The sad history of Livejournal as a lens for understanding the state of social media today

Like Facebook, Livejournal was built in a bright student's dormroom; but unlike Facebook, LJ wasn't built "for nonconsensually rating the fuckability of stolen photos of undergrads," but rather as a community-minded platform for self-expression and connection-forging.

Today, LJ is Russian-owned and Russian-hosted, and while it remains hugely influential in Russia, it is also viewed with great sorrow by its non-Russian exiles, who left, or were forced to leave, by a series of minor and major catastrophes that are a kind of microcosm of the ways that online communities can both excel and fail.

Steven T Wright's potted history of LJ on Ars Technica is a fascinating read on the subject, tracing LJ's history from a nonprofit, volunteer-run project that used borrowed space in a small ISP (literally a closet) to host itself, to a small, struggling business that tried to balance a commitment to its users with the need to keep the lights on, to a division of Six to Start, where the new managers struggled to rebalance that commitment, sometimes getting it wrong and sometimes being needlessly tormented by both trolls and users who refused all change, to the site's sad situation today.

The most interesting part of Wright's history is that difficult balancing act between the commercial needs of the service and the ethos of prioritizing users' comfort. Sometimes, this made the service too timid, and other times it was far too bold. It's important to remember that in this day of giant services that are almost totally unresponsive to users' needs (from Facebook to Tumblr), there's also nothing about "listening to users" that automatically guarantees that you'll produce something they like (or that you can financially sustain).

Multiple subjects point to a particular kerfuffle as an example of LiveJournal’s rowdy userbase in action: a 2006 controversy over bare breasts in user icons that the employees dubbed their “Nipplegate.” According to Paolucci, it all started when a trollish user set their default user icon to a picture of The Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur photoshopped on the head of a naked woman. Since your default icon was used in search indexing, the site-wide policy disallowed nudity on it, though it was fine elsewhere. The team asked the user to remove it—but instead of complying, the user decided to start reporting any nudity he saw on fellow user icons, many of which belonged to a pro-breastfeeding group that liked to exhibit their children breastfeeding as part of their icons. The LiveJournal team recognized this behavior as malicious reporting, but they felt handcuffed by their own rules. Soon, the breastfeeding groups were asked to remove their icons as well, resulting in a national PR nightmare for Six Apart. At least one major activist group protested outside their offices.

Hassan says it was a shock for the employees of Six Apart, especially those who weren’t devoted LJ users. “It was in our weekly company meetings, and we’re reporting on this new policy, and whether or not you can show the areola,” he says. “The rest of the company had not engaged with this. They were used to selling to businesses, not dealing with the chaos that a direct userbase can bring...Today, on Facebook or Twitter, everything is a form response, or an auto-response. But early on, we set the expectation that if you wrote in to us, you would get a personalized response. We should’ve been more severe. We didn’t have that level of nuance in our policy. It was like, are breasts OK? No, then, done. We should’ve taken more of a stance on what ‘sexualized’ meant, and moved in the direction of community standards, like what [image sharing site] Flickr had, rather than freedom of speech.”

Hassan’s response echoes a common refrain of these one-time LiveJournal employees: the inertia of user expectations could become almost impossible to overcome. For instance, soon after Six Apart bought the company, a conveyor belt of project managers were brought on to try to harness the chaos of the company into something more profitable. These new analysts took aim at the site’s freemium model, only to be stymied by the weight of past promises. “We were always saying that we were fighting for the users, that we would run everything by the community before we did anything,” says Mark Smith, a software engineer who worked on LiveJournal and became the co-creator of Dreamwidth. “Well, as it turns out, when you do that, you end up with the community telling you that they want everything to stay the same, forever. We had promised to never include ads on the site, and all of a sudden we have our new management telling us, ‘The site needs ads, the site needs ads.’ It was an impossible situation.”

“The Linux of social media”—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging [Steven T. Wright/Ars Technica]