Death of the Diary


What does it mean to keep a diary in the age of Facebook, asks Solomon Elusoji

For most millennials, a day seems odd without a trip to social media, whether it is scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed, replying to a Direct Message on Twitter or posting a manipulated picture on Instagram. For many of their elders, reared in an analogue age, it’s a strange world.

In March 2015, Facebook introduced a new feature on its service, On This Day. It is a memory feature that allows users view content they posted or engaged with on Facebook in the past. For example, if today is October 1, the user sees past status updates, photos, posts from friends, from October 1 of last year, two years ago, and so on. The amount of data Facebook has accumulated over the years made this feature an instant hit, as it gave users a sort of nostalgic feeling about their own life, the same emotions diaries are supposed to conjure. The difference between Facebook’s On This Day and a typical diary is that the former seems to do the job better.

Going by Merriam Webster’s definition of a diary as “a book in which you write your personal experiences and thoughts each day” it is hard to imagine a modern John Doe stowed away in a dark room, crouched over a leather bound note, scribbling away the experiences of his day. Instead, John Doe would rather flip out his smart-phone, log into Facebook, write about his day and publish it to friends and families, sometimes to strangers he will never meet. It is curious, this need for instant gratification, for the world to see even our intimate parts as quickly as they develop, that one begins to wonder about the evolutionary reason (if there is one) for keeping diaries private, before Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts changed the world.
This reporter, then, went on a juvenile mission to find out people who still keep diaries in this age. A university student and mental health advocate, Olisa Eloka, kept one last year. “Writing your heart on paper is a great pleasure on its own,” he said. A Human Capital Development Professional who lives in Kaduna, Maryam Muhammed, still does it because “it takes a load off you, reminds you how much you have grown (or not), and more importantly, keeps you honest.” A fresh National Youth Service Corps graduate, Thelma Okonwa, said “it helps as a soothing balm; I use it as therapy.”

But when asked why the details recorded in their private diaries could not have been posted on their social media platforms, they all agreed, without exception, that some information thrive better in the dark.

“No, there are thoughts you keep to yourself and others you share,” Olisa said. “Take for example, your brother pissed you off so badly and you want to kill him. That kind of thought is better written down than shared on social media. Sharing thoughts like this could generate a feedback beyond your wildest dreams. And again, people would twist your thoughts on social media. People would always want you to explain your thoughts to them, to convince them. But when you write your thoughts, your feelings, you are your own audience. You don’t owe anybody anything. Because you are writing your soul. You are reading your soul. And nobody would ever understand you more than you understand yourself. Simply put, not every thought that goes through your head should appear on social media. Put them in your diary.”

Muhammed is more subtle. She feels there is a dishonest quality to social media that encourages people to become who they are not; in a sense, create a new identity from ‘photoshopped’ images and constant display of unreal happiness. “If our definition of a diary is to chronicle our experiences, I think a diary is honest,” she said, “I don’t think social media is.”
But what does this say about who we are as a specie, this ability to camouflage personalities and become different things? Perhaps, it is the idea of a diary that needs to change. We could start by agreeing that diaries have now been classified into two: the real one and the unreal one. Maybe, then, we can begin to get a grip on this mainstream reality that is challenging how we record our most intimate thoughts.

However, away from the diary-keepers, social media is becoming more intimate than the most honest and brutal private diaries. It is where a woman comes to and shares her rape experiences; it is where a man comes to post pictures of him being eaten away by a disease, sometimes seeking help. It is where every achievement, every moment of joy, is celebrated. And then there are the private messages, which Ikhide Ikheloa, a father and educationist, describes as “the real diaries.”

“I think they are brave and they may be in need to release some pressing thoughts or feelings,” Olisa said. “Sometimes, I do this unconsciously; I say more than I think I should say. People that share their conditions on social media, I admire them. Some of them just want to give voice to their situation, others want people to just listen to them, others just share because it gives them a sense of release. Sometimes what you share can kill you. Sometimes it can save you. Sometimes you share and nothing would happen. People share because they want to be heard. And understood, if that’s possible.”

He is right. Social media validates our human experiences, or invalidates them, as the case may be. But there is also the perspective stressing that the idea of keeping a diary, in itself, is a public act. It does not matter whether the thought is downloaded via fingers clicking on buttons or through the tip of a pen, what matters is that it is out there and someone else is likely to read it. In the end, it’s only a matter of degree.

Throughout history, diaries have served as a source of precious information about the past. Any amateur historian knows the value of one. It gives us a window into the lives of the dead, into stories buried by conquest or accident. But very few people keep diaries with history in mind. In fact, keeping a diary, today, has become an unconscious act. It is not out of place, for example, to say that tweeting and ‘instagramming’ are forms of diary keeping. Although there are several problems with this novel dimensions, the most pressing is that of privacy.

Ikhide, who believes people do not share enough ‘truth’ on social media, however believes that we should make peace with the idea of exposure. “For me, it is easier to just put everything out there. Privacy is now a myth. My smart-phone can tell exactly when I want to be with my Lover in the other room.”

The peace he advocates can be disconcerting for many. The internet has no secrets and anything can be hacked. Plus, the internet also never forgets. Adaora Opah, a mother of one and aspiring novelist, says she would love to burn all three diaries she kept during her teenage years because they “are so brutally honest that I don’t want my children to read them.” She is lucky those three diaries were not chronicled on social media. With tools like Screenshot apps and Google, its extinction would not have been solely in her hands.

Still, there are people who believe that more information about our lives is a good thing for the advancement of human society. The more we share details of our lives on the internet, the more companies like Facebook and Google can make our lives better. In his latest book, ‘Homo Deus’, history professor, Yuval Noah Harari, writes about a new religion, Dataism, which holds that the universe consists of data flows, and the value of any phenomenon or entity is determined by its contribution to data processing. The idea is simple: the worth of every human being is the amount of information they can contribute to the flow of global data.

“As the global data-processing system becomes all-knowing and all-powerful, so connecting to the system becomes the source of all meaning,” Harari writes. “Humans want to merge into the data flow because when you are part of the data flow you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Traditional religions told you that your every word and action were part of some great cosmic plan, and that God watched you every minute and cared about all your thoughts and feelings. Data religion now says that your every word and action are part of the great data flow, that the algorithms are constantly watching you and that they care about everything you do and feel. Most people like this very much. For true-believers, to be disconnected from the data flow risks losing the very meaning of life. What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?”

Harari’s vision is not impossible. In fact, it is happening before our very eyes with the rise of new forms of media like augmented reality, which will only serve to immerse us deeper into the digital sea. Exponential growth in artificial intelligence will also require us to surrender more and more information to our technology proxies. Maybe, in the next millennium, humans won’t have a need to own or write diaries. We will be the diaries.