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The Minister Who Updated His Status in a Diary, Every 5 Minutes for 25 Years

(Photo: stevelodefink/Flickr)

Critics of the social-media-obsessed Millennial generation love to tsk-tsk over the fact that these young’uns cannot stop chronicling the minutiae of their lives. After all, how insufferably self-interested must they be to post an update every five minutes? It's like, stop logging and start living, you know?

Such critics have likely not encountered Robert Shields, the unacknowledged father of microblogging. All the way back in the '70s, Shields was logging Twitter-style status updates in five-minute increments. Think you’ve hit peak minutiae with your social media contacts? Wait ’til you read this guy’s accounts of opening soup cans and scraping dead skin from the soles of his feet.

Shields, a minister and teacher in Dayton, Washington, began keeping his diary in 1972. Nothing in particular compelled him to start chronicling his existence. He just started writing one day, and didn’t stop until 25 years later, when a stroke removed his ability to operate his beloved IBM typewriter.

Nothing was too mundane for Shields to include in his logs. Take this item from April 21, 1994:

2:25-2:35 I checked on whether our county tax payment had been received. It had.

Or this update, logged on April 30, 1994:

11:00-11:30 I picked over parts of Newsweek and Time and Harvard magazine and reread them while I ate about a dozen leftover fish sticks. (Cold.)

And as this July 25, 1993 item proves, Shields did not hold back the details, no matter how personal:

7:05 Passed a large, firm stool, and a pint of urine. Used five sheets of paper.

Though you might imagine that logging every body function would prove tedious, Shields found ways to keep it exciting. On April 20, 1996, he wrote that he "whipped up surf in the house toilet bowl until it foamed and surged."

Someone with less poetry in their soul might have just said, “I took a whiz,” but Shields was a born writer. In 1996, the Associated Press reported that the then 77-year-old had ghost-written an erotic novel named "Jasmine Nights," and penned about 1,200 poems. "At least five of them are good," Shields told the AP.

With such a high frequency of updates, some of Shields' diary entries ended up being recursive. "I was at the keyboard of the IBM Wheel-writer making entries for the diary” was a phrase he used often. (Shields would take handwritten notes on his activities, then type them up later in the day.)

Though physical limitations forced him to stop chronicling his life in 1997, Shields lived another decade. He died in October 2007, leaving, according to the New York Times, 37.5 million words behind—along with the nose hair clippings and receipts he taped to the diary pages.

Shields' 25-year chronicle is kept in 91 boxes at Washington State University, but, in accordance with his wishes, may not be viewed by the public until 2057. As for what these documents might reveal to future researchers, Shields himself had some ideas. 

“Maybe by looking into someone’s life at that depth, every minute of every day, they’ll find out something about all people,” he told the Seattle Times in 1994. “I don’t know. No way to tell.”

This story appeared as part of Atlas Obscura's Time Week, a week devoted to the perplexing particulars of keeping time throughout history. See more Time Week stories here.