Apple thinks the next big thing is … journaling?

Apple thinks the next big thing is … journaling?

My wife was in her first trimester when my mom made the suggestion: “I hope you’re journaling. Your baby will get a real kick out of learning about these early days.” And then it was my therapist in the first few weeks of our daughter’s life: “You should try journaling to help process everything you’re feeling.” I told myself just last week: “I should really take up journaling in the new year.”

We’re all familiar with the advice, and even the urge, to journal. It’s a first draft of your personal history and one of the best mindfulness exercises you can do. Despite journalism being my day job, however, I’ve always had a hard time putting my internal monologue on a page or collecting memories in a book. There’s a shelf of mostly blank Moleskine notebooks next to my desk to prove it. There’s also about 10 years’ worth of raw material for a rich, detailed journal hidden away in the notes, photos, and bookmarks on my phone. If only a tech company could come along and help me organize them into the story of my life.

This week, Apple did just that with the release of an app called — you guessed it — Journal. The app is free with the latest iOS update, and it’s brutally simple: just a single blank landing page with a plus sign at the bottom that lets you add entries. Those could be in the form of recent photos, calendar events, workouts, or podcasts you’ve listened to. The app also suggests adding so-called Moments, where you can create an entry out of, say, a podcast you listened to and a photo you took while taking a stroll around the park. You can even use the share button in apps like Safari or Notes to create an entry from a webpage or block of text. Machine learning, a relative of AI, powers the suggestions the app makes for Moments, according to Apple, but beyond that, it’s not clear how AI may factor into the experience.

What’s interesting about the Journal app is a new protocol that lets other journaling apps suggest entries based on the photos and recent activity on your iPhone. It’s part of a set of privacy options Apple is rolling out that let third-party apps surface your photos without accessing much of the associated data. (Think of it this way: Instead of giving Instagram full access to all your photos, the new privacy option could mean that Instagram can show you thumbnails of the photos without getting full access to the image metadata.) And as artificial intelligence continues its steady march into your everyday life, this little bit of extra control might feel meaningful. There’s no indication that Apple has big AI-based dreams behind its new journaling prompts, but I like the idea of giving a tech company only as much information about me as I want and still getting a personalized experience. At the very least, these slightly more automated entries could make my journaling goal more attainable.

There is evidence, by the way, that journaling is good for you. A 2022 meta-analysis of nearly 3,800 studies exploring the impact of journaling on several mental health conditions found real benefits to the practice, at least enough so that the authors of the review recommend primary care providers at least suggest the practice. After all, there are very few side effects and practically no costs associated with writing down one’s thoughts. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even recommend journaling to help regulate stress and, therefore, blood sugar levels.

Tech companies have been trying to turn journaling into a thing since the beginning of the internet, and in some cases, it has worked out incredibly well. Remember LiveJournal and Tumblr — or, for that matter, Blogger? The more recent trend is inward-facing. There are now countless apps that let you dump as many details as you want about your personal life into one place, many of which have wellness or mindfulness features that pester you with notifications to log your mood throughout the day. The journaling apps are ostensibly for your eyes only, and they’re surely helpful to lots of people for countless reasons. But for folks who lived through Facebook’s quest to help you share everything about your life with it — just to see that very personal data end up in third-party hands, often powering hyper-targeted ads — journaling in an app might not feel so private. The idea of an AI-powered journal may seem downright creepy.

But many apps that ask for very personal information have gotten hip to the need for privacy. A number of journaling apps, including Day One and Stoic, let you put a biometric lock on your journal, the 21st-century equivalent of a padlock strapped to a book you hide in a shoebox under your bed. For a monthly fee, those two apps also let you encrypt your data so that absolutely nobody but you can read it. They’re slick apps, but I have a hard enough time writing in my journal when it’s free.

The new Journal app from Apple suggests a different approach. Because it’s baked into the iOS 17 operating system, it’s not only free but also encrypted by default. It can easily access everything that you let it on your phone, and I can already tell from the suggestions that, most of the time, my phone remembers what I’ve been doing better than I do. If you’ve spent much time in the Photos app, you’ll know that the AI-generated slideshows are full of fun trips down memory lane. (It’s worth pointing out here that Google offers similar photo-curation features for Android-powered phones, although I don’t know about any plans for a Google-made journaling app.)

None of this means you should run out and start journaling on your iPhone. The Journal app is just a few days old, and I can’t really recommend it until I’m confident it helped me keep my New Year’s resolution to log more precious memories of my newborn daughter. I do think that we’re beginning to witness a change in how we remember things, though, and in how our memories work — all with an increasingly heavy assist from the devices we interact with constantly. It occurs to me that Apple’s interest in journaling is actually an interest in learning more about iPhone users, with the goal of creating a more intuitive computing experience, one that will inevitably rely more heavily on AI.

As 2023 draws to a close, we’re bound to see plenty of tributes to ChatGPT and similar technologies. It was a big year for AI-powered things! But I’d argue that smaller, more subtle shifts in how software works will define the year to come. It’s certainly possible that the AI revolution will be loud, upending entire industries in the blink of an eye. But I think it will be a quiet one, at least in the beginning. Perhaps it’s as simple as an app knowing when and how to help you remember moments you never want to forget — without even thinking about writing them down in a dusty book.

A version of this story was also published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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