Online Diaries: Capturing Life as It Is Narrated

Open-Ended Online Diaries: Capturing Life as It Is Narrated
Anne Kaun
Doctoral Student
Media and Communication Studies
Södertörn University
© 2010 Kaun. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Weblogs and life journals are popular forms of reflecting and reporting online about one’s
everyday life. In this article the author examines whether solicited online diaries can be used
in qualitative research. She discusses advantages and disadvantages of the online research,
diaries as a source of data, and narration as a method. The discussion is exemplified by the
presentation of an online diary study conducted in two parts in the spring and autumn of
2009 with students from Tartu, Narva, and Tallinn, Estonia. This article shows the
illuminating potential and richness of solicited online diaries applied in an open-ended,
qualitative understanding as a way to investigate everyday life. At the same time, the main
challenges are presented and discussed.
Keywords: online research, open-ended online diaries, narrative methods
Author’s note: Anne Kaun is a doctoral candidate in Media and Communication Studies at
Södertörn University. She is currently working on her dissertation on young adults and civic
engagement in Estonia, and has published on playful public connectivity.
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
Research online is a flourishing topic within empirical research as well as theoretical reasoning.
At the same time, however, the critical methodological engagement with research online is still in
its developing stages. In this article, therefore, I examine the advantages and challenges of
conducting research online. Within the realm of online research, one can identify a strand of
research focusing on weblogs and life journals because they are popular forms of self-reporting
and self-reflection (e.g., Macdonald & Ounis, 2006; Marwick, 2008; Serfaty, 2004). Some of
these sources could be thought of as (post)modern forms of diaries but shared with a broader, and
in some cases not so broad, public. Analyses of those digital fingerprints by the so-called “digital
natives” are increasing (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Prensky, 2001).
Sociology, medical research, and psychology have counted diaries as established research data
since the early 20th century, when the format of time use research was broadly established
(Couldry, Livingstone, & Markham, 2007; Gershuny & Sullivan, 1998), but the scholarly
application of diaries appears to be constrained to quantitative and strongly structured
documentation or recollections of certain behaviors, habits, or feelings under particular conditions
(Bolger, Davis, & Rafaeli, 2003). There is a gap in the discussion of diary methodology when it
comes to qualitative and open-ended designs focusing on subjective states and perceptions of
social phenomena (Gershuny & Sullivan, 1998). Therefore, I combine a discussion of the
advantages and challenges of doing research online and using semistructured diaries as data.
The data provided in open-ended diaries are investigated as narratives constructing the
participant’s identity, which could be focused on certain topics or events in everyday life guided
by instructions. Diaries give the researcher the possibility of “getting close” to the participants
(Burgess, 1999). At the same time, room is left to the diarists, who are not constrained by a
certain interview situation, focus group discussions, or participatory observation by the
researcher. In the article I therefore examine how those possibilities can be used in qualitative
research and what the limitations of the diaries as data are.
In the following pages, I will discuss online research, dairies as a source of data, and narration as
a method and an object of inquiry. I illustrate the general methodological discussion with an
online diary study, which was conducted in two waves during the spring and autumn of 2009 in
Estonia; the study was dedicated to the participants’ perception of the public and the private being
anchored in their everyday life. The participants were students from Tallinn, Narva, and Tartu
with different ethnic backgrounds. The rather open instructions led to a broad variety in the diary
production portion of the study. A postevaluation of the participants is included in the discussion
of online diaries as data.
I explored the diary method within the framework of a study entitled The Potential Citizen:
Young Adults Exploring Publics and Politics, with the aim of understanding and examining
young adults’ perceptions of what the public and political sphere actually mean for them as
opposed to the private sphere. The project examined the specific implications of young adults
engaging with a common public and politics in the consumer-oriented, postcommunist society of
Estonia. What do young people between the ages of 18 and 29 perceive as important public
issues, and what does this tell us about newly evolving possibilities of engagement (for example,
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
in online environments)? Do we need to redefine the traditional understanding of the public and
the political to include those young adult, “potential” citizens who are growing up in a digital
Habermas (1981) suggested that communicative action is basic to the realm of everyday social
life, which he called the lifeworld (Lebenswelt). Here social relations are guided and sustained by
mutual understanding. Reality in everyday life is constructed by intersubjective common sense.
