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The demise of a social media platform: Tracking LiveJournal's decline

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In a 2010 New York Review of Books essay on the Facebook generation, Zadie Smith wrote, “At my screening [of The Social Network], when a character in the film mentioned the early blog platform LiveJournal (still popular in Russia), the audience laughed.” She went on to dub the site “comically obsolete.”

Once universally praised for founder Brad Fitzpatrick’s open-source platform and commitment to a free userbase—he once vowed that LiveJournal would always have basic (non-paying or ad-supported) accounts—LiveJournal is known these days mostly for being popular in Russia (the Russian name for blogging is “LJ.”) and Singapore, and for housing gossip blog Oh No They Didn’t.

What happened?

LiveJournal’s U.S. General Manager, Anjelika Petrochenko, spoke to the Daily Dot about the company’s evolution under their most recent owner, Russian-based SUP:

“Back [when LiveJournal was first created], the Internet was really small. Think about how many websites you actually could use. You had to make do with LiveJournal and Yahoo, pretty much. Now, userbases are growing, more people have access to more websites, and there are so many interesting technologies. It's the natural evolution of the Internet. It's very different from what it was even three years ago, let alone10 years ago.”

From roughly 2002 to 2007, a core part of discussion-heavy fandom and writing communities existed entirely on LiveJournal. LJ was unique among social media networks for a long time because so much of fandom communication happened in a central location. Though other journaling platforms like DeadJournal, GreatestJournal (both now defunct), InsaneJournal, and JournalFen existed, LJ was the central fandom hub due to the ease of combining community discussion with fanwork.

Over the last half-decade, however, that community has eroded. LiveJournal has been mired in dysfunction and bad public relations. Especially prominent since Fitzpatrick’s departure in 2005 has been an ongoing cycle of friction between LJ and its userbase:

"It's always a work in progress,” Petrochenko offered. “I've been working for LJ almost five years, and I remember times when it was so much worse in terms of technical process. I see a huge progress. There is a user backlash, but it's more about people liking or not liking the features. I see a huge progress in terms of how increasingly successful our product releases are.”

It’s true that LiveJournal has made strides in recent years toward improving its page load times and responding to issues. But although Petrochenko believes that this cycle of dysfunction is past, the effect it has had on users is still being felt.

The most notoriously bad decision of all for LiveJournal, the one that many users see as the beginning of the end, came in 2007. LiveJournal, systematically and without warning, deleted and banned hundreds of journals for impermissible content in a PR fiasco that made national headlines and came to be known as Strikethrough.

Many fandom journals were wrongfully targeted and deleted, and although most of the journals were restored, not all fans chose to return. In protest, the community fandom_counts was created to send a visible message to LiveJournal staff that fandom was a major part of the site’s userbase. Within 24 hours, over 30,000 accounts joined.

Even worse for many users was when the same thing happened all over again just three months later, in an incident known as Boldthrough. This time the outrage was even more sustained, and it didn’t help that several LJ staff showed disdain and lack of understanding of the userbase.

Just five days after Boldthrough, Fitzpatrick announced his departure for Google. “I barely recognize this place from the one I signed up on back in 2001,” said one user on Fitzpatrick’s announcement post.

After the events of 2007, fandom began to realize that movement away from LJ was inevitable. The outrage over Strikethrough directly contributed to the creation of the fan-run journal platform Dreamwidth and the fan-run fanfiction archive ArchiveOfOurOwn.org.

LiveJournal user cellia recalls, “Strikethrough confirmed in my mind that I'll never give LJ any money, that I should back everything up regularly, and that one day I would get a Dreamwidth account.”

“We are sitting quietly by the fireside, creating piles and piles of content around us, and other people... are going to end up creating the front doors that new fanfic writers walk through, unless we stand up and build our OWN front door,” popular LiveJournaler astolat insisted just two weeks before Strikethrough happened.

Strikethrough hit at the moment when LiveJournalers were finally ready to listen to the call to create their own spaces. But the real death knell for English-speaking LJ didn’t come until several years later.

