Tween Girls and Digital Journaling

Tween Girls and Digital Journaling

Practices of Digital Inscription

I think my generation is still under the spell of the benign, liberal possibilities we imagined when digital media became part of our teen and adult lives.

The hope of the ‘90s was steeped in the rhetoric of the New Left, and that stays with me, so in order to teach my students how to locate practices of digital power-from-below, I’ve had to learn a lot about its infrastructures, the mechanics of some of its chutes and ladders.

Branding Utopia

This is one of the things I’ve learned: Stuart Brand, the founding figure of the WWW, was a friend of Ken Kesey’s whose objective was to design a technology that could catalog the Whole Earth for the sake of human evolution, claiming, in the print forerunner of the germinal web: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” He believes that this network offers the resources by which a few enlightened individuals can bring humanity to the next level.

SLIDE (Brand)

As a teenager in 1958, long before he dreamed of digital technologies, or of Woodstock or the Merry Pranksters, Brand wrote in his diary:

“the responsibility of evolution is on each individual man, as for no other species. Since the business of evolution for man has gone over to the mental and psychological phase, each person may contribute and influence the heritage of the species.” For this reason, he wrote a month later, “The matter of freedom —social, psychological, and potential—is of the highest importance.” The liberation of the individual, [says his biographer, Fred Turner] was simultaneously an American ideal, an evolutionary imperative, and, for Brand and millions of other adolescents, a pressing personal goal.”

It’s no coincidence we gain this kind of insight into the core values of one of the internet’s founders— one based on a teleological model of individual selfhood reaching toward a wireless utopia, of a technology-dependent evolution– through his personal journals. The things he’s talking about here: his hope for self-articulation, integration, and liberation–are the kinds of promise that young people seek universally, and they are the stuff of diary writing.

Today, I’ll explore the intersection of the personal diary and the worldwide media infrastructure, but not through the lens of Brand’s biography. Instead, I want to examine the sharply rising practice of online diarizing by teenage girls. It is here, I will argue, that the politics of online pleasure and pain come into high relief. I’m hoping to unpack the ideology that led to a digital landscape in which the principles of self-articulation, integration, and liberation Brand prized are quite difficult for young people—and particularly girls and women—to access.

For teenage girls, the digital selfie hides within its pixellated folds a host of new modes of self- inscription: both pleasurable and painful. Along with the liberatory possibilities that accompany girls’ autobiography online also come new forms of surveillance, regulation and voyeurism that discipline experimentation and creativity: the pleasure and pain of growing up in a new digital register.

Inscribing Selfhood

We think of the diary as a mode of self-empowerment, of self-making, of working out ideas…of integrating a broken or breached self through therapeutic modes, or of inscribing oneself into the adult world on one’s own terms. I don’t know about you, but my diary was as much as anything a space where I practiced the loops and whorls of my handwriting, the sound of my writerly voice, and the ethics I used to negotiate the world around me.

SLIDE (Anne Frank)

Throughout her diary, Anne Frank tells us of her process of writing, script on page, to elide the breach between childhood and independence during the liminal time of adolescence:

“Although I'm only fourteen, I know quite well what I want, I know who is right and who is wrong. I have my opinions, my own ideas and principles, and although it may sound pretty mad from an adolescent, I feel more of a person than a child, I feel quite independent of anyone.”

“I want to write, but more than that, I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart.”

Her notion of self-making—one based in the present and in presence, begins to explain the immense power she cultivated from her deeply personal practice of self-inscription. She wrote herself, privately, in the context of not only the liminality of adolescence, but the breach in modernity—the breach in humanity—that was Nazi Germany.

When we consider the ways in which Frank’s diary worked upon the world—as a medium between the very private life of an adolescent girl, hidden in an attic, and a global audience for whom her work is a primary mode of encountering the legacy of hate–we imagine what an especially useful medium the diary can be, for the least powerful among us. Through the diary, we imagine and make the self on our own terms, free from the disciplining force of conversation with another person, out of surveillance in the public square. We craft a lexicon of our own, an emergent communicative system: we experiment rather than simply take on one already fraught with structures of dominance.