At the same time, everyday life originates in the thoughts and actions of “ordinary” people
(Berger & Luckmann, 1991). Connections with a common public are based in everyday life, in a
stream of everyday routines, interactions, and events that are taken for granted. Rather than
looking at the outstanding, extraordinary situation of election and party campaign times, I am
instead looking at public connections in everyday structures (Couldry et al., 2007). Talks and
discussions with family and friends, and the reasoning about personal issues are triggered by
public discourses; on the other hand, personal issues that are reflected on a more abstract level
could be drawn into the public realm.
To approach these rather abstract and theoretical questions, I chose diaries as the data and
narration as the method. The diaries were placed online to make the diary writing process as
convenient as possible for the participants and to extend the possibilities of writing the diary (e.g.,
to add hyperlinks, upload pictures, or change the visual appearance of the diary).
Literature review
Research online: state of the art
Internet research could be described as being in its teenage years; that is, it is experiencing rapid
changes and growth while growing increasingly independent. At the same time, it is still in the
phase of self-discovery and self-definition. Sudweeks and Simoff (1999), therefore, stressed that
“a modern Internet research methodology should take into account rapidly changing technology,
social norms and communication behaviour” (p. 30).
Online research has several advantages and disadvantages. The online environment offers the
potential to observe new social phenomena, such as the behavior of very large groups (e.g.,
Facebook users). In addition to this behavior, the researcher is provided with a widespread
geographical access to participants. Furthermore, online research has rather low monetary costs
and a low time investment compared to traditional forms of data collection like large-scale
transnational surveys using paper-and-pencil questionnaires, telephone interviews, face-to-face
interviews, or focus groups (Kraut, Olson, Banaji, Bruckmann, Cohen, & Couper, 2004). By
using the technical infrastructure of the Internet as the connecting medium over time and
distance, research can become not only more efficient but potentially more informative. As such,
researchers can now reach new groups of informants more easily (for example, young adults
being considered as “digital natives” [Prensky, 2001, p. 1]).
Kraut et al. (2004) have identified two main challenges of online research. There are ethical
challenges, such as the treatment of research participants and data security of material collected
online. On the other hand, the authors discuss the quality of data as a challenge in terms of
contacting and recruiting participants. The Internet has a myriad of possibilities, but a crude
application of former standards and ethical guidelines is highly questionable. Therefore, a
development of distinct and adjusted standards for online research is needed. Furthermore,
several researchers have underlined the importance of e-research (Fry & Schroeder, 2009;
Jankowski, 2009) and great amounts of taxpayers’ money is invested in developing new online
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
research data processing and archiving possibilities (Halfpenny, Procter, Lin, & Voss, 2009). The
discussion focuses mainly on how to improve the networking options for international research
teams (Genoni, Merrick, & Willson, 2009) or on using preexisting data processed and stored in
the World Wide Web (Fuchs, 2009; Kendall, 1999; Schneider, Foot, & Wouters, 2009; Siibak,
2009; Witmer, Colman, & Katzman, 1999).
Online ethnography seems to be a rising star in the research sky, but it is also mainly focused on
preexisting data and is mainly understood as following certain groups in their online
environments (Sade-Beck, 2009). An intense discussion on how to employ online possibilities for
gaining solicited information is currently missing. Some textbooks mention the option of
applying online versions of traditional data collection tools like online surveys and the e-mail
distribution of questionnaires (Bolger, Davis et al., 2003; Sade-Beck, 2009), but a discussion of
advancing specific qualitative tools developed for the online world is almost completely lacking.
Ethical aspects of qualitative online research
The online environment could be described as a place of transgression of cultural rules, a place
where boundaries and taboos are broken. This characteristic might raise questions of selfregulation and responsibility for the researcher working with online methods (Kanuka &
Anderson, 2007). Participants might develop a feeling of anonymity and expose information,
which he or she would not give in other contexts. Especially in research methods that use
preexisting material, the basic principles of anonymity and informed consent are challenged
because the researcher could always argue that the individuals are exposing themselves
voluntarily in a certain part of the public sphere (Kanuka & Anderson, 2007; Serfaty, 2004). The
Association of Internet Researchers has clearly pointed out that observers
seeking informed consent need to make clear to their subjects how material about
them and/or from them will be used—i.e., the specific uses of material and how their
identities will be protected are part of what subjects are informed about and asked to
consent to. (Ess, 2002, cited in Serfaty, 2004, p. 10)
How far these types of questions need to be reflected on is specific to the research context. In the
case of the solicited open-ended diaries that are the focus of this study, I asked the participants to
provide informed consent by creating an account for the online wiki.