Just as Russian company SUP, who bought the struggling platform from SixApart in 2007, began to make progress in restoring LiveJournal’s integrity, the site was crippled repeatedly in 2010 and 2011 by DDOS attacks aimed at Russian bloggers. At the precise moment when LiveJournal happened to be unusable for many people due to the DDOS attacks, the growth of Tumblr and Twitter as social platforms began to draw more users in.

LiveJournal staff had to adapt, and fast. “Our response time is so fast now that we have one of the best DDOS protections on the Internet,” Petrochenko said, “just because we have been attacked so many times. Our OS team reacts immediately and most of the time our users don't even know that something even happened, because we've improved so much.”

But despite overcoming such a huge obstacle, LiveJournal can’t seem to overcome ongoing tension with its userbase.

Ilya Dronov, head of LiveJournal’s Russian platform, tells the Dot that “when making plans for the product, we try to foresee the ways in which any given development can adversely affect existing users. Such concerns are never ignored.”

Try telling that to the userbase.

“The thing is,” former LJ user Cimorene wrote on their Dreamwidth account in 2010, “if you keep using LJ because other people are doing it, you're providing the content that LJ is selling. You're part of the giant ball-and-chain anchoring fandom to LJ. I don't want to be part of that.”

“When you have to work with a userbase, it's impossible to make sure that every single change you make on the website will make everybody happy,” Petrochenko told me. “It's not that we don't care; yes, we do care. But you're a LiveJournal user, you know how old the system is. It's so much work to do to make it efficient in terms of page loads, and to make the site run faster.”

Azurelunatic was the volunteer maintainer of suggestions and a ranking support volunteer from 2007 to 2010. In 2008, at the request of LiveJournal’s then-head of Development, Tupshin Harper, she wrote a thorough history lesson for incoming LiveJournal management. “It's necessary to be conversant with the history of LiveJournal's users versus its administration if you are going to be administrating the site,” she wrote. “The collective memory of LiveJournal users is incredibly long...The same issues are being raised in news comments currently as they were six years ago.”

“A lot of our users have been with us for 13 years, 10 years, 5 years,” Petrochenko said.

“And this is a precious part of our userbase that we would like to keep as much as it is possible. But sometimes people naturally go elsewhere—sometimes they just like Facebook better and they leave, because they don't really want conversation, they just want to keep connections with their real friends there. Because that's what LiveJournal used to be before Facebook existed.

"Our success isn't when a user spends all of his time on LiveJournal, because it's unrealistic, it's never going to happen. We want people to spend time on LiveJournal, but they will use Facebook, because everybody is on Facebook. So we want to have features that will allow you to connect to Facebook, to connect to Twitter. We want to be a part of your life as a user, knowing that there are other websites in your life. ”

The insistent comparison to Facebook seems odd, given that so many users have told LiveJournal they don’t want the site to be like Facebook. But Azurelunatic told the Daily Dot that LiveJournal has always had problems acknowledging its userbase. “LiveJournal has forever had an uneasy relationship with the people who actually use it. The vision of the people steering this tugboat has never ever been the same as the people actually on board.”

Timeline of a Mass Exodus

SUP has made a noble effort to restore faith in its product and show respect for the English side of its userbase, especially the fandom contingent that its predecessor SixApart once dismissed and offended. In 2008, it announced the creation of a LiveJournal advisory board and allowed LJ users to elect a board member. The first person elected, legojen (now dapperderp), was a known, longtime member of Harry Potter fandom. Though it did away with the board just two years later, users welcomed the initial move to engage them in LiveJournal policies.

Today, LiveJournal emphasizes its “communities” as part of its ongoing new direction, especially its more publicity-friendly communities, such as Oh No They Didn’t and its spinoffs, as well as longstanding LJ staples like customers_suck and vaginapagina.

“Our user niche views us through communities,” said Petrochenko. “Now, in 2012, our communities are what makes us unique and makes us awesome. There's no other place on earth like ONTD if you want to go and snark about celebrities, or like ONTD_political, or as unique as vaginapagina. It's ours, and we're proud of that.”

But these are communities with a broad userbase, not subculture-based communities such as Fandom Secrets, roleplaying games, or innumerable kink and anon memes. These fans have long felt alienated by LiveJournal’s management, especially because of Strikethrough, but most recently because of an extremely controversial change to LiveJournal’s interface that came last year: the decision to remove subject lines from comments.

