'Confessional culture' draws a crowd
You don't need to meet Hillary Carlip in person to get her life story – it's all in her books and essays. Ms. Carlip, hardly famous by tabloid standards, is the founder of Fresh Yarn, an online magazine of personal essays, which she runs out of her own pocket and out of a conviction that opening up can inspire people deeply.Skip to next paragraph
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Carlip started the project in 2004, after sensing that audiences at her spoken-word performances craved more personal information about people like themselves. She has since published snippets from the lives of more than 220 people – bittersweet stories such as Carlip's own tale about befriending Carly Simon (and baking bread for her) when the singer was still largely unknown. If Fresh Yarn has any criteria, it's Carlip's own "chill-o-meter" – the level at which a piece moves her.
Carlip's project is just one example of a recent phenomenon coursing just beneath the surface of mainstream entertainment: a confessional culture where embarrassing diaries become stage pieces and private humiliation becomes public display. Fueled by the Internet, which allows people to control content, self-revelation is no longer the stuff of memoir, but a central feature in magazines, popular radio shows, traveling stage shows, websites, and more.
"People are craving reality, but not even finding it where it's supposed to be," says Carlip, referring to mainstream entertainment like reality TV. "It's a glossy facade of nothingness. The more that's thrust in our face, the more people want realness."
"Realness," in this context, is not the betrayal drama on the latest "Survivor," or the domestic tragedies of families swapping mothers on prime time. This "realness" is breaking up with your high school sweetheart, taking that crazy trip with your friends, or finding Grandma's hidden box of letters. While some accounts would not pass as family fare, most of what you'll hear, read, or see in this world centers around the " 'we've all been there' experience," as Jason Bitner of FOUND magazine puts it. Producers and consumers of sincerity say they want to spotlight the beauty of daily life, using little of the dismissive and sarcastic tone that permeates today's culture.
"These things are not trivial or mundane," says Dave Nadelberg, the founder of "Mortified," a stage production in which people read aloud from their teenage diaries or letters. "They are actually quite profound – and sometimes moving and funny and strange and scary and often more [rewarding] than ... traditional forms of entertainment," he says.
At a "Mortified" show, you might see a young white man in his 20s rapping lyrics he wrote with his friends (Vanilla Godzilla and the Pakistani Powerhouse) when he was 14. An ongoing project called Post Secret encourages people to send in postcards anonymously on which they confess personal secrets ("I don't care about recycling – but I pretend I do"). FOUND publishes a scrapbook of lost notes. StoryCorps records "extraordinary stories from everyday people." And "This American Life," the icon of the genre, has devoted radio time to stories of ordinary Americans for a decade.
What connects these projects is a love for the ordinary moments fueled by a human need to share one's life, as well as peek into the lives of others, says Robert Thompson, a popular culture expert at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. What people get in return for sharing happy, sad, or humiliating stories is a feeling of connection and belonging, he says. It's voyeurism, yes, but of a gentler and consensual kind.
Professor Thompson says confessional tendencies have been around since Freud, but they took hold in America during the 1960s cultural revolution (the era of "let it all hang out"), and reappeared in afternoon TV talk shows and reality TV.
While "sincere media" have been around for a while (think "Oprah" or "The Real World"), it was the Internet that created the subculture of projects like "Mortified," says Gareth Barkin, assistant professor of anthropology at Centre College in Danville, Ky.
The Internet did two important things. First, it changed people's expectations of what entertainment is, Professor Barkin says. Reality TV can be confessional to the point of nausea, but it's still professionally produced, largely scripted, and hardly raw.