The Great LJ Strike of 2008(?)

As I’ve mentioned several times here, I’m a fan of LiveJournal. I’ve been using it for around four years now– I’m not exactly an early adopter, but I’ve been on for a long time– I got my account pretty soon after they stopped giving out accounts on an invite-only basis, and I’ve been on long enough to have had time with each of the owners: LiveJournal, Inc., Six Apart, and now SUP. Four years of involvement and community building can make you pretty invested in a social website.

That said, I won’t be participating in the one-day strike tomorrow.

For readers who aren’t LJ users or haven’t heard of this whole to-do, the above link lays it all out pretty well. The Readers’ Digest Version goes something like this: LiveJournal started ad-free, on a donation basis. They added paid accounts with extra features. Then, under Six Apart, they added a middle account level, with some extra features, still free, but with advertising on your page. Now, SUP is eliminating the traditional “Basic” (ad-free and free of charge) account level, giving new members only the ad-based “Plus” or ad-free “Paid” memberships. Simultaneously, there was some sort of omission of terms like “bisexuality” and “depression” in the list of LJ’s most popular interests, which has since been resolved, but rubbed some people the wrong way in the wake of Strikethroughgate.

There’s several reasons that I’m not planning on participating:

Not to sound like a pessimist, but I saw this coming. I assumed when the Plus account was introduced that the next step would be a pay-or-get-ads model. It makes sense to make money off every user, from the point of view of a company like Six Apart or SUP. It looks to me like Six Apart set the wheels in motion with this one– especially when you look at the evidence that active user numbers were in a three year decline before SUP’s buyout. (Although there is also evidence that these numbers are leveling out, now.) I’ve been braced for this for a while now, and this lessens my sense of righteous indignation.

I’m a fan of the noncommercial and the open: open-source, open-architecture, open-access. I like things free as in beer and free as in speech. That said, I don’t think that SUP fully grasped the nature of the LJ community– especially its American component– before the purchase. This is their first taste of the Drama that can ensue when you alienate or upset the site’s user base. Despite SUP’s Anton Nosik’s recent ranting diatribe of an interview where he described the action as “blackmail,” I think that they’re trying, or I’m at least willing to give the benefit of the doubt for now.

The recent announcement of an Advisory Board that includes LJ inventor Brad Fitzpatrick, Lawrence Lessig, and danah boyd is definitely a step in the right direction– at least if they’re given a real role and allowed to actually advise. So far, while not endorsing the strike themselves, both Brad and danah have publicly spoken out and stated that they are against the change. danah’s hinted that a new policy will be decided upon in the next couple weeks.

Finally, as with Strikethroughgate, I’ll admit, I don’t care too much because it doesn’t much effect me. I’m a paid member, and will likely continue to be. And I use the Adblock Plus plugin in Firefox, so my web surfing experience is pretty much ad-free as it is.

And let me take this exact moment to evoke Godwin’s Law before anyone even has a chance to say “First they came for the Communists…” I’m sick of that (rather offensive) analogy being made every time someone’s mad at whatever company is running LJ at the moment. They’re corporations that run social networking software– they’re not Nazis! This propensity of the LJ community to overreact should probably be added to the reasons I’m not participating.

Having said all this, if any of my LJ friends who are participating read this, let me say that I do see why this is problematic, and I support your decision. I just ask you to respect mine.

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For me, what’s really interesting about this strike is the the action itself, and how it highlights the sometimes problematic nature of social media. Putting aside the difficult question of the efficacy of one-day and limited-timeframe strikes, it raises some even bigger questions: is this actually a strike? Would it be better described as a boycott? Are LiveJournal users better described as customers or content producers?

This is an issue with all social media, where users are both the content producers and consumers. But I think LiveJournal is probably the richest of all the emerging social media sites, in terms of content. Livejournal Communities reproduce the rich sense of community I remember feeling when I first started posting to Bulletin Boards in the 90s. The Journals themselves are essentially blogs. And the “Friending” feature, and the “Friends-list” page provide networking that creates a real sense of texts interacting. Memes and other such viral material can sweep through your friends quickly. It’s an ongoing dialog, one that can sometimes be very public, and other times be intensely personal. Features like friends-only posting and filters allow for a lot of control of who can or cannot access what information.

By comparison, sites like Myspace and Facebook seem rather, well, shallow in terms of content, and weak in terms of access management. Myspace is about pictures, short snippets of text, shallow dialog. Facebook seems to becoming more and more about snapshot statements, “pokes,” and applications that let you know whether your friends would rather be vampires or ninjas. There’s a place for both of these, of course, just like there’s a place for blogs and a place for Twitter. But for deeper, more personal, or simply more lengthy dialog, LiveJournal’s pretty close to the fabled “killer app” for social media.

So when LiveJournal users refuse to log on, don’t write or read for a day– or longer– they are both refusing to produce content and refusing to consume. The former can be seen as a strike– it’s a work stoppage, of work that people do for free, or even pay for the privilege of performing. But they’re also denying the site hits, hurting ad revenue (which is obviously becoming an integral part of their business model)– a good old fashioned boycott. Boycotts that coincide with strikes are a proven, effective tool– social media provide an environment where they are one in the same. No wonder Anton Nosik sounded more than a bit apoplectic.

Where this becomes problematic, however, is that there are only two parties involved in any dispute that comes to the point of such a blackout– the company, which does own the servers, provide the service, and have a profit incentive, and the users. Basically, besides SUP’s investors, the only people who care if LiveJournal disappears are the users. I would be sad if LiveJournal was taken off-line or became a ghost town the way Facebook has. But most people wouldn’t bat an eye, as they don’t use the service. The same reason that social media are self-sustaining and democratic make them very vulnerable. Too much resistance on either side, and the whole house of cards can collapse. (All the more reason for LJ users to think about getting around, eventually, to using LJBook and turning their journal into something a bit more permanent.)

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I agree with Lisa Spiro that social scholarship is a trend on the upswing in the humanities, and I’m excited by the possibilities it presents. But it’s important to also keep in mind the potential pitfalls of social media as we move in that direction.

The democracy and openness are exciting, but in the end, servers are pretty seldom communally-owned. Conflicts can arise easily when the folks hosting the material and the people producing and consuming the material see themselves as separate, opposed groups with different interests. We can talk about the wisdom of crowds, and that’s exciting, too. But there’s a real question of how well social media– let alone social scholarship– scale.