If you want to spill your ugly secrets to your smartphone, there are an infinity of ways to do it. You could purchase, say, a confessional app (developed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) which offers wholly digitized penance, fitted with its own “sin menu.” It’s quite the deal: just $1.99 and your phone can stave off eternal hellfire as well as any priest, any God.
Another is an app called Antar, which promises to give you control over your (earthly) life. It is a “window to your inner world,” it claims, which it provides primarily by allowing you to hold text conversations with yourself. The Self on Antar is splintered: you select from about thirty different color-coded personas (“hateful,” “afraid,” “shame,” etc.) which then can all vent their passions together, like in that one Pixar movie. A few clicks, and you’ve soothed the tangled depths of your subconscious into a group chat.
This is the landscape of digital “self-reflection” tools, a subset of sorts within the booming mental health app industry. There is Reflectly, an “artificial intelligence diary,” Daylio, a “journal” that—as it proudly emphasizes—does not require you to write anything (you simply tap whichever emoji best represents your mood), “bullet journal” apps for entrepreneurs, and on. Their offering is less a blank page than a promise to make introspection as convenient, and comfortable, as possible. Mood swings become line graphs; anxieties are swiftly bullet-pointed. The promise of “mindfulness” is ubiquitous among these services, though it’s increasingly unclear what, exactly, that can even mean when it is packaged within a “five-minute journaling experience.”
There’s a clamoring market for self-reflection outside of the digital realm, too. Head to any bookstore and you’ll encounter shelves of glossy “self-discovery” books, teeming with prompts and thought experiments to calmly mediate your inner turmoil. This is the self-help genre at its most extreme, and its most basic.
In their language—stop scrolling! practice “self care!”—these books and apps and websites appeal to our collective and desperate desire, apparently, to “unplug,” and look within. The tension here, of course, is that such tools are incentivized to make self-reflection as easy, hypnotic, and profitable as a scroll through Instagram. They have thus quickly adopted the same model of mindless (and constant) consumption as the platforms they promise to help you escape, and admit as much. Jakob Brøgger-Mikkelsen, the CEO of Reflectly, describes the company’s aspirations this way: “We think that we can create a global brand and turn Reflectly into ‘Adidas for the Mind.’”
Reflectly, says Brøgger-Mikkelsen, sells “mental fitness,” which he is certain will soon become as lucrative a commodity as physical fitness, which has already built its towering brand empire. The question that has so far circled around these apps—and there are many—is whether or not they work. As Jake Bittle points out, that may be the wrong question: such apps are indeed understudied, and frequently mislead users about their scientific basis, but even clinically accepted forms of mental health treatment often have hazy proof of efficacy. The apps are, undeniably, soothing. Maybe that’s enough.
A more pressing question is whether or not we should aspire to the “mental fitness” these companies claim to offer. As Ronald Purser argues in his scathing critique of the popularity of “mindfulness” in capitalist society, the philosophy of our modern self-reflection positions our internal selves as the ultimate source of our mental grief—eliding critique of the systems that have failed us. Depressed? You just haven’t spent enough time on your mental fitness goals. Companies like Reflectly have taken Purser’s “McMindfulness” to new heights.
There remains, too, something undeniably strange about keeping a diary on a triangulated cell phone. Antar, for example, offers a feature called “let go,” where you can type out some thought into a chatbox, only to watch it disappear. It’s meant to replicate the catharsis of burning a secret to ash, except that, within a third-party application, you can’t be sure your keystrokes won’t still be logged away forever. All these digital journals are adamant that they aren’t selling your data. Even if that’s true, they still have it.
Which is not to say that privacy, in a strict sense, has ever been implied in the act of journaling. Since at least the nineteenth century, diaries have been things to be published—by politicians, for their own political aims; by the literary greats, as a last word. Fundamental to the genre, though, is the pretense that the contents are private, and thus authentic; any reader must be referred to in hypotheticals, so as not to ruin this façade. The diary has always moved in tension with its readers, which are insinuated, and yet never acknowledged.
So there is an audience that looms over any diary entry, even those you intend to keep paperbound and unpublished, a gnawing feeling that it is something to be read, or at least, something that could be read—by a parent or a partner; by a prying stranger; by oneself, later. But in the case of Antar, and other digital journaling apps, that hypothetical reader has become your phone, and the corporate ecosystem backing it.
In the early days of the internet, online diaries complicated the assumed privacy of the journal entry. Such platforms evolved parallel to blogging sites like LiveJournal; some, like the popular website “Online Diary,” offered a communal journaling experience, where you could post your own entries and peruse thousands of anonymous confessions. On these websites, diary entries responded to one another; it was the anonymity of the writer, facilitated by the web, that created a supposed authenticity.
Those early sites—if they survived—have morphed into diary platforms peppered with advertisements, selling paid-for “premium” services like those offered by Reflectly and Daylio, and promising a personalized journaling experience. Gone are the days when technology had, seemingly, ushered in a new kind of detached self-expression. Our phones now know exactly who we are, and they want us to look inward, away from everything else.
In 1726, at the ripe age of twenty, Benjamin Franklin unknowingly created a prototype for the bullet journal, or at least the self-help diary: he devised a chart system, consisting of various categories of behavior, that would help clearly track identity and behavior over time. But unlike the official Bullet Journal company, which carefully steers clear of any moral valence, separating your life into tasks, habits, logs, and events rather than “good” or “bad” acts, Franklin’s method was explicitly focused on improvement of moral character. To achieve an ideal self, it focused on thirteen categories: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity, and humility. Each day, Franklin would mark down where he had succeeded and in which ones he failed, with the impossible goal of one day excelling in all of them.
A century later, Leo Tolstoy adopted a similar method in his daily writings. And although they were certainly aimed at self-improvement, his entries are far from motivational or inspiring:
July 11, 1854 ... I wrote very little, just before evening. Why? Laziness, indecision and a passion to watch my own whiskers. For which I reproach myself
July 12, 1855. Did not write anything all day, read Balzac. I was busy only with a new drawer. 1) Laziness, 2) Laziness, 3) Laziness…
September 6, 1854. The most important thing for me in life is correcting my laziness, irritability and spinelessness. Love for everyone and contempt for myself!
In the marketing copy of today’s diary peddlers, these feelings of wrongdoing and guilt that are integral to any system of recording your adherence to strict moral principles are notably absent. And diaries are no longer just about self-improvement. They are about self-care. Writing in a bullet journal, a vision journal, or a gratitude diary should under no circumstances be as self-flagellatory as Tolstoy’s meticulously catalogued deficiencies, because in their world, the very act of writing things down is a virtue enough. Writing about yourself ceases to be a means towards betterment and becomes an end in itself.
The products of the journaling industry promise to make you better without telling you how bad you are now. After all, who wants to pay $4.99 a month to tell themselves that they suck?
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