"Linux social networks" - how LiveJournal became the discoverer of blogs, and then lost them

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George Martin's transition to a different blogging platform reminds us of the radical changes of the blogging giant

We can do without spoilers, but with the departure of one famous fantasy writer, LiveJournal was left alone, something like John Snow in the photo

Last April, the celebrated writer and killer of heroes George Martin announced that he was moving his ancient blog from the rotting LiveJournalon your personal site. For ordinary fans of the Game of Thrones, this was at best a slight misunderstanding - most simply followed the new link and did not even look back. But for certain groups of enthusiasts it was a more significant move. Martin's blog, which Janine Constanzo, a longtime LiveJournal volunteer, then becoming an employee of the company, described as “the last stronghold”, was probably the last link of the site, once a giant among blog platforms, with popular culture. And, although the author may not be able to complete his most beloved fans literary book series, his simple action in web hosting logistics truly marks the end of an era.

When I was growing up on the web at the dawn of the social network era (around 2007), it seemed to me that all the sites obsessed with connectivity and forming the burgeoning core of the Internet, are haunted by a fading ghost called LiveJournal. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have a single friend who would lead my LiveJournal, but rumors and gossip constantly came to me about the dramas unfolding on this service. And, judging by the frank conversations with some of the figures who made LiveJournal what it is now, this impression was quite true. LiveJournal, or LJ, as its users tenderly called it [and in the post-Soviet space - LJ / approx. perev.], was a special kind of social networks, virtually unrecognizable in a world dominated by the revealing anonymity power of Facebook or Twitter. But, as many former employees admit to him, LJ had the opportunity to become one of these “second generation” social monsters. Instead, the stubborn user base and controversial business decisions buried these ambitions. And now the last figurative sacrifice of Martin - breaking off relations with LJ - serves as a brief reminder of the rise of the platform to the top and of the decisions that have dropped this blog icon from heaven to earth.

Created in a hostel

Like many other well-known names in the world of technology, LJ began as a project by a single person, who was simply bored; He began to develop a teenager, a technology lover, who had nothing more to do. As the founder of the project Brad Fitzpatrick recallsIn 1998, when he was denied access to America Online due to the fact that he had experimented too much with the service, he convinced the local provider to allow the use of Common Gateway Interface scripts on his personal page. This allowed him to write his own programs that produce dynamic objects on the pages, for example, his age in seconds, updated with each page reload. The novelty of dynamic objects hit Fitzpatrick, and as a result he made for his computer a single-line water text field located on the desktop above the Start button, where he could enter text that immediately appeared on his website.

“I didn’t even have a submit button,” Fitzpatrick recalls. - Everything worked on the "enter" button. My early posts in LiveJournal looked like “I will go, come down for a cola,” or “I'm bored”. It was very much like an early twitter. ”

Having distributed the script to friends, Fitzpatrick realized that he would have to distribute the program again with each new update, so he gave friends access to his server in order to simplify the task. When Fitzpatrick went to college at Washington University shortly thereafter, the script began to spread there. As a result, an entire floor of his hostel, as well as friends from other states, was engaged in posting records on the Internet. From this point on, the service began to grow and develop organically.

These first few users formed the site’s functionality through their behavior. For example, when friends started complaining about the uncircumcised “text walls” that some users posted, Fitzpatrick added a “Post” button so that people could move paragraphs apart. Initially, it was not possible to respond to people's posts - until, of course, Fitzpatrick decided that he wanted to mock at one of his friend's posts. Therefore, he added the ability to leave comments only to snitch under one of the posts.

“And everything went well,” Fitzpatrick says. “The current mood, the current music, the image in the profile — all this appeared in attempts to have fun and add everything that is possible, or everything that was then supported by the web.”

At a certain point in his college career, around 2000, Fitzpatrick realized that LJ had evolved from being able to play around with CGI scripts into something that was approaching the state of real business. “At that moment,” he recalls, “the mission turned into attempts to simply maintain the service in working order.” When the end of his studies was approaching, the popularity of the project continued to grow (and with it the cost of maintaining servers), and he began to think about whether he needed to hire someone to keep the site from falling every week.