So how is it that writing in a diary can cultivate this power-from-below…to stake a claim to discourses and resources in public space? Turning to McLuhan, we realize that it’s not only the content—the chronicle of one’s life—that matters for diarists, it’s the shape of the medium itself that works for people with less resources.

First; diarizing is a medium that has no gatekeeper…one does not need any training to write in a diary, and very few materials. Even the kinds of literacy required to diarize have become more diverse as recording technologies become more accessible.

Secondly; the diary allows one to integrate overlapping, conflicting, and experimental versions of the self in an integrated whole, a process that allows people are most often essentialized into narrow subjectivities—minorities, young people, women–to a cultivate complex and emergent selves, according their own rules.

And thirdly; there is a materiality to the act of instantiation—to recording the imagination, and making an archive, giving it weight, whether in the form of a physical book or a catalog of recordings or videos. So not only does a diarist have the opportunity to imagine and re-imagine herself, she also puts a physical reality to that, that affects the world around it. This usually works in little affects: a space to hide a little book under a bed, extra weight in the satchel. But sometimes those affects are great, like the power Anne Frank was able to cultivate, and diarists are aware of this potential. And the power of that materiality remains under the control of and becomes part of the author…

Largely, the very real resources associated with the diary as a medium of the self are ignored by systems structured in dominance, they seem meaningless or playful, and this gives diarists lots of unsurveilled space in which to perform their work.

SLIDE: Mbembe

Achille Mbembe writes about the importance of modes of self-writing for the subaltern, particularly Africans in the postcolony, and his theory here has been very useful for my students as we work together to imagine interventions we might make in the digital status quo:

I propose ways out of the dead end into which [Western intellectuals] have led reflection on the African experience of self and the world. Against the arguments of critics who have equated identity with race and geography, I show how current African imaginations of the self are born out of disparate but often intersecting practices, the goal of which is not only to settle factual and moral disputes about the world but also to open the way for self-styling.

Mbembe tells us that the resources associated with self-writing are very real for those whose subjectivities are under processes of constant essentialization and interpellation, which gives us a sense of what an important resource private inscription can be for under resources people.

— Transposing Private Lives

Where the tradition of diary writing and the web meet, new media practices are emerging, and they’re fraught with micropolitics that demand close attention. In this case, the practice of inscription—writing or carving something as part of a permanent record––changes drastically when diaries are put online, through social media dependent on advertising, shares, likes and hits.

Young people are online all of the time, and because their social worlds unfold by the light of the screen, so do their modes of writing themselves into it. 83% of teenage girls in the US now keep either written or recorded dairies—and the numbers are rising steadily—and we imagine that the omnipresence of digital media has made journaling practices even morse available.

But the web is not only a technology of articulation, it is also a technology of publicity. In fact, we’re coming to understand that the tricky relationship between digital media and more organic processes of privacy and publicity is its most dangerous element. If the privacy that has for so long been central to adolescents’ development becomes in the same instance, the materials of a media infrastructure built for publicity, what special dangers does that medium hold for the young people who engage with it? The issue at hand is the third property of the diary medium that I named above–the material and political possibilities of diarizing—that digital future has been able to dig into, monetize, and control.

SLIDE (Amada Todd Video)

Amanda Todd was another adolescent whose pain went viral: her initial online encounters with fun and flirtation–attention-getting through video chat rooms– were exploited by an adult male stalker who lured her into exposing herself. He then, after blackmailing her into further exposure with the photos, distributed them to her junior high peers through facebook. Distraught, Todd created a nine-minute film about her struggle, cast in a series of handwritten notes held to the camera by Todd herself, with details of her subsequent disordered eating and self-harm.


This has been watched more than 30 million times Even with the outpouring of support her online confession brought, Todd fell into deep depression and committed suicide in 2012, at the age of 15.

At the time of her daughter’s suicide, Amanda Todd’s mother echoed the rhetoric of Stuart Brand’s project:

“Amanda put the message out there to help people. You can’t help people if you don’t use [social media],” she said of the video, frustrated that schools wouldn’t be showing the video for the sake of suicide prevention: “They are focusing on maybe it might encourage somebody to be a copycat, but at no point do they address how many people it could help. Schools now have a window to do something to help and they’re not going to do it. It’s the same old thing.”

