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In 1916, on a troopship from Australia, a pair of soldiers stuffed a piece of paper in a bottle. "Two young men, soldiers on our way to the Front," they had written on it, "would like the person or persons finding this note to write to us as we are very lonely." Like so many bottle-borne missives, it was an attempt to call out to strangers in unknown places. And the attempt was not entirely in vain.
According to an Australian newspaper, the bottle and its note were found on the coast of Tasmania by a passing priest nearly four decades later.
The practice of sending a message in a bottle has gone out of fashion, lost to the decline in ocean travel and rise of surer methods of communicating. But the impulse to reach out to strangers has not disappeared. It has lately resurfaced in the form of an elaborate type of Internet-based game.
Last year in Hacienda Heights, California, Joy Rothke decided to cast a message out into the world. She copied down a favorite Frank O'Hara poem and sent it on its way. Not in a bottle, but in a journal, which she dropped in the mail. Her package was sent to a stranger on the Isle of Man, a woman whose name she no longer remembers. That person read Rothke's message, added one of her own and sent the journal along to someone else, who read it, added to it and so on. The volunteer writers and artists had signed up to receive the journal at Web sites for the Wandering Moleskine Project www.moleskinerie.com or octolan.com/journey named for the brand of notebook passed around. Some also sent e-mail messages back to the site noting where the journal was.
The Wandering Moleskine Project is one of at least five such traveling journal games that have lately sprung up on the Internet. Others include the Baghdad Diaries Project, Sight Unseen Journals and projects in Italian and German. Combining the worldwide reach of the Internet with old-fashioned writing, drawing, pasting, wrapping and sending by conventional mail, the traveling journals are modern, loosely organized games of message in a bottle. They offer people a chance to cast out their feelings, their wisdom and their secrets, and in so doing, to ease their loneliness and reach out to worlds beyond their own.
"There is this belief that the Internet has killed off note keeping, and it's really not true," said Rothke, a freelance writer and writing teacher who called the combination of "a notebook floating around" and the Internet "the best of both worlds."
People have been playing similar Web-based games since at least 1998, with the creation of WheresGeorge.com, a dollar-bill tracking site. Participants wrote the site's address on dollar bills and hoped that recipients would log on and note their location.
Web addresses have likewise been attached to everything from rubber ducks to cigarette lighters, which are then left in public places to be found and passed along by strangers, ideally people who will log their progress on a Web site. Two of the best-known tracking games are Phototag.org, which tracks disposable cameras labeled with instructions for each finder to take a picture and pass it along, and BookCrossing.com, which follows the travels of books through a series of readers.
The journal-tracking games take the concept to another level by asking participants to contribute something personal and often creative to the object being passed along.
For many contributors, the fun lies simply in seeing how distant a path a journal can travel.
"Would those in Finland or America have imagined that this notebook would see a sunrise like this in a campground at a folk music festival near Braidwood in outback New South Wales in Australia? where the white cockatoos' screech adds a distinctly Australian flavor to the scattered fiddles, guitars and accordions greeting the day!" That note was left in a journal by a man named Jerry Everard in the winter of 2004. He also scanned it and sent it to the Moleskine site.
"The whole international element is kind of cool," said Linda Zacks, a 32-year-old artist from Brooklyn who participated in the 1,000 Journals Project at www.1000journals.com, which inspired the creation of several journal games. "It's going to travel all over the place and you don't really know where. You can make a connection with a random person. Or inspire a random person. Or be inspired by someone you might have never met." She received the journal after contacting the Web site and then passed it on to a friend.
For people who have never thought of themselves as writers, contributing even a page or two in a journal can bring unexpected satisfaction. "Seen so many beautiful scenes from beaches that extend to the horizon and lakes frozen with ice and covered in snow," wrote Ralph Sarich of Detroit in January in a journal from the Wandering Moleskine Project. "Yet I have never ever written these things in a book."
Journal entries can be cliched a heart with bandages and a sticker across it that reads "fragile" or profound a man writing about his dead godfather's many travels and tackle any subject that, as Brian Singer, the creator of the 1,000 Journals Project, put it, "people are willing to write when no one is there to see you." There are rants about politics, quotes from the Kama Sutra, inspirational messages like "Stop searching, happiness is right next to you," family photographs, maps, even compact discs of favorite music. One man stuck a dollar bill into a journal to buy coffee for the next contributor.
If the participants were interested merely in sharing their ideas and drawings with others, they could do that far more easily by contributing to online journals and chat rooms. That they choose instead to pass along actual books via land, sea or air reflects a change in the way people are thinking about the Internet.
Keeping a journal has long been a favorite pastime, but the world is littered with unfinished diaries whose keepers lost steam before filling the pages. Many people prefer a traveling journal because it does not require long-term commitment, said Jennifer New, author of "Drawing From Life: The Journal as Art," published in May. "They only have it in their homes for a few days or weeks," she said.
The traveling journal concept essentially began with Singer, of San Francisco, who in the fall of 2000 left 100 blank journals in various places cafe tables, park benches, bus seats and the like throughout his city. After that he began sending them by mail to people he met through his Web site until 1,000 journals had been dispersed to all 50 American states and about 35 countries.
A message inside each one reads: "Take this journal and add something to it. Stories, photographs, drawings, opinions. Anything goes. Visit the Web site and tell everyone where you found it. If possible, scan what you added and send it to us. If the journal is full, e-mail us, and we'll arrange for its return. Contents will be shared with the world."
Singer, a self-described introvert known on the Web site only as Someguy, explained: "There is something interesting about collaborating with people you don't know. There's something romantic about this journal doing things that you couldn't do: going to Croatia, to France."
As Joao Tito from Portugal wrote in a Wandering Moleskine journal, "I wish I could travel with this notebook."
Mindy Carpenter, 34, the creative director for an Italian gift and stationery company in San Francisco, said she and her husband contributed to a journal connected to the 1,000 Journals Project. "So many people participated in it," Carpenter said, "from kids to professional artists to just everyday people who had something to say. There were no rules. It was a really kind of fascinating paper documentary."
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