How diaries are evolving from personal logs to a social activity

How diaries are evolving from personal logs to a social activity

Diary-keeping is having a resurgence, as people find it can help them during troubled times. But it can also help others. Here’s how.

The coronavirus pandemic is but one example of the bumpy road our lives sometimes resemble.

In such troubled times, people are increasingly returning to the tradition of diary-keeping as a tool to cope, an outlet to order their thoughts.

But the traditional diary has evolved, with the once-personal creations increasingly being used to spark social connections between friendship groups and beyond.

 female student sitting beside the bed in bedroom with her coffee cup and writing on the note pad with toothy smile

The pandemic is bringing diaries back

Dr Peta Murray, a Vice-Chancellor's Postdoctoral Research Fellow at RMIT University, says diary-keeping is having a resurgence amid COVID-19.

“We keep hearing these are unprecedented times but it’s largely because none of us on this earth today have a true understanding of what it’s like to live through a pandemic,” she says.

“And why would we? We have already seen how vastly different the experience is depending on where one lives and their personal circumstances.”

Murray says perspective is key, which is why sharing our diary entries helps paint a picture of how the whole world copes in a crisis.

“Diary-keeping was like turning to a trusted friend and pouring your heart out, although in a much more intimate way – there was only you, the pen and the paper.

“But now we’re realising it can be done more casually than that, simply as a way to connect with others by connecting with ourselves.”

Gone are the days of diaries living under children’s beds or being tucked away in the drawing room, modern day diaries are out in the open, and Murray says that’s a good thing.

Many of us are already keeping diaries without realising it – uploading a photo of your walk each morning counts, as does social media posts to platforms like Twitter.

“Never before have we had easier access to witness the experiences of so many others,” says Murray.

“It’s not just about social media, people have become more willing to share.”

Self-care through self-reflection

Reflective writing also has therapeutic benefits, according to Dr Robyn Moffitt, a Lecturer in Psychology in the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT University.

Moffitt's research has found reflective writing can help women manage their body dissatisfaction.

After participants wrote a brief diary entry encouraging compassion towards themselves, they were found to be more appreciative of their bodies and motivated to improve themselves further.

Moffitt says from a psychological perspective, there’s evidence keeping a diary is a useful way to engage in healthy self-monitoring of our thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

“Reflecting on past events in our mind can often lead to self-critical and unhelpful thinking, or even rumination, which can exacerbate distress,” she says.

“But keeping a diary and writing things down as they happen can provide perspective on the frequency and severity of different events. We can use this to correct distorted thinking.

“It can allow us to process and reconstrue past events, problem-solve and create new meanings. In some ways, this makes it similar to psychotherapy.”

Helping history by helping ourselves

Diaries are also a way to share our thoughts, allowing others to learn from our experiences or put theirs into perspective.

Maybe for this reason, public diary readings are emerging as an international phenomenon.

Shows such as Mortified and The Bad Diaries Salon involve writers and celebrities unearthing their childhood diaries and reading them to a crowd of complete strangers.

It’s entertainment but also a window into the formative years, which can shape the people we become.

Murray is a member of a research collective known as The Symphony of Awkward with fellow members Dr Kim Munro and Dr Stayci Taylor from the non/fiction Lab at RMIT.

The group is studying live diary readings and the notion of the ‘found-footage’ nature of diaries.

“A diary gives us a means to let us speak to one another, not just ourselves,” says Murray.

“Think of it like discovering an old memory, forgotten clues from your past self that could help you through current challenges.

“Live diary readings are a chance for others to discover that younger version of you too.”

Probably one of the most famous examples of a diary as ‘found-footage’ is that of Anne Frank.

Her holocaust diary offers a first-hand account of a young girl living during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.

While historians can study historic events by reviewing news reports, only diaries – and vlogs in the modern day – can let future generations truly experience history though the eye of the beholder.

“Curating an experience for yourself allows for an honest, subjective and complex account of history,” says Murray.


The Symphony of Awkward will showcase innovations in diary-keeping practices as part of How The Future Looks Now – the non/Fiction Lab’s series of public online forums.

Thursday 24 September, 12.30–1.30pm AEST. More information.


Story: Aeden Ratcliffe

31 August 2020


31 August 2020


  • Research
  • Media & Communication
  • Arts and culture

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RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.