In fact, Todd’s video has been an incredibly powerful template for young girls’ engagements with social media, and we see thousands of videos using the format of the diary-writ-large on youtube today. Most of these wrestle with issues of abuse, trauma, and self-harm, are set to the soundtrack of an emotional pop ballad, and suggest that these issues are ongoing for video makers, who rarely indicate that they are getting support or therapy elsewhere.

What the cumulative story here tells us is one of unbearable distress for adolescent girls today, one that increasingly lacks confluent social practices that effectively mediate, sooth, and relieve this distress. Further, it tells us of a very real violence toward teen girls that is not relieved, but sharpened by their engagement with digital media.

In the realm of digital autobiography, the freedom of self-writing is confluent with the cutting of self- harm; the utopian fun promised by the online self-portrait is, in reality, an intensification of teenage pain. How has it come to be that girls’ engagement with digital technology works to re-inscribe and intensify their pain, through the sensational modes of confession, intrusion and incision viral social media encourage.

SLIDE (photos of diary locks)

So what happens when the diary is unlocked, its secrets spilled beyond private pages?

Sigmund Freud turns voyeur when handed such an inscription. In his preface to the book, A Young Girl’s Diary, an actual diary written by an anonymous member of the German middle class and published in 1921, he writes of the secrets within:

Above all, we are shown how the mystery of the sexual life first presses itself vaguely on the attention, and then takes entire possession of the growing intelligence, so that the child suffers under the load of secret knowledge but gradually becomes enabled to shoulder the burden. Of all these things we have a description at once so charming, so serious, and so artless, that it cannot fail to be of supreme interest to educationists and psychologists.

Freud tells us that the pleasure principal comes from the process of acting out, of releasing the tension that builds when needs are unmet—pleasure is in release, in confessing or acting upon bottled-up desires. But in the case of the surveilled diarist, we have to wonder if the pleasure is hers, or if it belongs to the voyeur….those who have a supreme interest in the work, or even the interests of supremacy. The resources associated with wiring in a diary are co-opted and even turned against her.

SLIDE: Demi Lovato

Social media is dependent on advertising dollars, and voyeurism is one of the most, of not THE most, currency in which it trades. Any youtube rabbit hole is paved with snippets of reality TV, webcam confessional, digital documentary, and paparazzi sites like TMZ, all of which tend toward transgressing the boundaries of young women and teen girls. The thrill of exposure, of the secret id on display is a special trade for digital technologies, and a lure by which the broader web-using public can project the broad surveillance conducted into the OWN lives onto the social lives of a few, misbehaving girls.

In any case, we understand that the seam between the privacy and publicity, self-making and self-undoing is under erasure in a contemporary media ecology based in the principle that publicity equals empowerment. Not only is this not so, according to the leaks of Edward Snowden and new information about the relationship between google and the NSA, the consequences of these processes of self-making-writ-large negatively affect some populations differentially, particularly those in the most need of alternative outlets for self-writing.

Danah Boyd, whose excellent work on her website, apophenia, and in her new book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, examines the nuances of young people’s engagement with digital technologies. She says:

“Not only do other people know who you are online; increasingly, software engineers are designing and building algorithms to observe people’s practices and interests in order to model who they are within a broader system. Programmers implement systems that reveal similarity or difference, common practices or esoteric ones, What becomes visible–either through people or through algorithms–can affect how people understand social media and the world around them. How people respond to that information varies.”

Gamergate– has shown us that there is something potentially very threatening about girls’ and young women’s digital empowerment…the question is what is at stake

SLIDE (screenshot of Amanda Todd trolls)

So if 83% of teenage girls now keep diaries, how many of these are online, how many of these are accessible by the general public, and how many could be easily made accessible by an internet full of trolls and hackers?

SLIDE (Ali’s stalker)

In writing this piece, I posted my abstract online, at….I started getting storage page views from all over the world, and then correspondence.

