To the Point

Self-help and self-promotion merge in online photos of offline journals

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, the narrator and his friend Murray go to visit a tourist attraction promoted by signs that advertise the Most Photographed Barn in America. When they arrive they find it surrounded by photographers. No one ever sees the barn; that’s not how it works. “What was the barn like before it was photographed?” Murray asks. “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures … we are taking pictures of taking pictures. We’re part of the aura.”

Among the community that has formed around “bullet journaling” — a style of organizing tasks and experiences in a notebook using different sorts of bullet points — something similar may be happening. Looking at the plethora of planning and journaling blogs on Instagram, you can see these “bullet journalists” journal about journaling, documenting an image-driven aura about their writing process rather than writing about much else. Devised and patented by Ryder Carroll, who also founded the Bullet Journal website in 2013, bullet journaling promotes itself as “the analog system for the digital age.” It emphasizes “short sentences” and “page numbers” for “rapid logging” to streamline the putatively laborious process of list making. The system also provides journalers with helpful “signifiers” that categorize their bullet points, like an asterisk for “priority” (important tasks) or an exclamation point for “inspiration” (for “personal mantras” and “genius insights”). Unlike “traditional journaling,” this design is meant to make having thoughts and taking notes so simple and efficient that people will be motivated to do it daily and not out of obligation.

Online, journaling appears as taking pictures of journaling, framed moments of what is meant to be an ongoing process of writing and organization

There’s nothing especially revolutionary about making bullet-pointed to-do lists, but Carroll has managed to build a sense of community around the ostensibly private practice by schematizing it in a way that makes it eminently photographable and sharable. The “analog” technique, which seems to tap into a general anxiety about unplugging from digital devices as a mode of self-care, has nonetheless garnered hundreds of thousands of devotees who share photos of their journals and journaling process on social media. Instagram has been a major channel for this, with hundreds of accounts dedicated to images of what planning and organizing a life looks like: beautifully lettered pages, sketches and calligraphy, various layouts for weekly and monthly calendars. For instance, this list, from a blog called Productive and Pretty, compiles the 20 bullet-journal Instagrams “you should be following” based on their aesthetics. The accounts on such lists leverage the nostalgic ambience of paper and ink, of freehand lettering and sketching, to convey the appearance of an artisanally wrought, “authentic” offline life. Journaling appears as taking pictures of journaling, framed moments that stand in as representations of what is meant to be an ongoing process of writing and organization.

As with DeLillo’s barn, it is hard to say what this kind of journaling habit would look like without this photography. It consists as much of consuming the online community’s images as it does of producing a personal to-do list. Bullet journaling thus raises a question that pertains more generally about how self-documentation for an audience affects the lives we are trying to document. Aesthetic concerns would seem to contribute little to conquering a to-do list, but in the context of social media, they convey a mood that serves a broader sense of accomplishment. Social media sharing foregrounds how in journaling, self-documentation and self-presentation can become inextricably blended.

At the end of this year, Carroll will be releasing a lifestyle guide on journaling and self-care aimed at “empowering you to think and live with intentionality.” (He has also given a TEDx talk on “How to Lead an Intentional Life.”) The book, he says in an Instagram caption, would be incomplete without a compilation of all the Bullet Journal success stories out there, so he requests that followers send in their own accounts of bullet journaling and how it changed their lives. Bullet journaling, like self-care and like self-presentation to audiences online in general, is all about intentionality: what you intend to do, how you intend to be seen, how to be (or at least seem to be) more thoughtful in how you direct focus. But are these intentions being engulfed by their aura, by the tales we want them to tell? “Bullet Journal is no longer just my story,” Carroll declares in his post, “it’s ours.”

In a recent letter to a friend, I wrote that I would use our postal correspondence to send him notes of my observations from around the city, things that I experience or witness — something like a journal, only for him to read. In his reply, he wrote, “We write journals with the secret hope that they’ll be read, don’t we? It’s an odd slice of self that writes a letter.”

