Last summer, in a kitschy hotel in the Pacific Northwest, I spotted a sort-of funny lampshade. Naturally, I snapped a picture.
At first, my plan was to do what I always do when I see something halfway noteworthy, which is to tell a few hundred thousand people on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or, in my lowest moments, even LinkedIn. Smartphones and social networks have turned me into a lonely, needy man who requires constant affirmation.
In desperate pursuit of such affirmation, my mind has come to resemble one of those stamping-machine assembly lines you see in cartoons, but for shareable content: The raw, analogue world in all its glory enters via conveyor belt on one end, and, after some raucous puffs of smoke, it gets flattened and packaged in my head into insipid quips meant to inspire you to tap a tiny heart on a screen.
For this lampshade picture, the quip came to me instantly: “That deer has a lot more on his mind than the majestic view.”
Sure, my caption was silly, puerile, entirely unbecoming of a columnist. That was also why it might have been glorious; dumb, somewhat edgy dad jokes fit snugly within the vernacular of my long-cultivated Twitter persona, and I could imagine this one getting 100+ likes, easy.
Yet this time, for some reason, I stopped myself. In recent years, Twitter and much of the rest of the internet have been getting hotter, more reflexively outraged, less fun. Venturing onto social media these days, I often feel like a cat burglar stepping through a field of upturned rakes.
I could imagine my dumb joke getting picked apart for all the ways it was problematic — “New York Times writer casually encourages bestial sexual assault! #deertoo” — bringing me ever closer to cancellation. I remembered I was supposed to be spending a nice weekend in the woods with my family; why risk days of online drama for a stupid tweet?
And so, instead of sharing the silly lampshade joke, I journaled it in Day One, a magnificent digital diary app that has transformed my relationship with my phone, improved my memory, and given me a deeper perspective on my life than the one I was getting through the black mirror of social media.
Think of Day One as a private social network for an audience of one: yourself. You post updates to it just as you might on Instagram or Facebook. The app — which runs on Macs, iPhones and iPads, synching your entries between your devices — can handle long text journals, short picture-focused status updates and pretty much anything else that comes across the digital transom.
I use it to jot down my deepest thoughts and shallowest jokes; to rant and to vent; to come to terms with new ideas I’m playing with, ideas that need time to marinate in secret before they’re ready for the world; and to collect and reflect upon all the weird and crazy and touching artefacts of life in this bracing historical moment: screenshots of texts with my wife, audio recordings of my kids singing in the car, dumb jokes from my work Slack, and so, so, so many selfies.
But the digital diary differs from social networks in one key way: It’s unsocial. Indeed, it’s downright anti-social. Nothing about the app is meant to be shared — it is protected with your Apple security credentials and backs up its data to the cloud using end-to-end encryption, so that the only way someone can get into your diary is by getting hold of your device and your system passcode.
The digital diary creates something so rare it feels almost sacred: a completely private digital space.
The best way to describe this feeling is to liken it to friendship. I feel comfortable dishing to Day One the way I would to a close friend I trust completely. What I write there I hope no one alive today will ever read. (However, there are ways to pass on your passcode to your heirs, so that someone may read your journal in, say, 50 years; your entire diary can be exported as a PDF file or printed as a book.)
I found this sense of privacy invaluable and liberating. The app feels like an oasis on your phone, one of the few digital spaces that provides you mental space for contemplation and consideration — for thinking about the world more deeply than as raw material for clickbaity memes.
A few months ago, after a particularly brutal parenting fail that left me and my kid in tears, I found myself crumpled on the bathroom floor, staring at the toilet while I tapped out a journal entry
Some of these benefits aren’t about Day One specifically but about journaling more generally. Like meditation — another new-agey practice that has become my daily, life-altering jam — journaling has been shown to be good for mind and body, reducing stress and anxiety, improving interpersonal relationships and promoting creativity.
If you’re already a regular journaled, you might not find much use in it; my wife, who has kept a dead-tree journal for much of her life, found the app convenient but anodyne, lacking the organic, precious warmth of committing one’s thoughts to paper.
I get that. But for me, a digital journal offers several benefits over paper. Easy accessibility is a big one — it works anywhere you take your phone, even when you don’t have an internet connection, so you can tap out a journal while you’re in line at the supermarket or on top of a mountain. And because so much happens on screens now, the digital journal offers greater fidelity to daily life. Instead of describing the insane conversation I had with my co-worker, I can just post a screenshot.
And then there are all the glories of photography, which adds emotional heft to the rigidity of text. A few months ago, after a particularly brutal parenting fail that left me and my kid in tears, I found myself crumpled on the bathroom floor, staring at the toilet while I tapped out a journal entry.
From that angle, I noticed, the toilet looked a bit like a very sad face. It was everything I felt right then. And so I snapped a picture and added it to my post — recording for posterity a little moment I’d otherwise have forgotten, forever.
That toilet picture still makes me sad. But I’m so glad I have it.
Farhad Manjoo is a noted American columnist and author.
New York Times