Carolyn’s Diary

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S1: At Christmas time in 1994, Jim Exxon’s grandchildren got brand new computers. They started typing and clicking right away while their parents lagged behind. Exxon found that generation gap extremely worrisome. He thought kids and computers were a dangerous mix, and he wanted to do something about it.

S2: I’m up this morning to alert every member of the United States Senate, all 100 of us to this growing peril in America, something that is sweeping this country and that is pornography directed at children primarily on the information superhighway generally called the internet.

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S1: Exon was a conservative Democrat from Nebraska, the state’s governor, in 1977. He’d fought to keep sodomy laws on the books. Eight years later, in the Senate, he questioned Frank Zappa at a hearing on rock lyrics.

S2: I must confess that I never heard him your music, to my knowledge. I would be

S3: more than happy to recite my lyrics to you.

S1: In 1994, Exon tried to pass a bill that regulated Obscenity on the radio and television. That effort failed, but 1995 was a new year. The moment when the internet became mainstream.

S2: But I happen to believe the whole computer internet system is the most important, the most revolutionary development since the printing press.

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S1: With more Americans going online every day, the 74 year old senator seized his opportunity.

S3: Senator James Exon has proposed a controversial law imposing a two year prison term for anyone sending obscene messages down the internet.

S2: I’m mostly concerned about our children.

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S1: Exxon’s bill was called the Communications Decency Act, and he had a bold strategy to get it passed. First, he compiled a whole bunch of pornography, not softcore material, but stuff from the internet’s darkest corners. He then placed those printouts inside a blue binder with a bright red caution label on the front.

S2: This is a blue book. This is a sample of what is available today, free of charge. Click Click Click on the computer.

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S1: Exon brought his blue binder to the Senate cloakroom and urged his colleagues to take a look. As many as 30 of them flipped that binder open. Inside, they saw a collection of disturbing sexual images, a picture of a woman tied up getting burned by cigarettes, and a photo involving a German shepherd. On June 9th, 1995, Jim Exon carried that binder onto the Senate floor and addressed the American people.

S2: Let me read through in the form of pictures that have been taken on computer screens on the internet. I have several pages of them here that I’ll just go through some of them. Multimedia erotica. Erotica fetish. Nudes. Celebrities pictures. Black, erotic, female.

S1: The senator from Nebraska kept on going for more than two minutes.

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S2: Hamster duct tape beach jail. The hamster duct tape. Two of

S1: those. Occasionally, he marveled at what he’d just read.

S2: Here’s a good one erotica cartoon. Page after page after page on screen after screen with a click click click.

S1: Civil liberties groups thought Jim Exon Communications Decency Act was a travesty that it would destroy free expression on the internet. The U.S. Senate didn’t see it that way. On June 14th, 1995, the anti-porn measure got approved in a landslide eighty six to 14 when it was all over. Exon said that he’d gotten yes votes from all but one of the senators who’d peeked inside that blue binder, the Communications Decency Act, would get modified and softened before it became a law. But that’s a story for another day. What’s notable about this moment is how certain that 74 year old senator sounded.

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S2: Some basic rules of the road need to be established as the information superhighway rolls up to the front door of every household and school and library in America.

S1: But here’s the thing about Jim Exon. When he proposed his bill in 1995, he’d never been online. Not a single time. That Blue Binder, the one full of the internet’s most heinous pornography. A friend of his had downloaded all those pictures. So the senator didn’t have to look at them on a screen. Exon didn’t know the first thing about the internet, but he was sure that it needed to be controlled. And since the internet was more chaotic than radio or television, the regulators would need to take a firmer hand. The people building and shaping the internet saw all that chaos as a feature, not a bug.

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S4: I think there was a lot of us who had this idea that this was going to be a democratic revolution.

S1: Donna Hoffman is a professor at George Washington University. She was one of the first academics to research what people did online.

S4: Anyone who had something to say with very little investment could go out there and get it said. Yeah, this idea that this was going to change everything,

S1: all of that freedom meant an open playing field for pornographers, sure, but also for other kinds of pioneers for those people. The internet felt liberating. It gave them the space they needed to create and be themselves. One of them was Carolyn Burke.

S4: The way I was running a website was completely novel, and it scared people and it fascinated them. But mostly it offended them. It was awesomely offensive.

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S1: On this week’s show, I’m going to tell the story of a woman in Toronto who invented a part of the online ecosystem that today feels like it’s always existed. In 1995, she got famous for blurring the lines between private and public life and paid a price for her radical transparency. This is the season finale of One Year, 1995 Carolyn’s Diary. Carolyn Burke was born in the mid-1960s in a small town outside Toronto. Her earliest memories are of not fitting in.