Self-care is bound up with images of serenity that can prefigure it

I often write in my journal as though I am writing for an audience. Imaging those readers seems to affirm that the stories I tell in my journal actually matter, actually mean something. This imagining goes beyond the words I choose; I use my favorite fountain pen, paper that smells nice, an attractive notebook. I am trying to mimic images I’ve seen, both online and in real life, of calmness: beautiful desks and cups of steaming tea. Such images momentarily ease an anxiety I have about writing, or productivity, or living a meaningful life. Self-care is bound up with images of serenity that can prefigure it.

This seems part of the point of the bullet journal community too: that “stories” of self-care, whether represented by calligraphy, or lists of fitness goals, or pictures of coconut milk chia seed pudding with blueberries and bananas, become meaningful and effective when they’re sent out into the world and can function as a template. They make bullet journaling not merely a protocol but an aspiration that can be visualized, emulated. The images posit a group of peers who serve as role models and supporters.

Bullet journaling may seem more about introspection and “slowing down and reflecting” than other-directed performance, but it has thrived by conflating them: Going by the thousands of likes on photos posted by members of the Bullet Journal community and the 4.5 million photographs on Instagram with the tag #selfcare, a major part of the bullet journaler’s practice of self-care is watching how others do it. “Reflection” becomes, for instance, a matter of posting answers to questions others have posed, like “How is your sleep?” and “How is your nutrition?” Bullet journaler @tinyrayofsunshine, who has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram, is currently hosting the #BulletJournalChallenge (“a great Self-Care experience”) with Carroll, which offers such journal prompts as “How do you use journaling for self-care?” and “What are your barriers to self-care?” These encourage responders to take a meta turn: writing about self-care as self-care, following to-do lists that consist of reminders to make more interesting to-do lists. These injunctions are presented alongside curated images, highlighting the perfectly organized life as a self-referential matter of appearance. If it looks right, it is right, and vice versa.

At this level, Instagram becomes as much the true journal as the finely wrought paper pages. Neither the pages nor the images are the “original”; they are each created for the other.

There can be something liberating about the way copies provide an escape from the tyranny of authenticity. Walter Benjamin argued in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that copies could wear down the “aura” of an artwork — the fetishization of the here-and-now value of an original “authentic” version. Reproductions, Benjamin argued, could separate artworks from elitist cultural tradition: “As soon as the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applied to artistic production, the whole social function of art is revolutionized. Instead of being founded on ritual, it is based on a different practice: politics.”

Benjamin admired mass audiences’ desire to “get closer” to the original and at times produce their own art through copies rather than be limited by tradition. When hundreds of thousands of people adopt an official brand and insert into it their own preferences, interpretations, and uses for self-expression, it testifies to what Benjamin saw as the masses’ willingness to overcome the thing’s uniqueness and undermine its aura. Given that Benjamin was writing under the threat of fascism, the political imperative behind this idea becomes clearer. Reproducing art or other iconic symbols on a mass basis in thousands of directions at once fills them with a kind of nothingness: with lettering and layout and idiosyncrasy rather than with tradition and history. The rapid dilution of meaning — art as nothingness — can be a radical act, neutralizing symbols around which oppressive movements can be organized.

Images of bullet journals provide a kind of editorial guidance — not only for others’ journals but for what a happy, healthy, productive life looks like

Copies have potential because, as Benjamin argued, they are “distracting.” An aura implicitly demands that a work be contemplated rather than used, imposing hierarchy on viewers as an attitude of worshipful focus. But freed from aura, we can appropriate the art image to ourselves rather than being subordinated to it. The act of consumption becomes a way of owning art, before art and the cultural tradition it comes from can own us.

The proliferation of “copies” on social media enables new potential for self-production. The flowers or doodles that go into the margins of calendars and lists; whether one uses calligraphy pens, watercolors, or markers; how one writes the F in February — these individual choices take on meaning not in reference to an inner truth but in their dissemination to a theoretically unlimited audience. That’s why it is relevant to mention which pen one used in a response to a bullet journal challenge. Articulating these choices can be a democratic kind of power, in which self-production is self-care.

The dynamic of social media platforms is that as consumers we are also active participants. We “journal” through consumption as well as production. Journals presented as images — as “copies” rather than “authentic” auratic processes — generate a different kind of engagement than what artworks demanded, from a different kind of audience.