Then he met Lisa Phillips, a sysadmin from a local DSL provider in Seattle. She posted an entry in LiveJournal exactly at the moment when Fitzpatrick was trying to transfer working servers from his dorm room somewhere. “Our company had a lot of LJ users,” says Philips. - So I just contacted him and said: I do not know you, but we have a place. It was literally a counter in the pantry, but the place was there. ”

Fitzpatrick, in search of a sysadmin for a full day, sent Philips a job offer in 2001. At that time, they were 21 years old, and Fitzpatrick had never hired anyone, so he brought his father with him to arrange everything in a manner similar to a formal interview. “It was amazingly professional,” says Phillips. - And I got the job. I became the first person who was paid for administration in LJ. ”

LiveJournal shortly after opening in 1999

LiveJournal in 2003, after reaching the level of a million

LJ users in 2008, after selling

LiveJournal is still alive today - and most popular in Russia

Its current version is a bit like Reddit

Phillips recalls that at that time it was necessary to work 24 hours a day to support LJ online, work was hard, and the list of responsibilities was growing all the time. (During the first two years after hiring Phillips LJ, it overcame the bar of a million users - many years later, after social networks gained popularity, Twitter also took almost two years to do this). Fitzpatrick and other early LJ programmers lived in Fitzpatrick’s hometown, Beaverton, Oregon, and the site’s servers were located in the suburbs of Seattle, where Phillips was, three hours away. Naturally, it was responsible for the physical maintenance of the data center, adding servers to the rack and ensuring the smooth operation of the service. And since Fitzpatrick was her only insurance, and the site constantly exceeded the capabilities of iron, Philips, in general, communicated with him on a daily basis, to the extent that she warned him by SMS that she was going to go to the movies for a couple of hours. But, despite the difficult working conditions, she believed in the LJ mission, and this helped her work on weekends and evenings.

“All the companies I worked for were connected with interests and opportunities about how cool it would be when we could create communities that were not physically limited,” she says. - I remember, somehow I had a very hard week, and I said that it was time for me to quit and go to work somewhere in a pizzeria. And my daughter-in-law told me with tears in her eyes that LJ had saved her life. She had recently given birth, she was in a community of girls who had recently become mothers, living in homogeneous communities, and they were united on the basis of liberal views, love for tattoos and unusual ideas. She said that the mother’s life sometimes seems lonely, and access to these communities was the only way to prevent mothers from completely unstuck. She said that if I had not done my job of supporting the service, she did not know how her life would turn.

Growing diseases

The popularity of the site grew, and by the end of the zero, the number of volunteers who were engaged in both training new users and moderating the site for toxicity was very strongly inflated. And again, the site began to pursue concerns about the company's ability to provide for itself, especially in view of the ever-expanding list of responsibilities of its founder. He only wanted to add new features to the site, but in the end he took on as many responsibilities as he could: he responded to users' letters, negotiated hosting, tried to increase revenues. “I didn’t know how to delegate authority, and constantly balanced on the verge of burnout,” says Fitzpatrick. “I had the feeling that every day I rush to and fro, and struggle with the fires that arise, since we mostly had only programmers on our staff.”

Since the core of LJ staff, about 10-12 people, could only deal with keeping the site afloat, the site’s policy often had to be done by volunteers. And such a structure sometimes just kindled fires even more.

“The site’s problem was that we were all very young and no one had any experience in project management,” said Deniz Chachchi, who led the team of volunteer LJ support participants for several years (she later co-founded the Dreamwidth LJ branch) . “We invented everything along the way. I think Brad only wanted to program. At that time, we had problems, because the outcome of the discussions depended on who had most recently shouted Brad the loudest. Friends told him about the problem they had encountered, and he began to repair it. But sometimes it happened that the support team could ask for the same thing a long time ago, as a result, the volunteers were annoyed when it turned out that they wanted to realize this opportunity somehow differently. If we didn’t realize the wishes of users exactly, we started having problems. ”

As a result, Fitzpatrick was tired of the role of a pseudo-manager, which he charged himself against his will, and sold the company (named Danga) to Six Apart in 2005. At the time, Six Apart was a small software development company, and TypePad’s blogging program was its most famous project.