Another challenge in terms of ethical standards for online research is the question of data
security. In the case of solicited material, the researchers must make sure that the data produced
online are stored and secured as well as inaccessible to third parties. In my case, I used PBworks
to provide closed wikis as a platform for the online diaries. Before I set up the diaries, I studied
the security statements of PBworks and consulted third-party reports about these operational
In general, ethical standards for research are challenged in online environments because
boundaries between public and private are blurred; however, the participation in online studies is
not more risky than the participation in any of the offline counterparts. Risks should be reviewed
and questioned carefully for the specific research project (Kraut et al., 2004; Sudweeks & Simoff,
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
Diary designs and typologies: strengths and weaknesses
Nonsolicited and preexisting dairies have a rather long tradition, especially in literary terms
(Serfaty, 2004). With Philippe Lejeune’s work on diaries, a new and intensified interest in
(nonsolicited) diaries and diary writers appeared in the 1980s. He dedicated an immense part of
his research to privately written unpublished diaries and to the questions of where the diary
comes from and why people keep diaries. Lejeune (2006/2009) systematically traced the diary
back in history and described the origin of it in commerce. The initial purpose of keeping a diary
was to organize one’s work life; however, in time, it transformed from spiritual reasoning about
the relationship between man and God to a dialogic relationship between the diarist and an
imaginary addressee that was crystallized in the heading, “Dear diary” (Lejeune, 2004/2009,
2007/2009). In 1999 and 2000, Lejeune extended his research to the Internet and studied the
phenomenon of online diaries, which had just appeared in the French-speaking world. Besides
studying the diaries as such, he asked diarists about their motivation in keeping a diary and about
the relationship they had with their diaries. His approach to dairies as data is different in character
to mine, however, as I do not analyze preexisting journals or weblogs but employ solicited diaries
being partly structured by open instructions.
In turn, the scholarly application of solicited diaries can be traced back to the early time-use
diaries that were broadly used in the 1920s (Gershuny & Sullivan, 1998), but even if one speaks
of a broad application of diaries, at least in a strongly structured format, theoretical reasoning and
methodological discussions are missing. A search of any textbook on qualitative research
methods reveals this argument. If diaries are mentioned at all, they are discussed as
supplementing in-depth interviews or focus group discussions and are used by researchers to
organize field notes (e.g., Bryman & Burgess 1999; Burgess, 1998; Banister, Burman, Parker,
Taylor, & Tindall, 1994; Ritchie & Lewis, 2003). However, open-ended, solicited diaries, as
opposed to preexisting diaries, can be of great use in capturing subjective states and perceptions
of participants.
Bolger et al. (2003), by focusing on quantitative, structured forms of diaries, have made a
distinction between time-based diaries and event-based diaries. Time-based diaries follow fixed
or variable schedules defined by the researcher on the basis of research questions and aims.
Event-based diaries are kept after or during certain instances take place; for example, after a great
loss of close relatives. They are especially appropriate for capturing rare and/or isolated
processes. Furthermore, the authors distinguish between different analytical foci for working with
diaries. For one, diaries can reveal the difference between people’s narrations as aggregated
material. Additionally, the focus could be on intrapersonal or interpersonal developments over
time (Bolger et al., 2003). The periodical form of diaries was of special interest for my study
because certain narrated subjects are constantly reappearing in the diary entries and also across
diaries over time.
