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The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs

Author: Viviane Serfaty
Publisher: Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004
Review Published: November 2006

 REVIEW 1: Laurie N. Taylor
 REVIEW 2: Sarah Michele Ford
 REVIEW 3: Natalie Bennett
 REVIEW 4: Tama Leaver
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Viviane Serfaty

Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs proves a welcome and needed entry into studies of online writing, and particularly studies of online diaries and blogs. The Mirror and the Veil adds to existing research done on online identities, particularly Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet with its case studies of online identity and research on various types of blogs (as seen in the work of Graham Lampa and other contributors to Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs). More importantly, however, Serfaty's book confronts issues of interdisciplinarity and online research and then meticulously documents those issues and methods for dealing with them. In doing so, The Mirror and the Veil serves as an essential reference for studies of online personal writings as well as an essential basis for further studies of online writings as they relate to various fields, including sociology, psychology, literary criticism, game studies, and children's literature studies among others. The Mirror and the Veil is also relevant because online diaries and blogs in themselves are almost a fullly new media form and, thus, they allow for various new forms of writing and serve as updates to older forms.

Working in a comparative mode between print and online diary forms, Serfaty, associate professor of American Studies at Université de Marne la Vallée, proves acutely aware of the benefits of her interdisciplinary approach, as well as the potential complications. Serfaty narrows the possibility for complications by limiting the types of works she studies, focusing narrowly on diaristic American online writing. Included within her analysis of online diaries are blogs because, after all, the term blogs comes originally from web logs, which were and often are still used for diaristic writing. Given the narrow frame of American diaristic writing, Serfaty explains her subject of study within the multiple fields in which she works, stating that "viewing online diaries as primary sources may afford insights into the mores of ordinary people in contemporary America." She continues, noting, "In other words, studying online diaries may require approaches drawn from literary criticism as much as from social sciences -- two disciplines with starkly different outlooks, methods and goals" (10). Serfaty also explains that studying a literary form requires a full "understanding of the symbolic and cultural stakes intertwined in even the seemingly most ethereal art form" (15). This initial context for the rest of the book is essential as Serfaty goes on to illustrate the relevance and method by which to study online diaries.

Many researchers working within digital media are able to move easily into their focused topic of investigation without having to justify or explain their studies. However, texts that operate in a more comparative mode of analysis must often prove the validity of their methods and of their objects of study. This builds into the quandary faced by The Mirror and the Veil -- much of the book is spent explaining methodology and justifying those methods and the subject of the study and, in doing so, less space is left in this short volume for the analysis of online diaries and blogs. This is not a complaint against the book; rather, it is a problem that The Mirror and the Veil well addresses for studies of digital media. Further, The Mirror and the Veil serves as an excellent study of the blooming American online diaristic tradition. It proves both exceptionally useful as an initial point of inquiry for other studies of blog and diaristic writings as well as for its own examination of the diaristic tradition -- self-representation, identity, and body image as presented in online diaries.

Even before the book officially begins, its argument takes shape through the books paratexts. In doing so, The Mirror and the Veil manages to reflect the technology it studies. For instance, the initial paratextual pages note that "The paper on which this book is printed meets the requirements of 'ISO 9706:1994, Information and documentation - Paper for documents – Requirements for permanence'" (unnumbered, iv). The dedication page also connects to the community of diarists, with the dedication running over fifteen lines and closing with a thanks for "writing about themselves on the Internet and giving me, and many others, such fascinating texts to read, ponder, and get impassioned about" (unnumbered, v). Finally, the bibliography section lists works, diaries, archives, webrings, political blogs, and miscellaneous sites. This sort of extended works cited is necessary in works that study online forms and the explicit reference to the different types of texts referenced shows an awareness of digital media and its relationship to more familiar printed forms. The book's chapters themselves similarly address the connections between print and digital media.

The book is divided into seven chapters, with the introduction, five main chapters, and the conclusion. The main chapters focus on different aspects of online diaries, with each chapter helping to establish methodology and to establish the validity of online scholarship. In fact, running throughout the chapters is an acute awareness of arguments against the web as ephemeral, and Serfaty deftly combats these by citing different online archiving projects like the Online Diary History Project (19). While for digital media researchers this information will often repeat existing knowledge, the manner in which Serfaty addresses digital materials and their validity in reference to print scholarship proves useful and important in bridging the gap between traditional and digital media scholarship. It also proves useful in opening discussions on digital media to a larger body of researchers, even those with relatively no knowledge of digital media.