Looking back, Fitzpatrick said that his decision was also influenced by concerns about increasing competition from proto-social sites like WordPress (appeared in 2003) and Blogger (appeared in 1999). (To give you an idea of ​​the complete landscape of social networks: Facebook was founded a year earlier in 2004, Twitter will open in 2006). But in the middle of zero, at the peak of popularity, LiveJournal was the titanium of blogs, and could boast ten million users. Many people with whom the Ars journalist spoke referred to the largest community site dedicated to the rumors of stars, Oh No They Didn't (ONTD), as an example of the influence of the site. As former LJ employee Abe Hassan says, even when larger social networks began to outrun LJ, celebrity’s deaths attracted so much traffic to their site, that he was beginning to fall - since the tragic demise of Heath Ledger in 2008. The page also began several large, but now forgotten scandalous stories of that era, including pregnancy.Jamie Lynn Spears (news of which was later picked up by larger editions).

As one of the first employees, Janine Constanzo, recalls, the purchase of the site was very disturbed by its employees. Some hoped that Six Apart would develop a reliable plan to support the service afloat in the long term. The capital injection allowed the company to hire long-time full-time volunteers like Konstanzo and Hassan, which helped strengthen the team's morale. But as time went on, it became clear that the treasurers of Six Apart did not understand what to do with the hardened backbone of LJ users, who organized scandals about every change the company wanted to make, especially when it came to making profits.

Among the many contributions made by LiveJournal to the web, and existing for a long time, we can mention memcached written by Fitzpatrick in 2003 (the first commit can be found here ). The picture shows Ars server graphics for 2013.

Many interlocutors point to a certain scandal as an example of how a noisy LJ user base behaved: in 2006 there was a dispute over the admissibility of using a bare female breast in avatars, which the employees called Nipplegate [Eng. nipple - nipple, the whole word - an allusion to the Watergate scandal/ approx. trans.]. According to Catchci, it all started with the fact that one troll, by default, put a picture of a naked woman with her avatar, whose face was replaced by the face of Beatrice Arthur, an American actress, best known for her role in the television series Golden Girls"Because avatars are used by default in search results, the site’s policy prohibited the use of nudity on them, allowing it to be used in other places. The team asked to remove the avatar, but instead of submitting, the user began to complain about the nude on avatars of other users, many of who belonged to the community of supporters of breastfeeding, who liked to demonstrate the process of feeding on avatars. The LJ team considered this behavior malicious denunciation, but was found to be by implementing their own rules. Soon, members of the breastfeeding community began to ask for corrections to their avatars, which led to a PR nightmare for Six Apart. At least one group of activists organized a protest under the windows of their office.

Hassan says this was a shock for the Six Apart staff, especially for people who are not particularly committed to LiveJournal. “We discussed this at weekly meetings, talked about the new policy, argued about whether or not areola could be shown,” he says. - Other employees did not enter into these discussions. They are accustomed to engage in sales for other businesses, and not to deal with the chaos that users are satisfied. Today on Facebook or Twitter, everything is organized in the form of forms and automatic responses. But earlier we forced users to expect that if they write to us, we will respond to them personally. We had to act stricter. We had no such nuances in politics. Can I show the chest? No - and the point. We had to take a tough stance on "sexualization", and move to strengthen the standards, such as the Flickr website,

These thoughts reflect the common attitude of people who once worked in LiveJournal: the inertia of user expectations could be an obstacle that cannot be overcome. For example, shortly after the purchase, Six Apart attracted a crowd of project managers who were commissioned to turn the chaos that reigned in the company into something more profitable. These new analysts set about freemium, which the site adhered to, and were stumped by earlier promises. “We have always said that we are fighting for users, that before doing something, we will always consult with the community,” said Mark Smith, a programmer who worked in LiveJournal and who became one of the creators of Dreamwidth. - It turns out that in this case the community tells you that it wants everything to remain unchanged forever. We promised never to advertise on the site, and suddenly new managers tell us, “The site needs advertising, the site needs advertising”. The situation was insoluble. "

