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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

The Mirror and the Veil is a cross-disciplinary examination of the world of online diaries and personal weblogs. In this book, Vivane Serfaty traces the sequential development first of online diaries in the mid-1990s and then of weblogs in the later 1990s, and the eventual merging of the two with the development of democratizing blog-publishing software in the late 1990s and early 2000s [1]. (For clarity's sake, I will refer to all of these texts as "blogs" and the individuals who produce them as "bloggers.") She grounds her examination of blogs in the American diaristic tradition and examines the social significance of this relatively new form of self-reflective writing. In the course of her analysis, she examines the history and structure of blogs (Chapter 1), the social functions of blogs (Chapter 2), the role of humor (Chapter 3), issues of public and private (Chapter 4), and the role of online embodiment (Chapter 5). Throughout the text, she develops themes of identity and community.

Serfaty's title, The Mirror and the Veil, refers to her interpretation of the computer as "operating as a paradoxical, two-fold metaphor, that of a veil and that of a mirror" (13). The screen, she tells us, serves both to conceal (to veil) and to allow the writer to reflect on themselves by writing about intensely personal topics "without fearing identification and humiliation" (13). The result of the computer's two-fold role, she tells us, is that "[t]he computer screen is not only a device which keeps others at a distance but it is also a symbolic space where dreams and fantasies can be projected" (14). I find this understanding of the screen and computer's mediating role to be compelling; it also helps to locate Serfaty's work not only in the existing work on offline diaries but also in more general work on online self-representation and interaction. While Serfaty does not draw out this connection, I am reminded of Michael Arnold's (2002) description of embodiment in online interaction as requiring "embodiment at each end of the cable, behind the screen" and an activity in which "we attempt to create other embodiments of ourselves to be viewed through the glass, using whatever tools are available to us" (231). Bloggers are clearly engaged in the interactive process of identity creation online, "using whatever tools are available" to them. Despite this strong conceptualization, however, Serfaty does little to relate her research back to it as she develops her arguments. It is only in the last paragraph of the book that she comes back to the construct, writing that
    [d]iarisitic writing on the Internet provides the added bonus of an audience which may ... turn into an informal fellowship of like-minded people. Such a fellowship ... supplies the mirror that diarists need in order to construct an awareness of themselves as endlessly intricate beings. But the veil of language remains entire, obscuring new areas even as others begin to make sense and expressing with its inherent polysemy the ambivalence and complexity of the inner life of individuals. The mirror and the veil are the two inescapable facts of the experience of online writing. (125)
While this excerpt certainly summarizes the ways in which the screen acts as both a mirror and a veil, I would be more convinced had the connections been drawn out in greater detail throughout the book rather than seeming to be tacked on at the end.

Through no fault of its own, this book suffers from the inevitable lag that occurs in print publishing. As is often the case in the field of Internet Studies, the universe of Serfaty's research changed faster than the writing and publication process moved. Because of this, the book cannot be more than a snapshot of the blogosphere at the time of the research -- in this case, roughly 2002 and 2003, only a couple of years into the blog explosion [2]. That said, The Mirror and the Veil is a very interesting and thought-provoking snapshot of the blogosphere, and her observations certainly hold up when one considers the developments in personal blogging since her research was carried out.

It is in Serfaty's "structural analysis on online diaries" (Chapter 1, Section 2) that the effects of this publication lag are most apparent. Under the structural feature of "accumulation," Serfaty treats the ways in which the blog is a multimedia and hypertextual document. She cites bloggers' habits of posting self-portraits (an activity facilitated by the ubiquity of digital cameras) and original artwork as evidence of the multimedia nature of the blog. Clearly this is a trend that has grown with the ever-increasing popularity of photoblogging, moblogging, audioblogging, and vlogging. The blog, already identified by Serfaty as a multimedia text, has become even more so since the book's publication. Serfaty suggests that "even online, where multiple media coexist, writing remains its primacy, albeit under a very specific guise" (28). While writing probably is still the primary mode of blogging expression, the facility of expressing oneself using other media has made its dominance less complete. Similarly, Serfaty points to blogrings and reciprocal linking as an element of accumulation. I would add that, during the timeframe of her research, the LiveJournal Friends List also served as an example of the linked nature of the blog. Since this research was carried out, the growing availability and popularity of RSS and free RSS feed aggregators has made this hypertextuality and interlinking even more common. Today, most blogs include a blogroll and Movable Type's "Track Back" feature automates the process of referencing others' blog posts within one’s own text. Finally, the integration of blog and social networking applications on sites like MySpace and Facebook takes this to what seems like its logical conclusion (although there's no telling where the Internet will take us next week, next month, or next year).

In Chapter 1, Serfaty identifies "co-production" as one of the four structural features of the blog (along with accumulation, open-endedness, and self-reflexivity). In this context, "co-production" means that "not only do all of the online diarists ... carefully polish their texts, they also provide enough background to help the reader identify the various characters interacting with the diary wrier, thus contextualizing each entry" (39). The immediacy of the reader is one of the major contrasts between the blog and the "traditional" paper diary -- while some paper diaries are ultimately prepared for publication, publication comes at a time far removed from the initial writing. Blogs, on the other hand, bear a greater resemblance to a serialized novel than to a published diary. In both cases, the author is conscious of their readership; in both cases, at least a portion of the readership is unknown / anonymous. In the case of blogs, however, that readership is nearly immediate. The reader "watches" the events unfold in something vaguely approximating "real time." This gives the reader greater power to influence the production of the text, as the blogger is aware that readers are watching the text unfold and may alter their writing in response to that awareness. Additionally, any reader, known or unknown, may be a blogger themselves, their own writing influenced by in the process of reading. Thus, Serfaty argues, the blog turns into a "collaborative project" (40).

