The internet has become ubiquitous to our daily lives. It has become our democratic public space where we can freely discuss our ideas, our feelings, kitten videos and pictures of llamas and goats. In my head, I see the internet as this infinite town square with all these people getting on and off soap boxes as they yell for people to listen to them talk about art, politics, literature, medicine, ideas, cute animal videos and even what is going on in their everyday lives. Crowds wander past and stop at the occasional soapbox or steps listening to the various calls to attention, have their say and move on. Or someone from the crowd finds another soapbox or building step to stand on and make a speech while a crowd gathers around him or her. The crowd listens, comments, and moves on.
It's so vast, so all encompassing, all these pushmepullyous of ideas and comments and pictures and videos, and then there are the companies commodifying that space so it's snake oil, as well as ideas and such, littering our brain space and fighting for attention.
The internet as the town square of public life, the democratic public sphere where ideas can be tossed out and looked at from all sides is HUGE. And overall, even with all bad things that happen on the web, this is a good thing. But I think we forget how huge and public this town square is. We sit at our computers or peer at the screens of our various devices and we are each in our own heads and alone before those screens, and it feels singular and intimate. So, we don't just discuss who we voted for, or didn't vote for, or the price of tomatoes at the market (or kitten videos). We also put out some of our most intimate thoughts for strangers to see, read, and comment on. Things that are so private we wouldn't normally tell anyone in person, things we are just thinking about and pondering that we haven't decided on yet, we post on the internet, on the most public space in the world ever, for other people, complete strangers, to see and know about us.
To be sure, in this unprecedented public space it is possible to become friends with complete strangers who live on the other side of the world. You can have best friends on the internet who live on the other side of the country who know things about you that your best friends in meat space don't know. And this is a good thing. A kid in a small town can now know he's not the only romantic goth in the world, even if he is the only one at school. Someone living in a walk-up apt. in a city can live vicariously through a friend who has a garden or a farm. Whole movements can happen and people become very good friends and know a lot about each other, and yet no one has actually met each other. So, it's easy to forget how public a space this internet is, because we can be — and are — so intimate in the way we use it, in the way we post every last detail of our lives in our statuses and tweets.
I think, however, that part of what we are looking for — besides all the other things like friendship or intimacy when we are lonely or attention when we feel neglected, or interacting with like-minded people — is some place where we can see our thoughts outside of our head so we have a better idea of them and get comfortable with them. We want some place where we can live our internal lives.
Most people, by the time they are adults, have an internal life of sorts, a place all their own where they can think things through, ponder life, make up things, create, relax, imagine, and/or fantasize just about anything. We problem solve, make decisions, come to realizations, all within our internal life. Sometimes, like Dumbledore and his pensieve, we need a way to separate out all those thoughts so we can look at them more clearly, and not get lost in the jumble. So, we write them out so we may see them more clearly. People used to write their thoughts out in letters to a friend or in their own journals, and it helped them figure things out.
Should I fight in the Crusades or not? Should I marry that man or take the veil? Should I take that trip over an ocean to a land no one I know has ever seen, or remain here where it's relatively safe? Do I believe in abolition for all or the state's right to choose? Do I believe in suffrage for women and blacks? Or do I think only landholding men should be able to vote? Should I fight my entire family and cohort and go to medical school as the only female, or just be a nurse and governess like everyone says?
These questions were probably discussed aloud with friends and family at some point, but they and the processing of all the thoughts that went with them began with the inner voice. The individual's internal voice, inner life, had space so that person could look over those thoughts and consider the points, and they usually gained some measure of perspective in writing in their journals, or perhaps in letters. But still, it was the writing it out and looking at it separately from themselves that gave them that distance they needed to ponder those thoughts.
These days, however, I think journaling, that urge to look at the thoughts of our internal lives, gets lost in the urge we have to make constant status updates. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of an event or activity and thinking about how I'll post it, instead of just being in the moment and listening to my inner voice. And instead of putting these thoughts safely in a journal where we (and we alone) can ponder them and decide on them — indeed decide on whether or not we want others to see them or even if we want to work through them ourselves — we tweet or post them where everyone can see and comment on them. We get ourselves all frazzled because we put something out there prematurely. Get ourselves into trouble and get flustered, or be embarrassed or whatever, because the thought we posted out there in the public square wasn't meant for the public square, it was meant, really, for the internal heartbeat, the inner voice that reasons things out before you come to a decision.
I remember a few years ago when I first started realizing how posting statuses so frequently online was affecting my inner voice and internal life. I can't remember now what it was I put out there, but I saw it, realized it was something I was pondering, not ready to share with people. I didn't want to see their comments littering up my thought, whether or not the comments were kind or not, meant well or ill. I just wanted to be able to hold my thought and ponder it outside myself, but privately.
So I took it down from where it was posted and stuck it in my journal, and I remember some people didn't get that. "Oh, you can share with us!" I think it may have hurt some feelings because it felt like I didn't trust them. It has nothing to do with that though. Your thoughts, when they are still yours, are like Schrodinger's Cat when they're still yours and no one else's, when they're still part of your internal life and have not made their way out into the external world. As long as they are still in "the box" — your head — they are neither dead nor alive, and both dead and alive, all at once. No one has told you it was a stupid idea or a good idea. No one has not laughed or laughed too loudly at your joke or comment. No one has not "got it" or gotten it a little too well and now you're uncomfortable.
I guess what I am saying is that what journaling gives you is this magic space and time to reflect on things before revealing them (or not, your choice) to the external world.
For example, I walk down the street and smile at people passing by, most of them neighbors and some of them friends. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, it feels good and I write about the experience as a status update and now everyone out there can comment on it. "Well you didn't smile at me." "No one smiles in my neighborhood." "It was too hot!" "Ha-ha! Did you remember to zip up your pants?" "Only tourists smile." And now suddenly it's a "thing," and instead of feeling good about your walk in the neighborhood, you're suddenly doubting whether or not it was real. Was it really a good walk? Was your experience real?
Another day, same thing, but instead of posting it online, you post it in your journal. You read it. You reflect on your day and your walk. You remember the warmth of the sun and the squirrel that scampered across the street. You remember the little girl pulling her own stroller as her mother pushed it, and the smile that went from their mouths to their eyes. And you remember it and think about it. And it wasn't just a happening and wasn't all fake, in fact, writing it out and rereading it has reinforced how real it was. It really was a good walk. It really was a good day. No one can take that away from you.
NOW, you can share it online if you want, now that you know it is real. Your friends can joke about it and you won't go away with a sour feeling, you'll laugh like everyone else, because you'll have seen your experience through your own eyes first. It's been run through your pensieve, and you've internalized it, made it your own.
This is what journaling does for you, or can do for you if you let it. It makes you stronger and helps you to grow, helps you develop a reflective self. Next time you break up with that boyfriend or girlfriend, instead of posting it on Twitter, write about it in your journal. Take the time to get everything down and out of your system. Not just 15 minutes, either. Go back to it the next day to work out what you went through changing your relationship status and putting together a bag of all their things to give back to them. The feelings you had were real and need the time you give them, privately, in your journal.
And then — maybe — you won't embarrass yourself with over emotional tweets about your ex for the whole world to see. You've already gone through it. You've processed it. You can tweet confidently that you're single now and ready to move on. Unlike your ex, who tweeted while drunk and is now face palming themselves for the crap they put out there and can't take back on the grand public town square that is the internet.