Disadvantages of diaries include symptoms of fatigue and high dropout rates because they
involve a rather high burden for the participants. The strong dedication that is needed among the
participants can also lead to “less in-depth reporting of a phenomenon at each time of
measurement” (Bolger et al., 2003, p. 592). Certain phenomena revealed in the diaries could be
triggered and produced by the mere fact that participants are under observation and feel the need
to produce valuable content. How the researcher relates to the issue must be decided on a caseby-case basis. In the case of my study, I was interested in the participants’ perceptions of, and
their relationship with, the public. The production and adaptation of the diary in a certain, individual way was understood as an expression of the relationship with the public itself. In addition, the
everyday life unfolding in the diaries was of great importance for the method chosen in my study.
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Solicited open-ended diaries: life as it is narrated
Booth (1999) has argued that narratives as a research method have experienced a revival since the
mid-1990s due to the continuous importance of the Chicago School as well as to feminist and
critical race theory scholarship. Narrative methods are understood as ways of making heard the
voices of the oppressed and subaltern; that is, the voices of those normally excluded from
academic discourse. The second argument for narrative methods that Booth presented is the
overcoming of subordination of people’s lives to the quest for generalization by researchers.
Narratives are able to capture personal experiences through the imagination of the reader. Stories
being told also encompass the emotional experiences of the storyteller, which are normally
suppressed by objective, abstract methods.
The diaries produced in my study are understood as encompassing meaningful units that organize
and structure reflections and experiences of the participants in stories or narrations. As Moen
(2006) has argued, narratives are both methods and phenomena of inquiry and are treated as such
in my case. Moen, with a clear foundation in Ricoeur, has focused on three main underpinnings
of narratives as research methods. First, all experiences are organized within narratives. Those
narratives are told between individuals, but they are also produced as introspectives. Through
storytelling, one assigns meaning to certain experiences or aspects of experiences. Second,
narratives being told depend on the social past and present of the storyteller as well as the
addressees of the story. Stories are not isolatable single structures but identity constructions that
are continuously negotiated and revised. Third, narratives are multivoiced; namely, they are
shaped by the individual experiences, knowledge, values, and feelings. At the same time they are
collective stories influenced by the addressees and the “cultural, historical and institutional
settings in which they occur” (Moen, 2006, p. 61). Narratives are connecting points for the
individual with its social surroundings. In this connection process, a multitude of voices are
included and related to each other in the personal stories being told.
Narrations in diaries mark at the same time a life process rather than finished life narratives, “and
as such they are . . . part of the practice of narrating and understanding what life means” (Rak,
2009, p. 19). Because the aim of the present study is to understand the connection of the
participants with a common public, narrations in diaries seem appropriate as a method and
phenomenon of inquiry. Hence, the narrations of the diarist give me the chance to study the
participants’ relation to a common public in development over time as well as relate them to the
social and cultural context.
In contrast to other open-ended forms with the aim of capturing narrated identities, for example,
life story telling (Chaitin, 2004), diaries have the potential to give participants much more space
for reasoning and reflection to build identity narratives. At the same time, participants can
develop an individual relationship with the diary and the imagined readership. Furthermore, they
can decide whether they are in the mood for writing or not. Also, I had the chance to guide their
reflections to a certain extent through open formulated instructions. During the writing process I
did not interfere. I commented on entries only if participants directly asked for technical advice or
content-related explanations. The main goal of the study was to inspire and investigate narrated
parts of the everyday life of young adults in Estonia, with an emphasis on perceptions of public,
politics, and media (which I made explicit in the instructions). After the postevaluation (in the
form of a structured, standardized questionnaire and additional open-ended discussions), the
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suggestion to write about a topic of the week was added. Some participants expressed difficulties
in coming up with a topic, which has already been described as a limitation of diaries in general
(Bolger et al., 2003).
Data collection
To grasp the phenomena of everyday life, a method is appropriate if it gets close to participants
but leaves them enough space for personal reflections. Diaries as a source of data give researchers
the ability to apply narrations as a method to grasp forms of identity and meaning construction; in
my case, within the broad frame of public and public connectedness. The participants were asked
to elaborate on issues and topics that were important in their everyday lives: topics they discuss
with their friends and family, those that appear in the media, or those about which they actively
search for information. The rather openly formulated instructions1
on content caused a high level
of variation in the diaries.
