Dear Diary: What’s the role of a personal journal in the digital age?

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.”