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S4: There was an art class in like grade two or three or something, I don’t know, and they took a remember mural paper like it’s like five feet wide. And one of the teachers cut it up into enormous jigsaw puzzle pieces. And every kid got a piece and you could draw on it whatever you wanted. And then they put it all back together, and I spent two days. With a ruler drawing lines on it carefully, meticulously, and it went up on a puzzle and I looked at it and I just thought, that is so different from what everyone else is doing. I don’t get it. Everyone else is drawing, you know, flowers and birds. How did they all know to draw flowers? I have no idea. I needed every single convention explicitly stated, and the reason for it, given I couldn’t follow it, I didn’t even know what it was. And that’s how I’ve always felt that I have to figure things out from first principles every single time.

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S1: Carolyn’s best friend died when she was in high school. After that, she withdrew from the world almost completely.

S4: I just cut myself off from everybody. I’d basically given up on ever making friends again and fell into my own internal space.

S1: The more time passed, the more certain she felt that no one understood her, especially her parents.

S4: This is, I don’t know, maybe it’s mean I found it useless to know them. They didn’t help me in the world. They didn’t help me emotionally as a person, and they just expected things from me.

S1: She left home at 16 to enroll at the University of Waterloo away at school in the early 1980s. She opened back up to human connection.

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S4: I really started to make some friends there, people who thought a little bit like me, you know, questioning everything and willing to read a lot to learn.

S1: There was one person in particular she felt drawn to. His name was Peter,

S4: and I followed around and talked to

S5: him and told him that I wanted to be a couple with him. And he said, Oh, OK. And we weren’t attracted to each other. It was not a a romance per se. It was an intellectual coming together, and we explored reality that way.

S1: Something else happened in those early days at Waterloo, a discovery that reoriented her life.

S4: The big change for me was there was an internal network and it was also hooked up to the internet, and that started to change how I looked at the world.

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S1: The internet filled a hole for Carolyn. All those social conventions that she didn’t understand. Now seemed illegible and solvable online. She could ask whatever questions she wanted without any judgment. These new networked spaces felt totally thrilling. But they also seemed dangerous.

S4: There was no security back there, and it didn’t exist yet. There were Unix servers in the university and you could spy on each other. You could see who was logged in, you could see what programs they were running. And I was becoming concerned about the lack of privacy. I so strongly believe that privacy was destroyed and gone that the only way to do things now is to presume you are in public with anything you do. Even if you’re sitting at a window staring out at the ocean. Assume that there’s a satellite watching you, not because you’re special or interesting, but because they’re watching everybody.

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S1: They in the early 90s, Carolyn moved to Pittsburgh to study philosophy at Carnegie Mellon. Peter stayed behind in Toronto to help pay her tuition. They started a company to build email servers and websites.

S4: I was running a business selling stuff that no one had heard of. I even got stopped at the airport once trying to get back into the states because I was importing the internet and the guards there didn’t know what that was. And I sat in a room for two hours trying to explain with the internet that I wasn’t importing something.

S1: As more people figured out what the internet was, business started picking up Carolyn, quit school and went back home to Canada. When she got to Toronto, she decided that it was time to make a big change.

S4: I lived with Peter for like 15 years. Peter had been my best friend and almost like a parent to me. He’s still the wisest person I’ve ever met, and yet I needed to get away from him and become an adult responsible for my own life. Finally.

S1: All that responsibility felt terrifying. She was all alone with her thoughts and her computer.

S4: And so I asked myself the question What can I do and need to express things? What can I do? And I had a free account on one of the brand new local ISPs, and I made a little tiny website there.

S1: That tiny website was called Carolyn’s Diary. It’s often described as the first true online diary. What we now call a personal blog Carolyn started writing on January 3rd, 1995.

S4: It was usually early in the morning after I woke up the mid morning person. It was a way to find my balance in the day and find myself first thing, kind of like meditating. And it turns out I had a lot of things to write.

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S1: Her first entry was about the importance of telling the truth and how holding back felt like selling out her ideals.

S4: I thought the world would be a better place if everyone became transparent and honest and open and without agendas. It’s just all out there.

S1: In the days that followed, she unburdened herself, she wrote about loving and hating Peter and about drinking too much. She said that she was afraid of leaving behind a hole in the universe of such minor size that no one would ever know her. And she confessed that as a child, she’d fantasized about murdering her parents only to realize later that they weren’t monsters, just boring adults.

S4: One thing that’s true, and perhaps the only thing that was universal throughout the diary was when I sat down and started writing.

S5: After I had written whatever it was, I needed to write, I was happier, always made me feel better. Not necessarily great. But there was always this sense of having addressed my heart properly.

S1: The World Wide Web was a new medium, and Carolyn was helping to shape it. LiveJournal and blogger wouldn’t launch for another four years. Her tiny website would create a template for confessional blogging, a series of dated entries, one after the other on and on down the page.