The study with 20 Estonian participants (12 females and 8 males) was carried out in two waves
from March until May and September until December 2009. The participants were all students
aged between 19 and 27. Of these, 17 identified themselves as Estonian and 3 as Russian or
Ukrainian. Two described themselves as having regular employment; the other 18 self-identified
as students. I contacted the diarists through mailing lists and seminar presentations in Tallinn,
Tartu, and Narva. Initial contact with the participants was thus established in both online and
offline situations. In that sense I, as the investigating subject, was visible to the participants
(Rautio, 2009). During the initial meetings or e-mail exchanges all participants were informed
about the purpose of the study, and confidentiality was guaranteed throughout the whole project.
By creating an account through the online wiki, they confirmed informed consent. Because of the
study Potential Citizens: Young Adults Exploring Publics and Politics, the diarists in the present
study were chosen based on their age (18 to 29 years), educational background (current students
or obtained at least a bachelor degree at a college or university) and ethnic background.2
diaries could be kept in Estonian, Russian, or English according to the participants’ preferences.
Diaries written in Estonian or Russian were translated afterward. After the period of 8 weeks, the
online diaries were copied and deleted from the platform.
Technical aspects of the study
The diaries were kept in closed online wikis or weblogs. Wikis provide the opportunity to share
content online. Diarists had the opportunity to create content pages and to edit them, as well as
the option to share files with the author. PBwikis3
were used as tools, which offered the
possibility to create closed wikis that were accessible only to the diarist and the researcher.
PBworks, the company providing PBwikis, states in its security statement that it uses the highest
available technological standard to secure user data. Company policy forbids employees from
accessing private data. At the same time, PBworks claims no ownership of the data.4
For the
creation of a free wiki, data such as name and e-mail address must be provided. Diarists created
an account after invitation by the researcher by entering a user name and e-mail address (which
had already been used in the invitation mail). This form of data collection had several advantages;
for example, I received notifications by e-mail if content was added or changed and thus got a
useful overview of activities within the diary. In addition, participants could freely adjust the
design and structure of the diary to their needs. Furthermore, I was able to communicate with the
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diarist through the comment function provided in the wiki; in other words, I could directly
intervene if they had questions or difficulties with writing the diary. In any event, they had the
opportunity to choose when and for how long they wrote their entries.
The online diary writing was fruitful in the case of the study because the target group was highly
Internet literate and showed high rates of Internet usage; Estonia claims to be an e-state (eEstonia) and was the first country to carry out online elections in Europe (Government of the
Republic of Estonia, 2009).5
In 2007, 98.3% of young people between 15 and 19 and 94.0% of
those between 20 and 29 said they used the Internet regularly in the previous 6 months. However,
one has to keep in mind that there still is an ethnic division between Russian and Estonian
speakers; 52.8% of ethnic Estonians used the Internet over the 6 month period compared to only
36.6% of the non-Estonian population (Vilhalemm, 2008).
Because of the potential digital divide within the group of interest, the application of online
diaries in qualitative studies must be well thought out and justified, similar to any other method.
The still existing digital divide might have constrained the target groups included in the research
project. One researcher noted this problem of defining the research population for online studies
because traditional parameters are not applicable (Jones, 1999). All of these challenges have to be
taken into consideration when constructing the research design, but if the aim of the study and the
contextual setting allows, or even asks, for the application of open-ended, solicited, online diaries,
the researcher is provided with rich, vivid, and illuminating material.
Self-reflexivity and the relationship with the diary
The narrations constructed in the diaries revealed how the participants interpreted the diary genre
and what they thought should be included in, and counted as, diaries. As such, the variation
between different interpretations was rather broad. There was, for example, Anu,6
who wrote in
the diary in the same way as she wrote her personal diary in her personal life, on a daily basis.
Others applied a more weblog-oriented style. Jaan, for example, published his diary for the study
partly on his homepage as a weblog:
This blog will be published both in my site and the PBWiki, so I will probably add
links to some items in my homepage in future as well. (Jaan)
Reflexivity about the diary writing process was a recurring feature in numerous diaries. The
authors indicated their uncertainty about what to write and how to begin the diary, but they also
stressed the exciting point of taking part in the study.
