With the world of smartphones and tablets one would have thought that keeping a diary or journal would have become much easier. The ability to capture and broadcast our thoughts and feelings has never been greater. Social media is essentially about sharing what we have seen and heard with others. The marrying of short texts with images and film clips is prevalent. Sometimes the image leads and at other times text is supported by an illustration. The dominant social media apps where posts are made second-by-second encourage a feeling that it is important to contribute in some way, making one’s mark within an already very crowded and confused world. In the past people kept diaries and journals, noting down each day what they had done and experienced, who they had met and what they planned for the future. On the whole, such private records were rarely communicated to others. Social media, on the other hand, is public in nature, transmitting information to friends, followers and then on to the wider world. Special attention is given to the now, things that are about to take place or that have just happened. All this distributed content does make up a kind of fragmentary record and has similarities to the type of information gathered in journals and diaries. But with all this chatter and activity, I began to wonder whether anybody was recording their lives in a more measured way like in the past or organising their social media postings.
Recording the routine of day-to-day life in a diary can be tedious but over time it can become important historically. Take Samuel Pepys diary, there are repetitive details such as ‘Up, and to the office all the morning, doing a great deal of business’ (19 April 1667), something which might apply to many working Londoners today. At other times, there are more revealing interventions like ‘Up and angry with my mayds for letting in watermen, and I know not who, anybody that they are acquainted with, into my kitchen to talk and prate with them, which I will not endure’ (6 May 1667) which throws a special light on Pepys’s domestic world. Reflective moments in journals can be very illuminating also such as James Boswell noting at the start of a day’s entry ‘It is very curious to think that I have now been in London several weeks without ever enjoying the delightful sex’ (14 December 1762).
Social media is able to capture the ordinary and even the banal. It is valuable that a record of what people think, feel, see and hear is made in some way. There are projects which do try to capture the everyday in a methodical manner. Perhaps the best known is the Mass Observation Project which has about 400 writers or ‘observers’ who are tasked with responding to ‘directives’ three times a year. This is a focused approach but perhaps there is a way of structuring individual social media content also. The Mass Observation project has demonstrated how much factual evidence and experience of the past would be lost without such records of everyday life. I am sure that some people still keep a written diary, recording their lives in the old way. Hopefully, there are others who are using their social media output as well as their private reflections to construct a new type of digital journal.
Alex Werner is Head of History Collections at the Museum of London .