Saturday, September 04, 2010

Autobiographies for Everyone?

When the World Wide Web first creeped into the mainstream, I remember there being a lot of rhetoric regarding the potential for truly democratizing society. Technology had finally enabled individual citizens to mount a virtual soapbox which, in theory, could enable them to voice ideas to anyone. In particular, voices that were previously oppressed or marginalized could find an avenue to be heard.

About fifteen years later, I think the jury is still out on whether we have a better democracy, whether we have a more flourishing marketplace of ideas than we had before the Web. But one aspect that I think is indisputable is that the individual has greater potential for self-promotion than ever before. And though the term "self-promotion" often carries a negative connection (largely because of the highest profile self-promoters, such as a LeBron James), I think the type of promotion is what should be evaluated, not the mere act of expressing oneself. Even the humblest among us sometimes desire to share what is going on in their heads, at least to a select group, which is exactly what a phenomenon like on-line social media permits.

Historically, only the elite were afforded the opportunity to publish an autobiography. While virtually anyone did have access to the raw materials to record their own life story, the difficulty in finding an audience was probably enough of a deterrent to quash a number of worthy narratives. But now, with "friends" and "followers" potentially giving notice to any utterance, stories that would have been ephemeral at best are finding life beyond what they ever would have known. Of course, such stories are fragmented, disjointed, and even taken together, not exactly representative of a person's life the way a traditional autobiography would be.

I suppose I could spend the rest of this blog post using postmodern theory to explain how this is a good thing, how collections of blog posts, tweets, and status updates are actually more representative of the human experience than an attempt to construct a master narrative, that the Internet has enabled a whole new genre of autobiography which is in keeping with the philosophical milieu.

But the problem with such an argument is that the old genre is still with us, and it is still the domain of the elite. Famous people still write traditional autobiographies, and non-famous people, even though they may now write autobiographically, don't. But that really true? In actuality, famous people don't write autobiographies. Their ghostwriters do.

And this reveals the actual obstacle that confronts the concept of a "layman's autobiography." It's not that there is a lack of audience, it is that there is a limitation (or a perceived limitation) in an author's ability to construct a narrative. And only the elite have resources that enable them to get around this limitation.

Is there any remedy for this? I see a few possibilities. Perhaps as a society we will become so accustomed to crafting written communication that people will feel more emboldened and empowered to write their own stories (this is the optimistic writing teacher in me talking). Another possibility is that a market will emerge for ghostwriters. Maybe retirement communities of the future will have staff writers to crank out autobiographies for their residents.

There is a final possibility that some might find ominous and some may find intriguing: as each individual's electronic footprint gets bigger, as we leave more and more of a record of ourselves on the Internet, could there one day be an algorithm that is developed that would pull together all of a person's data, sort it, and recapitulate it in the form of an ever-updating life story, which a person can then easily share with others? And considering digital data should render shelf space a moot point in the future, it is not inconceivable that everybody alive would be entitled to their own autobiography. Whether such a thing would be for the benefit of society is perhaps open to debate--which may first have to play out on the World Wide Web.


Blogger officetemporal said...

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11:32 AM  
Anonymous Vanessa said...

Really interesting post. Deborah Brandt wrote a piece for a Louisville symposium last fall in which she talked about ghostwriters and professional writers and how they understand their role in relation to their "subjects" (and how their own subjectivities inevitably get mixed together with those of the people whose lives they are "narrating" for the public). It's in the most recent JAC (formerly Journal of Advanced Composition).

11:35 AM  

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