Today on 18th of March I started something interesting for me. I started participating
in this wiki. I thought it would be an interesting experience for me to get to know the
opportunities a wiki has to offer. (Eliisabeth)
At the same time, many participants developed rather close ties to their diaries. Kristjan, in
particular, explicitly talked of his appreciation for finally being able to express his opinions in the
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My diary has been dealing overwhelmingly with the media issues. I’ll try to have it
more “diary-like” later on, but I just cannot proceed without writing a little bit about
Reporter. I’ll use this space here to vent my anger and disgust at what they are airing
on television and which sadly appears to be quite popular as well. (Kristjan)
Besides functioning as a way for individuals to express themselves, the diaries revealed
“ordinary” strategies like weather talk among the participants as well. As Barthes (1972) put it,
“Talking about weather makes it possible for discourse to exist without saying anything” (cited in
Serfaty, 2004, p. 47) and therewith the weather holds a pride of place.
I begin to write my wiki during a day, which is weather-wise reminding more of
Christmas time than spring. Related to it I heard from my colleague the very
frustrating news that the snow won’t melt before the end of April. (Anu)
Diary as a genre and the relationship with the implied reader
Diarists also interpreted the expectations of the reader, the imagined audience, while writing.
How and what the diarists presented in their entries, the narrations, represented their
understanding of the diary genre, which in the modern understanding is kept privately and as a
rather intimate form of expression. Because I moved the diary into a blurred space of
private/public distinction—that is, the Internet—the diary also served a different function. The
diary genre is thus partly relegated to a premodern understanding, where diaries were shared with
people of the private and public spheres (Lejeune, 2007/2009; McNeill, 2005). Additionally, they
can be thought of as a possibility to “write through the seam between the private and the public
self” (Serfaty, 2004, p. 29).
The interpretation of the diary form as a dialogue with me, or even a broader imagined audience,
is not set for all diaries in the same way; a number of diarists chose a rather intimate form of
engagement. They wrote about private relationships and family matters. One diarist even used her
private diary and copied and pasted it into my diary after she missed writing entries on two
occasions. At the other end of the spectrum were Toomas and Kristjan, who were writing for a
large, imagined audience according to their postevaluation after finishing the diary. Rather than
treating the diary as a therapeutic or private space for preserving memories, they interpreted the
genre as a weblog written to engage with a mainly unknown readership. Toomas was even
interested in direct exchange with other writers and readers. He was disappointed when it turned
out that the diary entries were not going to be shared with anyone but me.
These kinds of varying interpretations of the diary genre are especially visible in how the diarists
started their very first entry. Several participants (Hillar, Alexsandra, and Viktor) started their
diaries by addressing me—for example, “Dear Anne”—followed by an introduction of
themselves, including a few biographical facts. Others used the common “Dear diary” address in
the beginning of every entry, and a third group developed headlines and employed theme-oriented
entries (Kajsa, Toomas, and Laine). This broad range of interpreting the diary genre could stand
paradigmatically for the constant change of interpretation of expectations by the imagined
audience. Genres are never stable entities that can be distinguished from each other in a clear-cut
manner. With the Internet, this flexibility and fluidity of the genre understanding has an
exponential effect. McNeill (2005) has argued that the borders and characteristics of genres are
strongly negotiated; she looks “at the diary’s transition from print culture practices in establishing
expectations and ‘rules’ for Weblogs” (p. 2). Hence, established genres are translated from the
offline environment into the online and are being renegotiated and redefined based on their
position in the online environment.
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Besides the fluidity and flexibility of the online environment contributing to the continuous
process of negotiating the diary genre, the threefold relationship between the researcher asking
for the diaries, the diarist and the diary as data becomes obvious. The diarists interpret the task of
writing the diary differently according to what they think is of interest for the studying researcher.
Over time, and by developing a rather intimate relationship with the diary, they partly overcome
the feeling of producing valuable content. The decreasing amount of questions directed to me as
the researching subject indicated that there was a developing self-certainty and trust and a feeling
of not doing something “wrong” among the participants. The introductory words signify a
varying perception of implied readership because a number of diarists identified only me as their
reader and others appealed to a broader audience. Serfaty (2004) identified similar characteristics
of nonsolicited online diaries. She stressed connection, social support, and community building as
major functions of online diaries.
