Online Life Writing

Silvia Schultermandl

The advent of Facebook in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Tumblr in 2007, Instagram and Pinterest in 2010, and Snapchat and Google+ in 2011 facilitated the emergence of "everyday" autobiographies out of keeping with memoir practices of the past.2 These "quick media" enable constant, instantaneous, and seemingly organic expressions of everyday lives.2 To read quick media as "autobiographical acts" allows us to analyze how people mobilize online media as representations of their lives and the lives of others.3 They do so through a wide range of topics including YouTube testimonials posted by asylum seekers and the life-style-oriented content on Pinterest.4 To be sure, the political content of these different quick-media life writing forms varies greatly. Nevertheless, in line with the feminist credo that the personal is political, these expressions of selfhood are indicative of specific societal and political contexts and thus contribute to the memoir boom long noticed on the literary market.5

Through this collapse of the boundaries between offline and online lives it becomes clear that quick media are sources of empowerment and vulnerability at the same time: notions of a democratic (easily accessible and affordable) usage coalesce with issues of user security and big data mining, on the one hand, and new social division along the infamous "digital divide" between internet-savvy users and those who lack the resources to participate in this form of online communication culture,6 on the other. And while in media studies the skepticism toward the quality of cyber-relationships produces interesting observations about the social use of social media,7 the field of life writing studies has witnessed a proliferation of new terminology which addresses the multi-medial and multi-modal shape given to online lives. For instance, the concept of "autobiographics" describes the practice of uploading visual content; similarly, the concept of "auto assemblages" references the layers of text generally featured on quick media that replace understanding of the verbal mediation of life narratives.8 Likewise, practices such as "auto/curating" point toward a form of autobiographical self-expression composed primarily of images.9 These new concepts acknowledge the performative aspect of identity through quick media.

Quick media also have particular salience with regard to questions of kinship and community in a networked world.10 Phenomena ranging from representations of non-traditional family models and the meeting of ersatz families in thematically clustered online platforms to the use of quick media for transnational families to connect over long distances and extended periods of absence throw into relief the concomitance of technological innovation and the emergence of new concepts and practices of kinship formation: trending hashtags such as #MeToo and #SignedByTrump have successfully addressed systemic sexism and created spaces for agency, community building, and empowerment. Similarly, quick media push the definitions of kinship and family toward inclusive family models, gender-fluid parenting, queer kinship, and transnational kinship.

While the concern with kinship and community constitutes one particular area in which the study of quick media has generated new insights, the relational nature of online life writing branches more broadly into research areas ranging from narratology to postmodern identity theories. For instance, the concept of the self-in-relation bespeaks networked interactivity, which relies on a "many-to-many structure, with a range of participants being private in public,"11 and it refers to ongoing debates about the prevalence of the self in online media and the relational aspect of identity in the context of family and kinship.

The notion of accessing other people's "selves" through their online writing also raises questions about the constituency of the self in the networked constellation with other "authors" and "readers" who are active on quick media.12 This entails reconsidering the stability of the narrating "I" and its accountability to what Philippe Lejeune termed the "autobiographical pact,"13 especially since the advent of quick media brought about new forms of online expressions of the self which are, paradoxically, not so much about the self than about the constellations which shape subjectivities. While the content is self-selected and designed to represent individual identities, the networked nature of quick media highlights the collective context rather than the singular position of the individual. Further along these lines are analyses of the strategies of affective interpellation that are particular to online life writing's interactive and intermedial nature.14

While the immanence and spontaneity afforded by quick media technologies invites assumptions about online life writing as "authentic" expression, critics have tended to emphasize the composite nature of online texts. The interaction between multiple co-authors and co-creators of a life narrative—through such acts as tagging, reposting, and liking—participates equally in the production of the text as its author of the text. At the same time, a certain degree of authenticity resides in the rhizomatic and multi-layered representation of the dialogic, subjective, and convoluted selves performed in online spaces.15 They are cultural artifacts of networked lives that capture the communicative practices of the contemporary era.


-01- Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, eds., Getting a Life: Everyday Use of Autobiography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996). | return to main text |
-02- May Friedman and Silvia Schultermandl, "Introduction," in Click and Kin: Transnational Identity and Quick Media, ed. May Friedman and Silvia Schultermandl (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 9. | return to main text |
-03- Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Images, Performance (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 4. | return to main text |
-04- Gillian Whitlock, Postcolonial Life Narratives: Testimonial Transactions (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Laurie McNeill, "Digital Dioramas: Curating Life Narratives on the World Wide Web" (paper presented at the 2013 MLA Conference, Boston, MA, January 5, 2013). | return to main text |
-05- Julie Rak, Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2013). | return to main text |
-06- Gillian Youngs, "Cyberspace: The New Feminist Frontier?" in Women and Media: International Perspectives, ed. Karen Ross and Carolyn M. Byerly (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 185–209. | return to main text |
-07- Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011). | return to main text |
-08- Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, "Self-Regarding Art," in "Autographics," ed. Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, special issue, Biography 31, no. 1 (2008): xv, xx, doi. | return to main text |
-09- McNeill, "Digital Dioramas." | return to main text |
-10- May Friedman and Silvia Schultermandl, eds., "Autobiography 2.0 and Quick Media Life Writing," special issue, Interactions: Studies in Culture and Communication 9, no. 2 (2018). | return to main text |
-11- Laurie McNeill and John David Zuern, "Online Lives 2.0: Introduction," in "Online Lives 2.0," ed. Laurie McNeill and John David Zuern, special issue, Biography 38, no. 2 (2015): xi, doi. | return to main text |
-12- Jason Breiter, Orly Lael Netzer, Julie Rak, and Lucinda Rasmussen, eds., "Auto/Biography in Transit," special issue, Biography 38, no. 1 (2015); Gillian Whitlock, "Post-ing Lives," in "(Post)Human Lives," ed. Gillian Whitlock, special issue, Biography 35, no. 1 (2012): v–xvi, doi. | return to main text |
-13- Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, trans. Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), 3. | return to main text |
-14- Anna Poletti, "Reading for Excess: Relational Autobiography, Affect and Popular Culture in Tarnation," Life Writing 9, no. 2 (2012): 157–72, doi; Silvia Schultermandl, "Auto-Assembling the Self on Social Networking Sites: Intermediality and Transnational Kinship in Online Academic Life Writing," in Intermediality, Life Writing, and American Studies, ed. Nassim W. Balestrini and Ina Bergmann (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2018), 191–210. | return to main text |
-15- Friedman and Schultermandl, eds., "Autobiography 2.0." | return to main text |

Suggested Citation

Schultermandl, Silvia. "Online Life Writing." JAAAS: Journal of the Austrian Association for American Studies 1, no. 1 (2019): 147–150,


life writing; online media; digital media; quick media

Peer Review

This forum contribution was reviewed by the forum editors, the issue's guest editors, and an external reviewer.


© 2019 Silvia Schultermandl. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which allows for the unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.