It was best summarized by Mr. Cucci: “In 2007, at the peak of the burnout phase, when we had already gone down to the hangman's humor, we joked that if we wrote in the news of the magazine that we were distributing $ 100, pony and latte, then in the first five comments complaints about caffeine intolerance, allergies to ponies and a long text about the fact that the free distribution of money is the root of evil in the community, ”she recalls. “It was black humor, but there was a grain of truth in it. There was antagonism between people emotionally connected with the community and people making decisions about the product. There was no trust between them. And this antagonism and buried the project. ”

With the end of zero, competition for the attention of users began to grow

But the turmoil in LJ did not occur, of course, in a vacuum. At the end of zero blogs, new projects began to get involved in the war, competitors like Tumblr began to suck out market share from LJ. The outcome of LJ seems to have happened in particular because of such actions as, for example, the massive blocking of several members of the community that composed pornographic stories in the Harry Potter universe, under the pressure of religious groups (apparently due to the presence of erotic stories, where minor characters are involved). One incident followed another, tensions accumulated, employees gradually left the company. Six Apart eventually sold LJ to Russian company SUP Media in 2007 [until December 20, 2011 - SUP Fabrik].

Thanks to servers located in the USA, LJ gained great popularity among Russian users after launching the platform - so much so that the service name became synonymous with a blog in a language, something like Kleenex or Thermos [more correct examples of eponyms in Russian would be Xerox or Pampers / approx. trans.]. As a result, in January 2009, all American employees were dismissed, and today LJ continues to work as a site for Russians, run by Russians. (As pointed out by Chachchi and Smith, a rather large proportion of users moved from the site to their fork of the Dreamwidth after SUP decided to move the server to Russia. Some of the users were afraid that the Russian authorities would be able to request digital data from the servers through the court).

Looking back, former LJ employees agree that the closed nature of the site can never compete with community-facing and data-gathering monsters like Facebook and Twitter. Hassan recalls the day when Facebook introduced the concept of a “news feed” that allowed users to see their friends' updates in a coherent (but perhaps voyeuristic) form. According to him, LJ employees were preparing to release such functionality, but were afraid of the negative reaction of the community. “In a sense, they took the blow in our stead, but it also changed the privacy model in unexpected ways,” he says. “These sites have changed the world, but we have not tried to adapt.”

Despite this, LJ employees interviewed by Ars consider their platform to be something cleaner than the numerous social services of today, and their work remains an unforgettable professional experience. “It all comes down to the fact that Twitter and Facebook wanted to become Walmart among social networks - everyone has their own account,” says Chachchi. - We wanted to be a cozy family shop on the corner in the world of social networks, but sold it to someone who did not understand. And that's why Dreamwidth comes into play. ”

“We were Linux in the world of social networks,” as Hassan describes it. - We did not have an explicit model of what our site is, but we had its capabilities. We had the handles settings and features. All the opportunities that Facebook introduced after I left LJ were with us before: posting on a photo, by SMS, we have already done all this a million years ago. You could call, write a message, and this record was sent to your LiveJournal. We had customizable groups of friends, and you could choose where to post the record. We had essentially all the basic features that we have today, such as the friends page. But we could not figure out how to tell a story or keep people interested. We had all the opportunities, but no one managed to make it work. We had strong privacy settings, and nobody on Facebook understands how to use them. It was a less public era of the Internet, and sometimes I want to return to it. ”

For these former employees of LiveJournal it seems a dead and disappeared project, but its Russified corpse still continues to hobble, supported by survivable members of the community. Blog Oh No They didn’t still report celebrity-related news, although today, instead of a powerful stream of comments, there is only a small stream.

But perhaps the LJ epic life journey did not have a better microcosm than the blog owned by the person behind the Game of Thrones. And although George Martin managed to hold out for ten years after the initial fall of the site, his transition to the personal page did not seem to be caused by anything concrete. There was no fanfare, there was only a brief message from one of the science fiction minions. Such is the nature of the decay of once-popular digital places: there are no majestic ruins of a physical object like an abandoned castle, ivy winds along a crumbling grid. Instead, LJ moves forward, like an aging bunch of code that one day turns out to be completely outdated due to the appearance of something new and better, and will live in the memory of those who created it.

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