I’m hesitant to describe the kinds of bolts from the blue that inspire Win But Fail as “gifts.” Given a choice as to whether I can have uncomplicated, full-on joy without reservation versus having to confront a problem with something I use or enjoy seems like a no-brainer on the surface. After a second, though, I consider how uncomfortable I am with absolutes. Living as I do in ways that might once have been the losing side of a right-and-wrong argument, I’ll take a bit of uncomfortable nuance any day of the week.
This week delivered in the form of updates to a service I use a great deal: LiveJournal. If you’re unfamiliar, LiveJournal is a social blogging service. Individuals are able to choose from a large variety of “themes” or layouts, and may upload small pictures or “icons” to serve as personal identifiers. Like most, it allows users to post entries and then manages comments in easy to navigate threads, but it also encourages users to form networks of “friends.”
Designating another user as a “friend” automatically adds them to the user’s default reading list, as well as granting them rights to view “locked” or private entries. Users may also define their own, more secure filters if they wish. Users may also create communal journals (called “communities”) which many users can join and post to. According to LiveJournal, Inc., the service hosts more than 16 million journals.
Judge all you like, but I use LiveJournal pretty extensively to keep in touch with long-distance friends. The format is leaps and bounds ahead of services like Facebook and Twitter in terms of threading conversations in a coherent way, and the blog format allows users to make longer posts. Interacting on LiveJournal allows me to enjoy more depth and context while still having social conversations instead of just one-on-one correspondence. Basically, the signal to noise ratio is pretty good. It feels more like a cocktail party and less like shouting in a noisy bar.
The personalization options are reasonably sophisticated (multiple user icons, a wide variety of themes, basic HTML support) as well, so I’m able to express myself figuratively on the Internet fairly seamlessly. In addition to the text of my posts I can include a title, a mood, share what I’m listening to or my location. It’s flexible, and I can use as much or as little of this functionality as I like.
Plus, with 16 million journals and communities, it’s a very big pool. Oceanic, even. I’ve met a lot of fabulous Internet strangers who’ve become dear friends, online and off. I’ve joined communities that reflect my interests and helped me learn more about language, art, religion, music, and sexuality. I’ve shared and read stories. I’ve even fallen in love a few times.
The problem with something like LiveJournal is that it gets into our lives something fierce and it’s easy to forget that it’s not our house. It’s LiveJournal, Inc.’s house, and while their stated values — Self-Expression, Diversity, Creativity, Community, Privacy — sound good on paper, they don’t always come through in practice.
This week’s blatant error in judgment comes in the form of a new feature that allows users to share comments they post via Facebook Connect and Twitter. It sounds benign, and possibly even desirable for some users except that while users can choose not to use the feature themselves, there’s no way to opt out of allowing it on one’s own journal. Worse, users can share content about private posts. While someone on Facebook who isn’t a LiveJournal user and friend of the original poster wouldn’t be able to view the original post, a comment can say a lot about the content of that post.
For individuals who’d like to keep elements of their lives reasonably private – and this is certainly a lot of LiveJournal’s appeal – that’s a hard pill to swallow. While many people (including myself) have asked their readers not to share comments using this new feature, one can’t actually stop them without blocking everyone from commenting altogether, which rather misses the point of using LiveJournal in the first place.
Beyond the current new feature, though, LiveJournal’s list of sins is long. Many users still remember the 2007 “Strikethrough,” so-called because of the way a deleted journal’s name appears with a line through it when linked, during which a significant number of users’ journals and communities were deleted without warning over content targeted by a conservative watchdog group. LiveJournal has also occasionally targeted, either inadvertently or intentionally, sexual assault survivors communities, the LGBTQ community, and breast-feeding advocates, either through settings changes (see gender!fail) or though claiming Terms of Service violations.
Basically, if they’re not springing an unasked-for bit of unwanted functionality at users, they’re punishing users for living up to being what LiveJournal, Inc. purports to want to foster.
16 million journals and communities means that LiveJournal has one hell of a consumer base. That means, in theory, lots of resources for things like uptime, functionality, and support. It also means a thriving user culture, and just on its own that’s a difficult thing to consider walking away from. Even harder is the prospect of striking out into the wilderness of another service – likely Dreamwidth — and having to start again. To be fair, many of my friends (and “friends”) have migrated, or use both services. I’ve used LiveJournal since 2002, though. Leaving feels not unlike moving away from home. Worse, it means moving away and leaving a lot of cool stuff behind.
And yet, it seems like there are always good reasons to at least consider building up a foothold somewhere else. LiveJournal’s friendly roots have (not surprisingly but certainly disappointingly) increasingly lost out to business interests since Danga sold to SUP in 2005. While it’s true that the social internet ceased being a commodity a while back – hint: if you’re a user, you’re the real thing being bought and sold – I at least prefer a company willing to hold up its end of the bargain in terms of the services it purports to render. I don’t really expect Facebook or Twitter to foster community and give me a safe space to chat with a close circle of friends the way I do LiveJournal.
For users like me who’ve invested a lot emotionally (or financially – I have paid accounts at LiveJournal), I don’t think there’s an easy solution. The things that make LiveJournal significant are the same things that make an individual user less so. In my case, it looks increasingly like I’ll be applying a hybrid solution, like migrating my main journal to a paid Dreamwidth account while maintaining a free LiveJournal account in order to keep in touch with those less inclined to emigrate.
It’s not perfect, but it’s something, and I think some people are willing to give things up to feel safe and valued again.