S4: And so a lot of the time I was playing around with HTML. Then learning how to embed it graphic and then learning how to change the font or how to change a background color. So as I was learning all of these bits of technology, they were showing up in the diaries. It wasn’t just writing, it was art.

S1: In the beginning, the only people reading Carolyn diary were a handful of friends with internet access. A month end, it had started to spread outside her network to friends of friends and people she’d never met. A few months after that, she did her first interview with the Toronto Globe and Mail. People started emailing her from all over Canada and around the world, and she wrote back.

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S4: I liked having an audience. I liked having the feeling that I was getting attention. Definitely, my most intimate relationship was this vast collection of other people reading what I was writing, but also responding. So for me, it changed me because I learned how to be a social person again. I learned how to interact, and I was amazing.

S1: One of Caroline’s regular correspondence was a man who lived in London,

S5: and we ended up arguing about trust a lot. And then at some point it was like, OK, I’m going to fly to England to meet you. And so I did. And so I flew to England to meet a complete stranger who happened to be like this blond haired, blue eyed, gorgeous smart man. And we didn’t get along at all. We made better friends than we did lovers, which was sad.

S1: She told the whole story in her diary and shared their personal emails. She did that all the time, posting unredacted notes from friends and total strangers.

S4: I would just literally publish things people wrote to me in private. I did under the presumption that I wasn’t a private person. I was doing public things only. It didn’t seem fair to some people that I got to air my opinions about them, and they couldn’t do it in return. That’s exactly right. It wasn’t fair. I don’t think I was striving for fairness, but rather for transparency.

S1: Carolyn’s Diary had started out as an intimate internal monologue as she became more social and more connected. It turned into something different. An internet soap opera with love, interests and enemies, some of whom started their own counter diaries. It was a real life version of the spot. The collection of fictional diaries that we talked about in another episode, like the spot Carolyn diary was a playground for internet obsessives scrutinized and criticized and followed religiously. Within a year, she had 100000 regular readers. Carolyn was internet famous by 96.

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S4: I was in the media all over the place, and there was this whole project called 24 Hours and Cyberspace for one day.

S3: One hundred and fifty photographers around the world are documenting how computer technology is being used in everyday life. Cyberspace is a place between my computer and your computer, and something happens in between. And it’s something that I think is starting to change society in very dramatic ways. And that’s what we’re as we’ve asked her photographer to try to capture. Over the next twenty four hours,

S1: twenty four hours and Cyberspace featured army doctors who used the web to diagnose injuries overseas. Buddhist monks who got online to chat with other temples and Carolyn Burke the internet diarist.

S4: We did tons and tons of photographs that day. I said, Well, you know what? You’re doing all these photos of me in front of a computer. But that’s not the point. The point is I’m doing something private in public, so we’re going to lie me in my bathtub with a computer and you can take pictures of me there because lying in a bathtub is a private thing. Now there wasn’t water. I was wearing a dress and stockings and the whole bit. But that photograph became world famous.

S1: The photo ran an Entertainment Weekly and on the cover of U.S. News and World Report, and it got displayed in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

S4: It was. It was crazy. There were so many amazing positive things happening with the diary because of the diary, really, that I was riding a roller coaster going straight up, rushing upwards. It was quite exciting.

S1: A lot of other people were strapped into that roller coaster, and not all of them wanted to be along for the ride.

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S4: There were two types of responses in people who knew me directly. One was, I need to be doing that too, because what you said was wrong and I want to have my own space. But the other kind of person, as a person said, I want to retain my privacy. I’m not going to talk to you anymore because you’re going to publish what I say. And so there was this, this whole slew of people, a couple of friends, but also quite a number of acquaintances that just literally they might see me, but they wouldn’t say anything to me anymore because I might write about what they said, even if they asked me not to. And the other thing was this was awkward as well. I ran out of things to talk to people about interacting in person became this whole new, weird thing.

S1: Carolyn kept on posting regardless of the consequences to her offline life. She was still writing her diary in 1997 when the word weblog got coined. And in 1999, when LiveJournal and blogger made it easy for anyone to start one. And in 2002, when Heather Douce Armstrong got fired for blogging about her co-workers. Carolyn was her own boss, the founder of an internet company. She didn’t have to worry about getting fired.

S4: My concern was, well, I hope the clients that my company engages with don’t get upset by what I write. But I can’t hold back my honesty and truth to shield other people’s feelings. I tried to trailblazer something important, which was to be open and honest, stop hiding stuff, wearing a mask, which most other people who started doing what I was doing felt they had to be anonymous, or they had to lie about their identity in some way, or they just had to not tell most of the stories that they wanted to tell publicly. There’s a reason diaries have traditionally been secret.

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S1: In the spring of 2002, something happened at Carolyn company that put her freedom to publish under threat.

S5: We brought angel investors in, and they did not know about the diary, I don’t know how anyone can invest in entrepreneurs and not know that one of them is a weirdo phenomenon.