The introduction serves to establish the book's methods and concerns, as well as the concerns under which the book's research operates. This includes noting the problems of securing consent when studying people online, especially as securing that consent can create a relationship between academic and subject that can alter results. After carefully weighing the problems and benefits of following the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) recommended methods, Serfaty states that she chose to view diaries as published literary works, and thus as works that demand "compliance with copyright law and quotation rules, without, however, any further precautions regarding privacy or anonymity" (10). These sorts of choices are necessary in digital media in order to properly define the media under study as well as to properly define the methods used in digital media research. Serfaty states that the book's main concern is the manner in which the screen connects diary writers and society while also keeping others at a distance and allowing for fantastic projections (14) -- hence the mirror and the veil. Another main concern of the book is how digital media both mirrors and masks existing forms. The book's explicit purpose, however, deals with diary writers in terms of their expression of gender, self-identity, and body-image.

The first chapter, "Offline and Online Diaries," provides the history of online diaries and blogs in the United States. It then goes on to explain the most common components of online diaries, including: titles, images, sounds, and paratextual items that frame the diaries often to make them appear more like print diaries. As with the rest of the book, Serfaty here connects diaries and blogs to print versions, noting that online diaries normally include a bibliographic or "about" section, which is used to ensure proper interpretation of the diary (23). Serfaty quickly builds an argument for the structure of the diary as related to the writer, suggesting that, like print diaries, the self-referential writing of online diaries "makes possible the structuring of self-description and ultimately the structuring of self, even in the midst of the chaotic complexity mentioned earlier" (28). The majority of the chapter collects elements of online diaries and their functions, including such topics as diaries' ability to link to other sites and the open-ended and self-reflexive nature of the writing. The odd amalgamation of elements and their functions serves the book well by providing a sound basis for both the formal layout and writing structures present and operating in online diaries. While the book does not mention audio blogging -- most likely because audio blogging is a more recent phenomenon than the book -- the chapter does serve as an excellent reference for later discussions of audio blogging and podcasting as an added or new type of diaristic writing, and one that explores different options in terms of user accessibility.

Chapter two, "Social Functions of Online Diaries in America," focuses on the diaristic tradition in America and its continuity with online diaries. This chapter again operates in a comparative mode, connecting print and online diaries, and noting that technological shifts alone do not account for the prevalence of online diaries. Instead, Serfaty argues:
    A deeper set of causes, having to do with the American philosophical tradition, may underlie the rise of the blogging phenomenon and more generally of online diary-writing. The practice of keeping an online diary may indeed be seen as a direct offshoot of the philosophical outlook developed in America in the nineteenth century, Transcendentalism. (44)
By connecting the diaristic tradition from print to web with Transcendentalism, Serfaty argues persuasively for the implicit self-representational nature of American diaristic writings and thus illustrates the literary tradition in which diaries operate as well as the validity of studying diaries for sociological studies of identity. Rather than simply articulating existing arguments about the function of diaries, Serfaty also argues that online diaries then act as socializers by using "hypertextual links with other people's diaries [which] turn into real life interconnections" (60). Again, Serfaty builds from this shift to social networking with online diaries and notes that many online diaries, because their writers seek to connect socially, end up connecting to other writers in a manner akin to co-enunciation, especially through various sites like LiveJournal.com that facilitate linking and through the overall ability in many blogs to include readers' comments (60-1). This chapter also continues to compare and contrast print and online diaries, noting that blogs and diaries are organized differently, and that online diarists rarely correct their spelling in an attempt to simulate the realism and immediacy of print diaries (66-68).

The third chapter, "Humor in Cyberspace," studies humor in online diaries and supports the arguments through close studies of diarists Shmuel and Terri. The chapter opens by arguing that "Online diaries conform to the general tendency of websites towards playfulness, no matter how serious their purpose might be" (71). The chapter goes on to list methods for implementing humor, including juxtaposition and textual humor, and the functions of humor in online diaries, including acting as transitions and serving to distance the writers from possible criticism. The use of humor in cyberspace connects to online diaries as well as much of online writing, in part because of another point Serfaty addresses, that online writing is seen as ephemeral and taken less seriously so the writing can be allowed greater leeway. For instance, on April Fool's Day 2002, Google announced PigeonRank as a method for ranking web pages. The false announcement stated that Google's search engine was partially fueled by pigeons pecking at computers. The playful language of online diaries even played into PigeonRank with Google's note that "unscrupulous websites have tried to boost their ranking by including images on their pages of bread crumbs" (para. 6). Bread crumbs refers to the double colons, which are used to show a path through particular postings and information, often used between the path text on online diaries and blogs. The humor in online diaries and blogs thus also relates to the terminology used in online diaries and then the play used with those terms. The use of humor -- particularly in regards to the private/public divide -- supports the book's overall argument, that online journals both reflect and conceal their writers through a mirroring and veiling effect.

