by Joel Risberg

Texan Bryon Sutherland created a minor stir when he decided to put his personal diary online back in March of 1995. Both Bryon and the World Wide Web have grown and matured quite a bit in the short span of two years since then, but at the time Bryon's idea was revolutionary. He made a promise via his home page that he'd try to update the diary every day and that he would always be truthful.

"I wanted to try to do something original to make my web page stand out from the thousands of others out there," he explained. "This is what I came up with. I am going to allow everyone into my life."

The result, dubbed "The Semi-Existence of Bryon" has been hugely popular almost since its inception. Readers have followed Bryon's life through tumultuous relationships, starting and selling a small business, and everyday worries. People can't get enough, and they keep coming back day after day to see what will happen next.

But anyone who has spent time online realizes that the story doesn't end when Bryon finishes each night's entry. Unlike with most other mass media, Bryon gets almost immediate feedback from his audience. Some send encouragement via e-mail. Others send gifts to cheer him when they know that he's feeling down. And on at least one occasion, Bryon has struck up a romantic relationship with a reader in e-mail before finally meeting her in person (she lived in Florida). That relationship ended unhappily -- a fact that every reader learned since Bryon faithfully kept his diary going throughout.

You might compare the site's effect on its readers to the fandom of nighttime soaps like "Melrose Place." Derivative sites like "The Spot" and "GrapeJam" try to capitalize on the same voyeuristic tendencies in their own fictional diaries (both sites are the creations of advertising companies), but while they may do a better job of creating a community by encouraging readers to discuss the plot lines online, the end result is simply a variation on a television series.

Bryon's life is altogether different from TV fiction, though. He struggles with common problems like money, relationships, and loneliness just like his thousands of readers, who can easily identify with Bryon's life. And since he's invariably honest and candid, he's earned their trust.

(Interested in visiting other diarists? Real People, Real Stories features links to many similar sites. After Dinner and The Fray are anthologies of beautifully written personal revelations.)

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