S4: Publishing in a very public way about whatever she feels like and when they found out they were like mortified.

S5: The diary came down. It just got yanked off the air.

S1: The diary had helped her cope with the end of a long term relationship, and it taught her how to connect with other people. Now it was gone. And nothing else could replace it.

S4: I did continue writing, I just didn’t do it online anymore,

S5: but I didn’t find there was any point because there was no response. That was a necessary part for me

S4: to be interested in that form of communication.

S5: For me, it was always interactive.

S1: Carolyn never wrote another entry, but she did eventually put the diary back online. In 2007, she added a short note at the top. I remain steadfast in holding out the words here as they were published without change or redaction, even while I’ve changed personally so much. A few years later, her life got transformed permanently.

S5: I had been doing a lot of weight training and I was stronger than I knew what to do with, and I stood up and a door had opened above my head and I knock myself out

S4: and I had concussed myself. But also I had

S5: shared my brain, the two halves of the brain like that. When I first had the injury, my intelligence, my IQ went down and I was happy. My negative emotions were missing as well. For six months, I was like a Labrador retriever, you know, one of those big smiley drooling dogs I’m happy to see. I was great, but I knew I was aware that the other levels of my working mind were missing and I remembered what

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S4: they felt like, even though I couldn’t do it anymore. And.

S5: I was just that was just not the person I wanted to be. So I’m very, very pleased that the intelligence stuff started to come back. But a lot of the learning I had from the diary was lost. The things that I went to extraordinary measures to learn about being a human, about being a person really didn’t come back as easily in the same way. And that’s left me disappointed.

S1: After her head injury, Carolyn started seeing a therapist who diagnosed her with Asperger syndrome,

S5: and she said, I love following rules, but I don’t seem to mind breaking them. I know she’s right about that. So discovering that was kind of cool, but also disappointing.

S4: I kind of,

S5: you know, the labels don’t help too much.

S1: Carolyn hasn’t worked much since she got hurt, and she had to leave Toronto because she found the city overstimulating.

S5: I sold everything, I bought a jeep. I put my cat in the jeep and drove East

S1: Carolyn and her cat landed at one of the easternmost spots in North America, the village of Happy Adventure Newfoundland, population 200.

S5: I live overlooking the ocean right now. I’m watching a snow fall in the sunshine onto the ocean. It’s like extraordinarily crazy, beautiful and I live in isolation. I haven’t seen a human in a week, not just because of COVID, but because the solitude heals me. And so I I play the piano and I am trying to learn to paint and write a lot, not diary stuff. Though I write fiction and

S4: I hike and I kayak.

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S1: How often are you online? What’s your relationship with the internet now?

S5: I am online every waking moment. I think most of my knowledge is on the internet, not in my brain. Gaming. I love gaming. It’s almost the only way I really like interacting with humans because you have a purpose and you’re sharing the purpose and you can go off and do stuff. It’s fun.

S1: You might think you’ve kind of gone to that ends of the Earth and in total isolation and you have this life around being outdoors. You might think that would go along with like not being on the internet at all.

S5: I take my smartphone and I take so many pictures when I’m outside of bugs and lichen and bunny rabbits. I take thousands of photographs and they all trickle up online. So yeah, no, I I’m 100 percent merged between digital and physical world. I love that the creation of the internet is the best thing that ever happened to me,

S4: and that continues to be true.

S5: It’s it’s freedom.

S1: This was the last episode of our season on 1995. We hope you enjoyed that. And if this is your first time listening to one year, we’ve got a whole other season on 1977 that you should check out for updates on what’s coming next for our show. Please subscribe to the one year podcast feed wherever you listen and tell your friends to subscribe to, the more the merrier. And if you want to get in touch, our email is one year at Slate.com. You can also leave us a message on the one year hotline. That phone number is two oh three three four three zero seven seven seven. We’d love to hear from you. This episode was produced by Evan Cheyna, Madeline Ducharme and Me Josh Levin. Additional production help came from Shane Iraq. This episode was edited by Laura Bennett, editorial direction by Lowe and Lou and Gabriel Roth. Our mix engineer is Merritt Jacob. The artwork for one year is by Jim Cook. You can read Carolyn’s diary at Diary that Carolyn. Thank you to Peter actor and Rowan JSA, correct? And special thanks to everyone who helped make this season of one year possible. Jared Holt, Christina Cotter, Richie Allison Benedict, Alicia Montgomery, Derek John, Susan Matthews, Rosemary Belson, Ayman Ishmael, Benjamin Fresh, Hollie Allen, Katie Rayford, Ayesha Saluja, Amber Smith, Cleo Levin, Bill Carey, Seth Brown, Rachael Strong, June Thomas Chao to Eric Attempts Mona Ducharme, Kathryn, Fireman, Michael Seidman and Jessica Seidman. Thanks for listening!