Another element of the co-production of the blog text, although Serfaty does not directly identify it as such, is the comments system that is included in all of the major blog publishing systems [3]. Comments are a revolutionary element of the blog, because "[n]ot only do they make intimate writings potentially accessible to a multitude of readers, but they also make it possible to include the responses of the readers. In so doing, they set up a dense network of echoes and correspondences between diarist and audience" (52). I would extend Serfaty's argument about co-production by suggesting that the blog as a text consists not only of the entries created by the diarist under the influence of their readers (both known and unknown), but also of all comments appended onto an entry. While the blog may be "officially" authored by only one person, in fact the text is actively created by that original author along with all commenters. While the blog may be "officially" authored by only one person, in fact the text is actively created by that original author along with all commenters. Serfaty makes this leap, writing that in the blog, "a dialogical space is created within what is supposed to be an intensely personal space" (53). She does not, however, explicitly include comments in her description of the co-produced nature of the blog.

As is often observed in both scholarly and mass-media treatments of blogs, these texts occupy a liminal space between public and private. Serfaty does an excellent job of highlighting the issues surrounding the public/private divide and the blog, namely the negotiation undertaken by bloggers as they navigate the semi-public realm of the blogosphere. Serfaty notes that diarists "write anyway, but try to explain and vindicate their reasons for doing so publicly ... [T]hey attempt to maintain a modicum of privacy by setting up limits to their revelations and by placing cautionary warnings in the incipit to ward off the intrusion of unwanted readers" (85). Bloggers are concerned about what might happen if a family member or a co-worker stumbles across their blog; they negotiate this worry by posting warnings to the journal itself, by obscuring their offline identities, and by using pseudonyms. Bloggers also tend to present a very "socially acceptable" self in their narratives -- a public performance of private life that does not violate social norms. As Serfaty points out, though, this negotiation of public and private is complex. At the same time that they attempt to protect their privacy through warnings and (often incomplete) obfuscation of offline identities, bloggers post photos of themselves (and of each other), reveal their offline locations (and even addresses), and provide links to other websites that may contain potentially identifying information. It is interesting to note, however, that Serfaty does not address some of the structural systems in place to protect bloggers' privacy, in particular LiveJournal's security levels, which allow the blogger absolute control over their readership on a post-by-post basis. A treatment of this feature of the blogosphere would enhance and could yield some interesting reflections on the role of the computer as both a mirror and a veil.

In Chapters 3 and 5, Serfaty examines the role of humor and of the body in the blog, respectively. The use of humor in blogs points to the important social element of the texts. Serfaty suggests that bloggers use self-deprecatory humor to deflect criticism of the very act of maintaining a blog and as part of the identity-construction process. As in many other forms of online interaction, bloggers work to embody the virtual space. They do so through textual description of themselves, through textual descriptions of their worlds, and through pictures. Serfaty correctly observes that "the perceived abstractness and immateriality of the Internet may even have resulted in obsessively foregrounding the body" (101). In these two chapters, Serfaty had the opportunity to illuminate the "mirror and veil" metaphor around which she bases the book. The discussion of embodiment in particular would have benefited from an explicit examination of the relationship between the body sitting at the keyboard and the body that is veiled, reflected, and ultimately presented in the blog. This avenue was not explored, however, and I was left feeling unsure of how humor and embodiment relate to the rest of her argument.

All told, The Mirror and the Veil is a broad examination of a number of issues surrounding online diaries and personal blogs. Serfaty does not delve into any of the issues she raises in great depth, but provides a good overview. The metaphor of the computer as mirror and veil is an excellent concept around which to base this analysis, but its use in this book is incomplete; the reader is left to draw their own conclusions about how the metaphor relates to the evidence. Despite this analytical weakness, this book would be an excellent addition to the library of blog researchers and to any undergraduate course treating the relationship of the Internet and society.

[1] These services were largely launched in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not "around 1995" as Serfaty suggests (20, via Perseus 2003). See Blogger, LiveJournal, Trott, and "Xanga."

[2] See Perseus 2005.

[3] Blogger, LiveJournal, MovableType, WordPress, and Diaryland all support comments; Pitas supports a guestbook.

Arnold, Michael. 2002. "The Glass Screen." Information,
Communication, and Society

Blogger. 2006. "The Story of Blogger." http://www.blogger.com/about. Accessed April 2006.

LiveJournal. 2006. "FAQ Question #4: How did LiveJournal get started? Who runs it now?" http://www.livejournal.com/support/faqbrowse.bml?faqid=4&view=full. Accessed April 2006.

Perseus Publishing. 2003. "The Blogging Iceberg." http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/iceberg.html. Accessed April 2006.

_____. 2005. "The Blogging Geyser." http://www.perseus.com/blogsurvey/geyser.html. Accessed April 2006.

Trott, Mena. "SixApart – History." http://www.sixapart.com/about/history. Accessed April 2006.

"Xanga." 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xanga. Accessed April 2006.

Sarah Michele Ford:
Sarah Michele Ford is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Her interests include social theory, social psychology, and ICTs. Her dissertation has the working title "Public and Private in the Blogosphere."  <ford@soc.umass.edu>

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