black braces

Why fandom won't leave LJ until LJ collapses

This is pretty much what went through my mind when all the kerfluffles happened last summer. I've only gotten around to expressing it coherently now. I continue to think about it because the project is tempting: I look at fanfiction.net and I see a terrible archive platform; I look at LJ and I see an even worse one. But today seems like a great day to post, so here it is now: Why fandom won't leave LJ until LJ collapses.

The bleeding edge of fandom is on LJ. For now.

Fandom moves when the technology is significantly better than where fandom is now. Fans are typical consumers in this behavior. Paper zines to Usenet; Usenet to mailing lists; mailing lists to LiveJournal. In each case, fans moved to something better than what they abandoned.

Remember that not all of fandom is on LJ. Through a couple of these stages, fanfiction.net has existed as a host for millions of fan-written stories. It's the center of fic-writing fandom on the net, and it will continue to be a stable archive into the foreseeable future. There's a segment of fandom that's content with the feature set it finds on ff.net. Those fans want an archive and not much more.

Many fans want conversation and community in addition to archiving; they're the ones who are on LiveJournal. They're here to talk in the ways they used to talk on mailing lists, to write essays about various fandom topics, to blog about their cats, and to post fiction.

LJ for several years did not intervene with or even appear to notice fannish content on LJ. Fandom thrived here while being ignored. That phase appears to be over.

LJ has a feature set that's flexible enough.

The LJ software is intended to do something specific-- personal journaling-- which is one of the things fans want to do. It's flexible enough to afford other activities-- posting fic, running ficathons, running icon contests and so on-- though it's not great at any of those activities. It makes them possible.

What LJ offers:

  • Stable identity. One login, one name, used everywhere.
  • Friends list. Easy tracking of interesting people and content, including locked content.
  • Privacy. An inward-focused community that can close itself off by friends-locking content; security through filtering.
  • Graphical self-expression. Journal layouts, banners, and userpics.
  • Notifications. Via email and IM.
  • Communities. Joint projects, newsletters, single-topic focus.
  • API. Better posting through desktop clients. Backup.

The stable identity is the key feature that makes much fannish activity possible. It's what fans give up when they flee to WordPress blogs or to other Danga-based journaling sites.

Fandom wants to move.

LJ is under new management, and this management is less friendly to fandom. I don't think it rises to antipathy: I'd summarize it as clueless and indifferent. Clueless about the culture and expectations of its traditional userbase, and indifferent because its focus is on its Russian business. Unfortunately, it has (because of its choice to become dependent on advertising) allowed itself to begin meddling with user content. This doesn't end well for fandom. Fandom knows this.

LJ's new Russian management is probably unstable. The property has the whiff, to me, of having begun the descent through the levels of credible ownership. It'll get turned over again, to a dodgier group. And so on until death. But that will take years to work itself out. Fandom suspects this.

The LJ software platform, while it makes fannish activity possible, does not make it easy. I encourage fandom to consider this.

For example, consider the common experience of reading a fic announcement spammed to seven different communities, clicking on the link at last... and finding the post is friends-locked by a writer worried about some vague consequences of posting in public. Fannish use of LJ is forced to conflate two distinct activities: personal blogging, and posting fanwork. If you want to follow the fanwork posts of an interesting writer or artist, you're forced to give that writer access to your personal posts. You might not want to do that. And you might find the workaround of tightly filtering personal content to be clunky and confusing. I'd further argue that by labeling this concept a "friends list", LJ shapes the discourse into one that encourages personal pain: when you stop following someone's updates, you're saying they're no longer your "friend".

The next problem is one that troubles me more: information access. LJ is the worst place in the world to find new fiction and art. The process of discovering where fandom lurks here is difficult. The fandom newsletter is a fannish attempt to work around this problem, but it's work that shouldn't have to be done, and it's imperfect. Posts vanish under the f-lock; links go stale; newsletters miss an item and it vanishes forever.

LJ is a possible home for fandom, but it's not a great one. And it's now on uncertain footing. Fans are upset and thinking (rightly, as far as I can tell) that they're no longer welcome on LJ.

But fandom hasn't moved.

So why hasn't fandom moved? They've cat-macroed like fiends, written their outraged posts, pontificated (e.g., this post), meta-ed, and essayed upon their Deep Thoughts (e.g., this post). Some people have moved to IJ. More people have created mirror journals on IJ and use LJ clients to post in both places at once. Even more people haven't done anything.

  • Content creates inertia. People have a lot of content stored up, and few good ways to move it. Some people have five years of journal posts and comments, plus five years of fic that might or might not be backed up elsewhere. Abandoning a mailing list was easier.
  • Moving means abandoning the stable identity. There's no guarantee that user puffball here is the same as user puffball over on WordPress, and no guarantee that the person signing herself puffball on comments over on Blogger is the same. OpenID is far too confusing for normal people to use at the moment, though it might improve. OpenSocial is more a nauseating buzzword than anything useful at the moment.
  • People would also be abandoning non-fannish communities. If your circles here include academic friends, or friends from Usenet newsgroup days, your circles are not ones that would move with you.