As Serfaty notes, the prevalent use of self-deprecating humor in online diaries relates directly to the position of online journals as connecting private and public spheres, which is the subject of the fourth chapter, "The Private-Public Divide." This chapter moves into the more serious audience concerns for writers of online diaries, including concerns about family members and others who know the author reading the diary (84-7). Serfaty interestingly notes that, despite the fact that many diaries include personal discussions of body image and sexuality, many also contain identifying information even while stating that they feared repercussions and hoped family members would not read the journal. Others addressed audience concerns more generally, noting a sense of worthlessness at the ordinariness of diary entries for readers (87). Serfaty contrasts personal journals that are available online with the seemingly private, yet actually commercial, erotic diaries found online at sites like SuicideGirls.com. Unlike the liberatory potential she sees in online diaries, Serfaty sees erotic diaries as less subversive, "because they thrive on the existence of taboos and on their continued power over the psyche of a large number of people" (96). Thus, Serfaty argues that the more subversive diaries, unlike many erotic journals, balance the mirror and the veil, reflecting and concealing. This argument, a difficult one which serves as the focus of the book, is augmented by her discussion of male and female cyberbodies in the fifth chapter.

In "Male and Female Cyberbodies," Serfaty argues with and against many theories of digital media, stating that the chapter works "against the assumption that the body and [. . .] corporeity play no part in the development of online identities." She then specifies that this chapter focuses on "the intersection of the body, gender and cyberspace in a number of Internet diaries" (99). As with much of the book, Serfaty's analysis is bolstered by her grasp of the interdisciplinary concerns. Different disciplines, and even within particular disciplines, argue for the utopian or dystopian function of the Internet, and they often do so by arguing for the erasure of the body in cyberspace. Serfaty cites William Gibson's Neuromancer and then states that the "fictional fascination with radicalizing the mind/body divide is widely echoed in social sciences" (100). However, another body of research -- coming from many of the disciplines Serfaty connects -- argues for the importance of the body in relation to online representations. Importantly, Serfaty notes that the body itself is critical for self-referential writings and images, including those on weight loss sites. Arguments to reinsert the body into discourses on digital media are particularly important as digital representations of the body proliferate online, including virtual models for clothing and weight loss ("My Virtual Model," 2001). Serfaty also mentions that using the computer is a physical act and interface metaphors make that physical interaction explicit. This is important to note given the tendency toward a hyperbolic erasure of the mediation of technological experiences (121). After establishing the relevance of the body to cyberspace, Serfaty argues from several cases studies that, because diaries act as self-representational writings, the diary form "allows the writers to institute the body as language and to embody language in a back-and-forth, mirror-like movement" including the blurring of gender in text and visual diary entries (114). The case studies she examines showcase how the writers construct their bodies textually and pictorial in fluid, changing, and often contradictory manners.

Summing up these different threads is the book's conclusion. The conclusion covers the differences between older diaries and their readers, and argues that online diaries, while lacking a "prescriptive or normative ambition, they de facto offer exemplars of social mores, and hence may contribute to alleviating the anxiety of inventing one's life as it is being lived" (125). By studying online diaries as indicative of American social mores, The Mirror and the Veil importantly connects to sociological studies of trends based on self-representational writings as well as literary trends with new print books published following the evolving online diaristic form, like Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer: A Blog, and other works being published as online diaries. The conclusion then returns to the book's premise, arguing that online diaries express and illuminate certain possibilities within the tradition of self-representational writing while simultaneously obscuring others.

In all, Viviane Serfaty's The Mirror and the Veil: An Overview of American Online Diaries and Blogs establishes a sound basis for interdisciplinary studies of online diaries and blogs as they operate as literary and social texts more largely and specifically in relation to the body, identity, and online communities. While the book is quite brief with only 125 pages of primary text, the book itself densely studies online diaries in themselves and in terms of their relationship to other forms. The book's overall structure, including the paratext with its explanation of the books' form and the bibliography with its lengthy list of online sources, serve to further bolster the strength of the book's argument. Undergraduates and graduates will find that the book's meticulous layout and explanation of methodology make it accessible for those even only lightly versed in digital media, while the attention to detail for larger interdisciplinary questions makes the book useful for all researchers of online media. In particular, this book will interest researchers operating in comparative modes. Overall, The Mirror and the Veil is an essential text for researchers of blogs, online diaries and communities, and representations of the body and identity online.

Clairday, Robynn. Confessions of a Boyfriend Stealer: A Blog. New York: Delacorte, 2005.

Google. "Google Technology: PigeonRank." Google.com. 1 April 2002. Accessed: 27 March 2006.

Lampa, Graham. "Imagining the Blogosphere: An Introduction to the Imagined Community of Instant Publishing." In Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs. Ed. Laura J. Gurak, Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman. June 2004.

My Virtual Model. 2001. Accessed: 27 March 2006.

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Laurie N. Taylor:
Laurie N. Taylor is a PhD candidate in digital media in the Department of English, University of Florida. Her research focuses on video games, and her dissertation is on interfaces and horror video games.  <laurientaylor@gmail.com>

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