdity of work. "My friend said recently, 'The boss thinks the sound of typing is the sound of working,'" Smith-Connolly says with a smirk.
So much for Vermont work ethic. If you have a paid account, it's possible to search for Live Journal users in Burlington -- more than 150 updated their journals in the past week. In the whole state, at least 1000 users have posted this week, though there may be more: The search gives only the first 1000 results to a Vermont query.
Griffith, who spends half an hour to two hours a day on LJ, began her Live Journal on February 17, 2001, as a way to keep up with far-flung friends and family while she was in school at the University of Vermont. Since then, she's written 2067 entries, all of which can be viewed through the archives listed on her site. If you don't know her, though, the experience of reading them can be uncomfortably voyeuristic. And boring.
But finding Griffith's journal -- finding anyone's Live Journal -- is a challenge. That's because Live Journal asks users to register under a pseudonym. So while anyone can search the site by interest -- you can easily find 50 random people who like tournament Scrabble -- it's tough to pinpoint the site written by that cute redhead three cubicles down. Griffith doesn't care who reads her journal and happily reveals her username -- though it's probably unwise to encourage stalkers by printing it here.
Becky Rouleau is more careful. The 33-year-old Live Journaler and head cashier at City Market uses her journal to keep in touch with friends she's made primarily online, most of whom she's never met. Her LJ user profile lists dozens of people who automatically get an update whenever she posts to her journal, and vice versa. Rouleau found these friends by searching for people with similar interests. She read their journals and "friended" her favorites. She also did the Live Journal version of taking out a personals ad -- joining LJ "communities" composed of users looking to be friended.
Rouleau says that through LJ she's met people she admires and looks up to. "Getting to read about people's mind-sense has made me feel like less of a freak," she suggests. But Rouleau isn't keen on anyone finding out where she lives. She doesn't even list her city or state on her user profile, fearing that someone might connect the dots. "This is such a small state," she says.
She should know. A few months back, she started reading other Vermonters' Live Journals, hoping she might find someone from her past with whom she could reconnect. Initially she was disappointed by what she read. "The majority of people I found were really wacky college students, polyamorists or Wiccans," she says. "I don't really relate to them." But one woman stood out. "She seemed kinda like me, kinda normal."
Rouleau started reading the woman's journal regularly but never left any comments, so the woman had no link to Rouleau's journal. And she had no idea she was being watched. When she started writing about shopping at a co-op that sounded suspiciously like City Market, Rouleau realized the woman was a customer. It wasn't long before Rouleau knew her on sight. "When she'd come into the store," she says, "I'd always smile broadly at her, and think, 'She must think I'm so weird.'"
When the woman applied for a job at City Market, Rouleau knew she had to come clean. "I fretted about it a lot on my journal," she recalls. "People said, 'Don't tell her! She'll freak out!'"
But the confession was easier than Rouleau had expected. "One day I said, 'Hey, by the way, I have to confess something to you,'" she says of her co-worker. "And she was surprised. But now we've friended each other."
Rouleau says several other City Market employees maintain Live Journals. And, yes, they do vent about customers, and each other, online. But Rouleau says she's careful to "lock" any entries about work so only certain friends can read them. When she discusses union negotiations with fellow City Market LJers, she's careful to lock them from an LJer in management. "We don't have any secret plans," she says. "I just don't want to make him uncomfortable."
"Justine," a twentysomething Burlington woman who did not reveal her name, takes precautions a step further. Though she's lived here for over a year, she hasn't told any of her Vermont friends about her Live Journal -- not even her roommates. "I sit on the couch and write on my laptop, and they have no idea," Justine says.
But it's not that she doesn't tell them because she's gossiping behind their backs. Mostly Justine just doesn't want to discuss her unconventional hobby: she likes to read, write and critique "fan" or "slash" fiction -- unauthorized stories, usually pornographic in nature, that revolve around fictional characters and celebrities. "It's weird and kind of geeky and embarrassing," she says.
Justine's stories, which she posts to her journal, typically involve famous boy-band stars, and characters from "The West Wing" and the Harry Potter series --"not the kids," she insists, "just the adults." Recently she wrote a story in which Remus Lupin and Sirius Black, two characters from the newly released film Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, become romantically involved. "It's very implied in the books," she says somewhat defensively. "Also in the movie."
That's just the kind of shameful secret that people like Justine used to write in their diaries and keep to themselves. Now, thanks to the Internet, they can share their strange obsessions with a coterie of like-minded friends. In fact, an LJ interest search for "Harry Potter slash" turns up an astounding 500 users whose diaries beg for your attention. At least one of these scribes lives in Burlington. Click on enough of them and you might figure out which one. Or maybe you'd rather not.