Also, LJ isn't all that bad

Some of the fandom controversy over LJ is manufactured. Losing free accounts and being forced to create new ad-sponsored accounts is not an attack on fandom. People enjoy drama. I'd hypothesize further that the drama is important to groups in helping them feel like a group. One must have the other to struggle against, I guess.

Some fans see no problem with LJ as a host at all. I am in this camp, more or less. What motivates me is how obviously bad LJ is as a place to post and read fiction.

The destination needs to be better than the origin.

Consumers don't move until they see a clear advantage, especially when moving is difficult. We've just discussed why fandom finds moving difficult, so the destination's grass needs to be a lot greener.

Consider how LJ is an improvement over mailing lists:

  • fic posting continues to be easy
  • journaling is now possible, with a sophisticated feature set
  • user icons can express affiliations and mood
  • art can be seen directly, and not through links or clumsy attachments
  • vids can be seen directly through embeds, and not just via external links
  • it's a social network: connections to people & interests lead to more connections

That's a massive list of improvements. Even so, some fans didn't make the jump. What's out there that is as much better than LJ than LJ is better than mailing lists? The other existing social networking sites don't come close to meeting fandom's needs. Xanga is almost competitive, but not really. LJ's feature set is pretty good-- it's the only one that's flexible enough for fandom.

Fandom is now considering the "just as good" option: three other sites running the familiar LJ software. InsaneJournal is run by one guy who's had some fun scaling his operation to accommodate the fraction of fandom that did move over to his site. However, it's up and running. GreatestJournal looked like userpic utopia until it imploded from incompetence and disinterest. JournalFen isn't, ah, robust enough to survive an influx of LJ refugees; it also runs the oldest and dustiest version of the LJ codebase. (Interested in some number comparisons? Read this to learn how many people actively use those sites.)

So fans aren't really moving, because they have inertia and no clearly desirable destination to move to.

The move would be forced if LJ fulfilled the most pessimistic predictions and went under. Or said, "No more fanfiction here." If this happened today, the destination would be InsaneJournal. If InsaneJournal crumbled under the load, fandom would be in a bad spot. They might regroup on Yahoo mailing lists, or possibly on Google Groups. But they would not be content, because they'd miss their journaling and their userpics and their banners.

Fans would stream away from LJ today and not look back if they were offered a home that did better than LJ at meeting their needs. The migration would be slow, and incomplete, as all the prior ones were, but in a year you'd see the heavy action on the new site.

What would that destination look like?

First of all, it needs to be a single destination, not a set of destinations. It needs to have that stable identity, single login convenience.

Here's my list of what it needs to be beyond that obvious one. The first few items offer parity with LJ and address the static friction keeping people here. The rest of the items address known LJ problems, and then suggest one sort of service that's enough better to be tempting.

  1. It does all that LJ does.
    Journaling + privacy + photo hosting + icons + communities.
  2. It offers a migration path from LJ.
  3. It's subscription-supported, not donation-supported or ad-supported.
    Fans historically won't donate nearly enough to cover the true cost of the services they consume. They have a number of rationalizations for why they don't ("I don't have a lot of money", "fandom should be free", and so on), but the reality is that hosting and hardware and bandwidth have ongoing costs. If your site is operated by a fannish philanthropist, you run the risk of that fan going dry of interest or money; see GreatestJournal for that story. The first place people look is advertising, but advertising makes the host vulnerable to external complaints about content. "Remove the Harry Potter smut, or I pressure your advertisers. Remove the slash, or I pressure your advertisers." Success, I think, relies on subscription fees and tiered accounts. Give active fans a compelling reason to subscribe, and give unpaid users enough to keep them happily participating.
  4. It cooperates with existing social networking APIs. OpenID, OpenSocial, whatever else appears: play with the rest of the world and allow people to keep existing non-fannish friends.
  5. Posting fanworks is different from journaling.
    A story is not a journal entry, and neither is a manip. They're different data, and they can be browsed through different means.
  6. The fanwork archive is a first-class feature.
    Fic, essays, icons, banners, manipulations, and other fan creations should be as important as journal entries. Imagine browsing stories while ignoring journal entries, then switching over to reading journal entries when you're in the mood. Imagine stumbling across a new artist you love, then choosing to explore her personal journal-- or choosing to avoid it entirely.
  7. The public is separated from the personal.
    Subscribing to fanwork updates is not the same as opening access to someone. Subscribing to journal updates is not the same as subscribing to fanwork updates. Security and privacy are separate from subscription.
  8. You own your own words.
    Content is the responsibility of the poster, not of the common carrier archive. Fans retain ownership of their material, and therefore the legal responsibility for that material. The archive/site operates under a Creative Commons license granted by the fans. Fans want not to have their content meddled with, and must therefore step up and take the responsibility.
  9. It features good information design.
    Tagging and browsing and recommendation lists. Fic should have different browsing methods than journals. I would call this the fun part of the project: bringing the fic archive into the modern web.
  10. It directly supports fan activities.
    Running a ficathon is something software can help with. Fan newsletters are something that can be aggregated by software: "let me browse all the Buffy Summers content new in the last week"; "all the Whedonverse content"; "all the stories by Puffball". Software is extremely good at this, in fact, if you give it handles for finding the content. You can phase in support for more and more fan-specific activities as you implement it.
  11. I want a pony.
    I could list at length some of the other features you'd want: flexible feeds, a good API for external clients, easy downloading of content for offline browsing, recommendation engines, tags generated through content analysis, mashups with YouTube and DeviantArt, imagine me talking until you fall over backwards...