LiveJournal has defended the change as a part of the site’s ongoing development. “We analyzed current usage and determined that fewer than 1 percent of comments on LiveJournal had subjects,” Dronov said. “The removal of this field made development of a quality mechanism of expanding comment threads much easier. It has also made the field itself much easier to understand. The overall business requirement of this feature was to make our product more usable for 99 percent of LiveJournal users.”

But since the decision was technically unnecessary, fans and other core users still view the removal of subjects as an unnecessary change whose only purpose was alienating these kinds of communities, because of the sheer number of accounts rendered ineffectual from the change.

“LJ staff says that 99 percent of LJ comments do not have subjects,” Azurelunatic said. “But many users have questioned this statement. The incorrect interpretation of this statistic is that 99 percent of users do not use comment subjects.”

Fandom Secrets was the second-largest English-speaking community on LiveJournal. The removal of subject lines forced it to move to Dreamwidth. “[LJ has] a long history (think years, not months) of not caring much about fandom in general even if we are a loyal, vocal part of their userbase,” said Fandom Secrets mod Technophile when announcing the decision to leave. “Every new change LJ makes to the commenting system is making it harder and harder for fandom to stay here.”

Dronov disagreed. “We have done a lot of work to improve the system of commenting in LiveJournal, as well as other pages. The performance of many pages has improved, pages load faster and we receive a lot of feedback that LiveJournal is becoming easier to use. Of course, it would be easier to leave everything as-is, but is necessary to keep evolving our product to keep in step with the development of digital media in general.”

“Even though [changes to] the commenting system had a big backlash, we actually received very positive feedback as well,” added Petrochenko. “We have seen a lot of people switch to the new system.”

LiveJournal has tacitly compromised on the subject line issue by allowing users to continue hacking a very old layout, which currently is the only thing allowing communities that require subject lines to survive on the site. But the fiasco has many once-loyal users permanently doubting LJ’s interests.

Petrochenko and Dronov spoke of their strategic vision for the site. “I'm a big believer in LiveJournal,” Petrochenko said. “We have a very passionate team here. Everyone who works on LiveJournal has been a user for many years. We are doing this out of really good intentions to make the site work better and make our users happy.”

“LJ's strength lies in personalities and individuals, in like-minded communities, in united bloggers,” Dronov added. “There are longtime contributors as well as newcomers. We understand that new features will not be universally acclaimed, but we really are driven by the desire to make our product better for everyone.”

When asked to describe her ideal user, Petrochenko stated, “a person who's interested in very open, and frank conversation, because we are a conversation platform. LiveJournal provides you everything to speak your mind, be whoever you really are or want to be, and have that kind of conversation online. No other website really gives you that.”

And it’s true. LiveJournal offers its userbase a unique community experience that many, many users have been openly missing for months—even as they continue to use blogging alternatives like Tumblr and Dreamwidth. “I miss LJ” is a cry commonly heard throughout fandom. The feeling of community that many users once prized about the site has faded. Ironically, in trying to emphasize its communities, LiveJournal seems to have quashed the community that drew its userbase to the site in the first place.

According to Dronov, LiveJournal users still spend more than 100 million minutes per month on the site, and it’s true that many celebrities still use LiveJournal, including Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, chess legend Garry Kasparov, and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

But overwhelmingly within LiveJournal’s fandom contingent resides an awareness that the golden age, or perhaps the illusion, of a single platform for every aspect of fannish life has come and gone. Once we’ve dispersed from LJ, the thinking goes, we can never truly go back.

Recently, former support volunteer DayDreamer, responding to an LJ support poll, mentioned “the general feeling of ‘betrayed and helpless’” as a factor in her decision to leave.

But perhaps the most telling statistic of all comes from Fitzpatrick himself.

In 2009, he insisted, “I still use LiveJournal.” But his regular LJ updates abruptly stopped in March 2010, and he now speaks of his LiveJournal in the past tense.

Perhaps he, like many other LJ users, has realized that when a website and its core userbase clash so dramatically, all the users can do is move on.

Photo via LiveJournal