In advertisements, images are often oriented toward the individual consumer’s perspective, so that consumers recognize themselves in the situation. In journaling blogs, photographs are taken from the eye of someone writing in a notebook: a hand that is carefully lettering the day of the week, or holding a beautiful cup of tea, or delicately turning a page. That is me, we might think on encountering these images. In the midst of Benjamin’s moment of “distraction,” we can momentarily insert ourselves into the images and transform them.

But this dynamic can go too far. It can move so far away from the original aura that it creates a new one. In White Noise, the strength of an object’s aura in physical space precludes interaction with anything but the aura. The people photographing the barn are not seeing the barn; they’re seeing only the effects of its gripping authority. “We’re not here to capture an image,” Murray says. “We’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura … can you feel it? We can’t get outside the aura. We’re here, we’re now.” By this point, the image owns them, not the other way around. Duplicate photographs, Benjamin claimed, have “an air of animated convivality” that comes from their ability to dilute aura, disperse it. But as much as social media can disperse aura through proliferation of images, it can reconsolidate it at the level of an audience bonded by the shared experiences of seeing the same “copies.” Photographs like the ones taken and distributed by bullet journalers don’t fully succeed in diluting aura because they also contribute to a larger consolidation of it.

The self-care industry enables another kind of “aura” to surround the photographs of bullet journalers and other self-care blogs. To the degree that these images are adopted by the industry, their “authenticity” prescribes and sells specific ideas of self-care. They provide a kind of editorial guidance — not only for others’ journals but for what a happy, healthy, productive life looks like.

The messages in the captions on bullet journalers’s images can range from confessional (“In my most personal writings I have discovered new ways of thinking” and “I wasn’t sure about doing florals but it’s turned out better than I hoped”) to personalized (“In one year, YOU helped make this happen” and “Would love your suggestions for a nice black ink to use”), but these intimate modes of communication are put in the service of normalizing the industry’s view. It encourages people to make their own images, not to express themselves so much as to consume self-care as a product, for instance, through stationery brands like Sharpie, Zebra, Tombow, and TWSBI, which @tinyrayofsunshine unofficially endorses, or through the grocery lists involving lamb apple, blueberry quinoa, and vintage cheddar that @bulletjournal reposts from his followers. And maybe it wouldn’t matter that people find it healthy or calming or liberating to use these products, or spend hours practicing writing “August” in calligraphy, if it weren’t for these things’ connection to a $10 billion industry with a monetary incentive to convince us that we are treating ourselves badly.

Benjamin was happy for the death of art’s aura; he said it had a kind of “cultish” authority. So too does the self-care industry. David Rieff, in Los Angeles, Capital of the Third World, called it the “cult of health and well-being,” whose “how-to books … were not simply about how to do a given thing better, but how to be a better person.” Benjamin argued that technological reproduction could break audiences free of such established rituals and traditions of subordination, whether of the art world of the self-care industry. But even as we use image-making and copying to escape the meanings and purposes imposed on us, the same processes leave us vulnerable to the imposition of new meanings. The self-help industry epitomizes capitalism’s ability to perform this double movement: It tells us to free ourselves even as it says there is something missing in our lives, and that spending money is the best way to fix them both.

It is no accident, then, that Carroll is soliciting stories from ordinary users for his book about Bullet Journaling: Not only does this recapitulate the way users’ labor is appropriated for someone else’s profit, but it also allows Carroll to assert control over the direction the community takes and how it is to be understood, in a way that profits him the most. The aura of “authentic” art, as Benjamin pointed out, has the power to consume and direct the viewer; the acts of collectivization and dissemination, which he thought could resist this power, become the very manifestation of it when it comes to Bullet Journal’s use of Instagram.

However democratic the process of distributing soothing images of stationery may be, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they are subject to reassimilation into a self-care industry that monetizes our anxieties, our tendency to self-doubt, our desires to organize and take control of our lives. Benjamin wrote about the fate of art’s aura under a very real threat of authoritarianism; capitalism reminds us that authoritarianism comes in many fonts, colors, and inks.

This essay is part of a collection on the theme of AURA. Also from this week, Rahel Aima on videos of “good boys” as a glossary for inclusiveness, and Rob Arcand on using blockchains to try to protect art.

Apoorva Tadepalli is a freelance writer. She is from Bombay and lives in Brooklyn.