blog

This 104-year-old blogger is keeping the dying art alive

Shutterstock, FUSION

Dagny Carlsson is a 104-year-old woman who loves to blog.

Most days, Dagny—small and sweet, with neatly pressed white hair—sits behind her desktop PC in her apartment in a suburb of Stockholm and writes about whatever is on her mind. She blogs about food, and sailing, and parties she goes to. She offers platitudes (“an occasional white lie is sometimes needed if it fills a good cause”) and opinions (“the meatballs were not only tasteless but also rock hard”) and the kind of philosophizing generally reserved for stoned teenagers (“sometimes, I think that existence is spinning around like a carousel”). She blogs about simple pleasures, like a good cup of coffee or a spring day. She blogs about growing old. She even blogs about blogging.

Dagny started blogging four years ago, at the encouragement of Elena Ström, who had been Dagny’s instructor in a course on computer literacy for the elderly. Ström helped her set up a blog, using a Danish hosting platform called 123 Minsida, where she could practice writing and computer skills in tandem. After that, she wrote a post every single day. “Blogging became her vocation,” Ström told me.

In the beginning, it’s not clear that anyone was reading the blog but Dagny herself. But when Ström wrote a story for a local newspaper about the 100-year-old woman who loved to blog, people started to check it out. Dagny declined to provide exact traffic figures, the meter on the homepage puts the site’s total visits north of 1.7 million. She’s appeared on Swedish talk shows, has been crowned “senior of the year” two years running by major Swedish publications, and occasionally gets stopped in public by fans.

“I don’t give a damn about being a celebrity, but it’s nice when ordinary people want to talk to me because they saw me on TV,” Dagny told me in Swedish, via email. (She declined to speak via Skype, because she can’t hear well and says she doesn’t understand how the application works.) “I get recognized quite often.”

And yet, on a first visit to Dagny’s blog, you’d never guess she’s heralded as Sweden’s patron saint of blogging. For one thing, she doesn’t even have a unique URL (it’s 123minsida.se/bojan, generated from the Danish web-hosting platform and “Bojan,” a nickname she gave herself after deciding that “Dagny” was an ugly name). The landing page is populated with entries that inexplicably begin in 2012 and to read more recent posts you have to go through a tab on the left side of the page. Sometimes, the most recent post appears last, and so scrolling through the site is like reliving Dagny’s month along with her. There is no search bar, and the 16 tabs (one dedicated to her 102nd birthday; one for autumn 2015; one simply called “blog part two,” in which you can find her more recent entries) are systematized without any apparent logic. If you take her blog at face value, it’s hard to see why anyone would actually read it.

But with a little time, it’s impossible not to become obsessed—as evidenced by the hundreds of adoring comments the blog receives every day. Dagny’s posts, though the writing is a bit stiff, offer a peek into the rarely explored mind of a 104-year-old woman, as she comes to terms with the realities and limitations of being a centenarian. And for those who grew up on the internet, it offers one of the best living artifacts of a dying art: blogging.

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It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first blog was born, but was either in 1994, when a Swarthmore student named Justin Hall launched Links.net, or in 1997, when Jorn Barger actually coined the term “blog.” In the early days, blogs were primarily a catalogue of links to other websites. But by the early 2000s, the personal, diary-like style had emerged, with sites like Blogger and WordPress and Open Diary all launching easy-to-use platforms. In 2004, so many people searched the term that Merriam-Webster named “blog” the Word of the Year.

Part of the reason personal blogging became so popular (and addictive) was it allowed for intimate, if ordinary, details of someone’s life to be magnified and archived, readily available in just a few clicks. Though it seems like commonplace now with social media, blogging was the first time on the internet the mundane was elevated to the monumental. All it took was a glimpse of someone’s blog to access their deepest inner thoughts, or at least a record of their daily life. And people loved it: By 2003, LiveJournal alone had over one million accounts.

“In the early 90s, there was a big online journaling community,” said John Rodzvilla, the graduate program director for publishing and writing at Emerson College and editor of We’ve Got Blog: How Weblogs Are Changing Our Culture. The internet, still in its teenage years, provided a new space for self-disclosure, and the era of Live Journal became “the first time [people] were able to put their thoughts and feelings out on the web.”

If blogging carved a new space online for this kind of personal, unfiltered expression, then social media took that to its logical conclusion. When Twitter was unveiled in 2006, it introduced “microblogging”—the same content, but compressed—making it easier and faster to share one’s thoughts. The internet landscape evolved to include platforms like Instagram, Tumblr, and Snapchat, and traditional blogs quickly began to seem archaic and overly precious. A carefully constructed tweet could speak volumes without the bulk of a blog post.