Accumulation of information and the
advanced possibilities of online diaries
The online version of diaries has the advantage of extra features that pen-and-paper diaries lack.
Several diarists used the online medium to add hyperlinks to music videos mirroring their current
emotional situations, upload pictures showing pieces of their everyday lives, and change the
interface to adjust it to their aesthetic needs. A number of participants used hyperlinks to illustrate
the stories they told in their diaries.
This week in Tartu is the so called student week ( (Hillar)
With this form of extension of the online diary into a broader public space (e.g., by adding
hyperlinks to YouTube or other platforms and publishing the entries on other platforms), the
diarist expressed their understanding and interpretation of the relationship between the public and
private spheres. Roughly half of the participants seemed to look at the diary as a way to express
their opinion about matters of societal or common concern, as well as a way to present their own
positions. Many also shared their diary with a broader public. Others seemed to look at the diary
as a therapeutic tool for reflecting certain emotional happenings and developments in their lives.
In addition to posting pictures of their rooms, friends, and family or uploading music files and
links to YouTube clips, several diarists used emoticons to express certain feelings and emotional
conditions. Anu, for example, added an emoticon after nearly every paragraph. In this way, online
diaries could also serve as a way to analyze evolving language and sign usage.
Open-endedness and closure
The diaries written for my study are open-ended in character and closed at the same time. They
are open-ended in the sense that diarists were not limited to a certain number of words per entry
but could freely expand on topics of interest and freely add external material. In that sense, they
were distinct from autobiographical self-representations, which are self-contained forms. At the
same time, the narrating process was constrained to a set period of time, namely eight weeks of
writing. By putting the weekly (or in some cases daily) entries in chronological order, linearity is
constructed; however, the narration is limited to that time frame, too. Diaries are characterized by
“stability and motion” (Serfaty, 2004, p. 30). In the entries the diarists presented me, the reader,
with their narrated identities, with a worked-out understanding of the self. As such, the entries
thus became a space for renegotiating former self-definitions. Temporality was created by linking
the diary entries with each other through the presentation of reference points. For example, as
illustrated by Alexsandra,
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Next time I would tell you about a party in the student’s café, which is going to be
that Friday. (Alexsandra)
Last time I told you that I would write about the party in our college. That was now
on Friday and we celebrated in honor of the teacher profession. (Alexsandra)
Furthermore, temporality is constructed by narrating past events and by giving future plans: “The
two devices—flashback and foreshadowing—provide both the reader and the writer of diaries
with a long-term vision and with a sense of perspective” (Serfaty, 2004, p. 30). Thus, diaries as
data present the researcher with a challenging combination of open-endedness and closure of the
The main challenge with this type of research is that the diarists must be written language
oriented. In the case of the students studied here, the method worked out rather well; however,
this end result might be different in less language-oriented groups. Additionally, participants in
online diary studies need a certain basic technological knowledge and a thorough introduction to
the wiki and how it is used (Sudweeks & Simhoff, 1999).
Another challenge that should be discussed is that of “digital fatigue.” As one of the participants
said in the postevaluation, “One gets tired of sitting in front of the computer and of typing.”
Sudweeks and Simoff (1999) have argued that computer-mediated communication is affected by
information and processing overload, which could lead to digital fatigue and avoidance of
additional computer-mediated work in form of writing a diary. Because my participants were all
students and had a certain load of computer-mediated work already, it is understandable that they
were not really keen on spending yet another hour in front of the laptop to write their diary. This
processing overload adds to the burden of keeping a diary, even though the participants belong to
the so-called “generation of digital natives” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). Both the written language
orientation of diaries and the digital fatigue of the diarist could be overcome by using voice
recordings instead of or in addition to written diaries.
In addition to digital fatigue, it is also challenging to secure the confidentiality of the participants.
In several cases, they posted pictures of themselves and friends or their homes. This kind of
material can be used only under the condition that confidentiality is continuously secure for those
directly as well as indirectly involved.
