12/17/2008

Discussion: "Autobiography on the Chinese Online World."

In my last post I laid out the basic research plan that I'm developing for my project. I thought in this post I should present the ideas that I'm researching right now. The topic that I've defined for myself is "Autobiography and Anonymity on the Chinese Online World."

First then, what is "autobiography"? Well, we all know it's a biography told by oneself rather than others. Or to break two definitions down into one, which I'll be using for the sake of this project: autobiography is the act of giving an account or narrative of one's own life story or stories. Autobiography is expressed in many different forms of media, the first that typically comes to mind being the autobiographical novel. As a novel, we typically call this genre of literature the memoir."Gandhi" by Mahatma Gandhi or "Dreams of My Father" by Barack Obama are two examples that I will return to.

The most similar but different medium that we can contrast the memoir with is the diary. The difference is at the heart of this discussion, because a diary is private and a memoir is public. This project is looking not just into "autobiographies" as "complete, or extended life-story projects" (ie. memoirs), but more generally as "autobiographical accounts", in two mediums: blogs and forum postings. Blogs have been popularly mislabeled by the mainstream media with the term "online diaries", which conflates private and private text-based RSS feeds. An RSS feed is an web feed format which modifies HTML based websites in order to allow users to cycle "postings" that takes away much of the ordinary leg-work of maintaining a website. In the West, the primary hosting sites for these "blogs" are livejournal, WordPress and Blogger, which I am using myself. I think by now, nearly all internet users should have either used or at least viewed a blog. Forums are less frequently traveled in the Western internet and in fact could be considered to be in decline, with the rise of social networking websites such as Myspace and Facebook. However, the concept isn't too difficult to understand. Forums are organized on subjects, and users can post topics for discussion.

Both mediums are particular for the public nature of them. They can not only be viewed by the public, but the public can also comment on the postings in both the blog and forum mediums. Both of the mediums are distinct from a novel in more than just the material on which they are written, but also the way in which they are written. Novels/memoirs are presented as complete stories consisting of plot elements; on the other hand, blogs and forums only present anecdotes, short life stories. Blogs present a stream of anecdotes, updating regularly. In fact, viewing a well maintained blog in it's entirety from it's earliest post is not much different from reading a memoir, albeit a poorly organized and unconcluded memoir. Forums present isolated anecdotes, as the reader of a forum is "reading a community" rather than reading an individual's blog. The lens through which I'm viewing blogs and forums is that they can be understood as autobiographical, public-interactive. In either case, anecdotes tell funny stories, what you had for dinner, and of interest to my research, the personal problems and societal ills that Chinese net-users encounter in their day to day lives and choose to publish online.

How does autobiography compare to other mediums? Autobiography is self-reporting in nature; the alternative being reporting on events outside your own experience. So autobiography is personal and thus heavily biased to our own experiences and ideologies. The perspective of an autobiography is first-person, limited in scope to what the author can observe. That's two important concepts to remember. First-person perspective and heavily biased: that's the nature of autobiographical narratives. But the beautiful thing about autobiography that drew me to this subject and I think draws at nearly every reader is that autobiography allows one to "put yourself in someone else's shoes".

How does the reading public interact with autobiographical narratives? First, here's five major types of reactions that I typically experience when reading an autobiographical narrative.

  1. Apathy. If so, then I usually just move on.
  2. Skepticism. Is it true? I read for facts and knowledge that will verify what the author is saying. Like many savvy net-users I typically spend a lot of time using Wikipedia and Google while reading news, blogs and other media, to cross-check and verify claims. I'll discuss bias below.
  3. Empathy. Pity. Anger. Enjoyment. Amusement.
  4. Sympathy. Common life experience?
  5. Call to action. People typically have a purpose when telling a story. Self-therapy, the amusement of others, the social mores of gossiping and... putting an idea in other peoples heads. Gandhi and Barack Obama's memoirs are excellent examples. Autobiography is a potent form of rhetoric. This is one issue I hope to develop further, on the topic of the blogs of Chinese activists.
These reactions that we have are silent if we are reading a book (unless we go through the considerable and almost always wasted trouble of writing a letter to the author), but on blogs and forums, the online medium is designed for a public conversation to be capable of emerging from everything that is written (unless authors choose to disable commenting on their posts, a practice, that actually draws considerable ire from net-users, who are used to being able to respond to posts). Net-users express their feelings about what they see online. They share common experiences and the online autobiography becomes a conversation. This is the heart of what I'm researching.

There is also a dark side to the Chinese internet. The "human flesh search" or "人肉搜索" pronounced "renrou sousuo" has taken the conversation back into the real world, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad and sometimes for less then noble aims. I'll discuss that tomorrow when I talk about anonymity online in China.

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