“Blogs were sort of a transitional technology, supplanted by Twitter and Facebook,” said Rebecca Blood, an early blogger and author of The Weblog Handbook, the very first book on blogging. “It was like the telegraph to the telephone.”

Social media also made it possible to extend the reach of a single post. Built-in tools like Twitter’s retweet, Tumblr’s reblog, or Facebook’s share function could amplify a single post throughout a network—something traditional blogs never managed to do, even on well-defined communities like LiveJournal or Xanga.

“Blogs were destinations,” Blood told me. “Someone had to like you well enough, and remember you often enough, to come back and visit your page. So it was hard to build an audience.”

If you look at Google trends, hits for “blogging” peaked around 2006 and dropped off considerably after 2008. Even the most successful of the early bloggers, people like Andrew Sullivan, who managed to monetize his blog, have struggled to survive (Sullivan retired his 15-year-old blog, The Dish, last year.) As Ezra Klein—the founder of Vox, who owes his success largely to his popular Washington Post blog, Wonkblog—put it to Mother Jones, “Blogging is a conversation, and conversations don’t go viral.”

Plus, blogging isn’t exactly “cool” anymore. “It seems like the new young people aren’t very interested in blogging,” Kelly Conaboy noted dryly in The Hairpin earlier this year. Ask any teenager today if they have a blog and they’ll stare back at you quizzically—as if you’ve asked them when they last sent a telegram. Instead, they will probably show you a litany of highly visual social media profiles that contain hardly any words at all.

“I’ve asked my students and they’re like, ‘Uh, blogging is so old,’” said Rodzvilla, who teaches undergraduates at Emerson. “I would like to know where teenagers express their angst now, because I can tell you, it’s not on blogs.”

While the neo-blogging platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat—involve the same impulse to self-document, Rodzvilla says the emphasis is more on personal branding than it is on unloading one’s innermost thoughts. It’s also more visual than the blogs of the past, a shift that Rodzvilla says may have started back in the early days of video blogging and grown with the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. Even Tumblr, which might be the closest modern approximation to a classic blogging platform, is populated mainly with recirculated images and GIFs. The point is still to share a piece of one’s self, but the part that’s most sharable.

Dagny, for her part, is a blogging purist. She doesn’t care much for social media, which she describes as “for people who want to be seen.” Blogging, as Dagny views it, is something she does entirely for her own sake—to remember, and memorialize, the person she is as she approaches the end of her life. Though to the world, blogging may be dead, it’s a big part of Dagny’s secret for living well past 100.

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Dagny’s husband died in 2004. They had been together for 53 years—through the introduction of the world’s first personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the original iPhone. When he died, Dagny was 93 and thought that was the end for her, too. What was left for her without him by her side?

Then she found blogging. At the time, she barely knew how to use a computer; she didn’t even know what a blog was, save for that Carl Bild—former Prime Minister of Sweden—had one. (His blog, hosted on WordPress, is still regularly updated and is, like Dagny’s, adorably Web 1.0.) So at age 99, Dagny signed up for a computer class.

“She was a very quiet, tiny lady,” Ström, who taught the class, remembers. “Never talked during our coffee breaks, never chatted merrily like the others did.”

She was a good student, though, and by the time Dagny turned 100, Ström had taught her how to set up a blog—a space in which to write, to feel less alone, to prove she’d done something worth documenting each day.

“I have no idea who was reading at the beginning,” Dagny told me. “I wanted to write, and blogging was a way to realize my writing dreams.”

Dagny doesn’t think anyone would care about her blog if she were, say, a spring chicken of 70 years old. People read about her life not because she’s old, but because she’s extremely old. “I think that it’s good that people become more aware that age is not necessarily connected to dementia and frailty but to blogging as well,” she told me. She once told a Swedish newspaper that “advanced age is a relative concept.”

If you ask her about it now, Dagny says her life really began at age 100, when she started to blog. She fills her days with dinner parties, trips to Stockholm’s Djurgården, and other social outings, all of which she documents online. When she’s traveling—and she does travel, surprisingly often for a woman of her age—she uses an iPad to keep her blog well-furnished, or emails updates to Ström to post on her behalf. The singular indication that Dagny’s age has slowed her down is that she’s given up on cutting her own toenails, a task she now leaves to her podiatrist.

It’s hard to say if 104-year-old Dagny keeps the art of blogging alive or vice versa. For now, Dagny’s vigor for life is matched only by her vigor for blogging. But anyone who’s lived as long as Dagny knows that she won’t be around forever. When she’s gone, she told me, the blog will be gone too.

“To consider what happens after my death feels dull,” she said. After all, her blog exists not for its readers, who regard Dagny as some kind of superwoman; it exists for Dagny herself.