My argument is that the liberatory possibilities opened up by digital media are not only foreclosed upon in the context of capitalist surveillance, of capture, but they are actually turned into quite the opposite—technologies not of integration, but of incision.

Hi Ren writes of the ruptures in technologies of self-making that have emerged in the age of neoliberalism:

Foucault’s “technologies of the self” are based on both the productive operation of power and on expert “know-how”. Technologies of the self may be developed and used for self-formation: knowing one’s self and making one’s self knowable…they are necessarily reflexive practices…they enable neo-liberal subject formation when privatization of public security and personalization of collective goods become widely implemented. In such a situation, the construction of neo-liberal subjects may take place through various means such as uses of multimedia and digital technologies, lifetime education, active participation in consumption, and engagement in entrepreneurial capitalism.

So the resources associated with diary are actually flipped in the context of digital publicity and turned against the self, multiplying the constraints of a social world structured in dominance, rather than loosening them.

From Incision to Inscription

I’m concerned here with the difference between inscription, and incision, of long-established modes of pleasure and pain-making that have become garbled. What feels like the pleasure of self-making—a positive affect drawn from the life-affirming activity of inscription—writing, or cutting, the gestures are so similar.

At heart, the problem here lies with the shape of the medium itself, a medium based on the neoliberal ontology Brand posited at a very different historical conjuncture. It is a concept based on an individualized subject that will be realized in a future utopia. Said Brand in the preface of the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, these new technologies were to be tools that aid this process:

“In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested.”

But this sense of intimacy, as we see here, is one-directional, parasitic. So what happens when we invite teenage girls to help us reeimagine digital media according to a different kind of ontology, a different concept of how the self is constituted on the tricky landscape of conflicting realities. Adrian Piper, the feminist philosopher and performance artist, arrives at a self constituted on the tricky landscape of conflicting realities through Kantian philosophy. She celebrates the power-from below generated in the space of

“...interiority; of a vivid and extended life of the mind that includes imagination, intellection, and reflection; these are the foundations of transpersonal rationality.” Piper tells us that the seam between the contained moral world of interiority and the shared realm of social reality is marked by a process of explosiveness and control by which an individual empowers herself in resonance with others.

The question of how modernity’s others—people of the global south, women, young people, silenced majorities–gain access to the deep structures of the digital media ecosystem, and begin to build spaces of refusal—an ontologies of presence.

Black Girls Code……women in coding

Trying to Find a Way of Becoming

Back to the question of please and pain at the heart of this conference and this panel: Denis Leri tells us of an alternative psychodynamic understanding of the pleasure principle stemming from the work of Fichner, who predated Freud and was influential on the work of William James.

The origin of the notion that it’s healthy to release “bottled up” feelings started with Freud. For Fechner pleasure was the concomitant result of the re-establishment of equilibrium (the more so if it can be established on a higher order).Fechner would assent to the pleasure found in becoming “harmoniously balanced.”

So I want to leave this presentation with a hope that we can begin to develop a critical language by which we can dig into the power relations at the belly of the digital beast, and relocate the possibilities of harmony and balance that Brand and the new left championed under very different circumstances in a very different era. Only when we cultivate new discourses that critique the mechanics that undergird social media can we begin to restore the full power of self-writing offline, and to recover the practices of media making that have helped to sustain teenage girls in the pre-digital eras.

“I know what I want,” Said Anne Frank.

I have a goal, an opinion, I have a religion and love. Let me be myself and then I am satisfied. I know that I’m a woman, a woman with inward strength and plenty of courage.”

“And finally I twist my heart round again, so that the bad is on the outside and the good is on the inside, and keep on trying to find a way of becoming what I would so like to be, and could be, if there weren't any other people living in the world.

The hope of the ‘90s was steeped in the rhetoric of the New Left, and that stays with me, so in order to teach my students how to locate practices of digital power-from-below, I’ve had to learn a lot about its infrastructures, the mechanics of some of its chutes and ladders.

Black Lives Matter & Digital Media

Black Lives Matter & Digital Media

Ethnolyrical: Digital Anthropology

Ethnolyrical: Digital Anthropology