The third challenge is the fact that the diaries are solicited; that is, they were written with the full
consciousness of knowing that they were an object of analysis. This approach, of course, has an
impact on the choice of topics and what was written about them. Therefore, solicited open-ended
diaries must be analyzed differently than nonsolicited diaries published online. At the same time,
the act of asking someone to write a diary for the purpose of analysis reveals the way people
make sense of their everyday life; for example, they create narrations and construct meanings
around events they choose. Additionally, solicited diaries can be focused on a certain topic, as in
my case on the role of media and face-to-face discussions with family and friends. In the diaries,
the participants reflected on a given topic in connection to various reference points. In the
example mentioned earlier, the diarist included reflections on media on an everyday level and
how media are embedded in their routines. Others reflected about the role of the media on a
metalevel, as Kristjan did:
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
My own experience: What I feel is that media is not helping me to fully realize my
rights as a citizen, that means that mainstream media is not informative enough. The
problem is especially acute, when it comes to in depth analysis of social and political
issues. The so-called quality daily newspapers (Postimees, Eesti Päevaleht), which
are—I think—in the position to fill that gap are doing it less and less. (Kristjan)
The high variation and richness of information in the diaries might challenge existing research
methods; ultimately, the choice of methods employed in a study should be dictated by the
research questions.
Solicited, open-ended diaries provide us with the opportunity to “get close” to the everyday lives
of the participants and the periodical form supports the development of an in-depth relationship
with the diary. How the diary is written and incorporated into the routines of everyday life could
be used to understand the perception and interpretation of the private versus public spheres.
Although keeping a diary can be a rather heavy burden for the participants, my diarists developed
an intense relationship with their diaries. They present short stories from their everyday lives and
relate them to the social and cultural contexts they live in.
Additionally, online research provides researchers with certain advantages. For example, in a
group of interest with high internet and computer literacy, an online tool for storing the diaries
makes data management and interpretation a great deal easier. The diarists can freely choose
when and for how long to write their entries. In addition, they can change the interface, add files
or hyperlinks, and thus extend and relate the diary to the “outer world.” On the other hand, the
online diary is a way for the researcher to keep in contact with the diarists and to keep track of
changes and writing intervals. However, the weaknesses of online research must not be
underestimated. Here, in particular, I think of ethical and technological challenges, which have to
be taken into consideration in every aspect of research planning when using online methods.
Finally, narrative methods give voice to the participants we are interested in. The storytellers are
free of time and formal constraints to develop their everyday narrations as they see fit. Through
our interpretation of those narrations, we, as researchers, can imagine and potentially understand
the everyday lives of our participants. Diaries kept over a longer period also allow for
development of a triangular relationship between the diarist, the diary, and the researcher.
Regardless, further discussion about online research, diaries as a source of data, and narrative
methods is still needed.
1. Instructions for the diarists read: “When it comes to the content of the diary, I am
generally interested in your everyday life and issues that you find appealing or
bothersome. All issues are interesting, from argument with your best friend or parents, to
topics which are important for you and which you discuss at school or at home. You are
completely free in your reasoning and how to write your dairy. In order to make your
writing as easy and comfortable as possible, I formulated keywords that you could keep
in mind for your entries. There are no formal requirements. You can choose the language
that suits you best: Estonian, Russian, English, etc. I would like to ask you to keep the
diaries on a weekly basis over a 2 month period (8 weeks—8 entries). Decide for
yourself if you would like to do entries every day or only once per week reflecting your
thoughts on the previous seven days. I have created one page for your entries per calendar
International Journal of Qualitative Methods 2010, 9(2)
week. You can find them on the upper right side under the link ‘pages & files.’ Please
post diary entries there. While writing, please keep in mind that I am interested in your
thoughts. The good thing about thoughts is they cannot be wrong! In your diaries, I
would like you to include some thoughts about the media and how they are influencing
your everyday life. List the “thought-stimulators” for everyday life issues, problems that
are important for you, your family, public incidents, events that are important for you,
your family, public media in your everyday life, what role they play for you and for the
issues/events you describe in your diary.”
2. The Estonian society is strongly characterized by segregation between ethnic Estonians
and Russians (e.g., they might be Russian or Estonian citizens or stateless). In the latest
census, 25.6% of the population defined themselves as ethnic Russians (Statistics
Estonia, 2000).
3. See
4. See
5. The first-ever online election was conducted in Estonia on March 4, 2007; see
6. All names used here are randomly chosen pseudonyms.
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