Where do we go from here?

A lovely utopia, I hear you cry. Indeed.

Suppose somebody attempts this project. What would that look like?

It's a complex project. It's a fairly large web application that will need to scale to support a non-trivial number of users. There's a realm of invisible features required here, from the backend that needs to scale to the administrative tools required to manage the inevitable troublemakers, to handling billing, to operational issues like keeping backups and minimizing outages. Setting up the legal protections requires planning. I'm fuzzy on the details because I've never run a business myself, but that's exactly what this would be.

Most projects this size start with a much smaller feature set and grow slowly. A decade ago sites like ff.net and LJ itself got started slowly, with tiny user bases, then grew. However, fandom won't move early; they'll wait until the destination looks enough greener to overcome the above-discussed inertia. You couldn't do a core feature set, release, then iterate. You need to be good enough right away. That means a lot of up-front investment.

In brief, this is a professional project, requiring professional skills. It might start as hobby, but it would have to transition to professional quickly. The people working on it would be a tiny business, and they'd be making their livings doing this. And, one hopes for the sake of their motivation, making pleasant livings.

It needs to come from outside fandom, sort of.

What are the chances of fandom organizing well enough to accomplish this project? Slim to none. I can't be the first person who's thought this through. And, in fact, a year ago somebody started thinking about archives. The resulting project, OTW, had tons of fannish goodwill, but it hasn't managed to produce even a simple fic archive in nearly a year. A fic archive is a hobby-level project, and their intended deployment doesn't have scalability worries. So what's prevented them? They've been distracted by their ideological interests. Which is fine. Their priorities are theirs to set, and they're more interested in an academic journal than in a large software project. Scratch your own itch. They're doing something important with the legal issues, and fandom needs them.

The other thing I've observed is that fandom hasn't produced any of its homes itself. Fandom has repurposed existing services that were flexible enough for fandom at the time. And in fact LJ-fandom is suspicious of services designed to meet its needs (Quizilla, Fanlib). There's a strong streak of thinking that "nobody should make money from providing the services that fandom consumes"; LJ gets away with it because it's doing something else that fans have happened to co-opt. And even so, fans complain and work rather hard to avoid giving money to LJ. This attitude is death to serious projects, of course.

Fandom won't do this. One fan with solid skills, some money, and an eye for a small market opportunity might get motivated to head off and do it. (The ff.net model, sort of.) If the fan were insane. Some days I wake up that crazy, then my morning read-through of metafandomwankrants cures me.

Have fun storming the castle.

So my outlook is reluctantly gloomy. None of this is going to happen. I'm frustrated, but I can't see a path out of where fandom is. I'd also rather do than talk. By posting this I hope to jar loose some thinking in other people, or turn up somebody else who's thinking along the same lines. You out there? Zap me some mail.

Good thing InsaneJournal is there. It's nearly as usable as what fandom has now, and the owner seems like a good guy, and he can probably scale well enough to host the fandom-only segment of LJ's population. But nobody's moving there until they're forced. So settle in, friends.

But you know what? synecdochic might have something going. And I'd call that project team sufficiently skillful and experienced to have success with running a serious site, forking LJ, and moving the user experience forward. Hypothetically. Good. I'm there.

  • Current Music: A Place To Think : Solar Fields : Extended
Tags: ,

Yes, with exclamation marks.

I really don't see the next phase being built from within fandom. Fandom's just too eager to eat its own young; we'd much rather take over something that looks workable and then bond over complaints about how it isn't exactly what we want. Also, anything big enough to support us will need to be bigger than us.

I expect that the next platform, whatever it is, will draw us in with things we never expected to want: eight years ago, who on mailing lists was looking for 100 pixel-square icons? And yet, I think that was the biggest draw to lj.

After reading the cellphone ring article you just linked me to, I think you've missed the biggest thing that will mark the shift. I think it's going to be hardware that pulls us. A platform that's seamless with the next generation of web-enabled phone. Since my first days in fandom, I've been wanting a better way to read fic on the train. There've been tentacles (hee) out in that direction: rocket ebook, palm pilots, but nothing that's met your criteria for the rest of fandom's needs. It can't be too far away, though, and no way is any fan-built platform going to be close enough to cutting edge to be where we hook into it.

8^-
I mostly agree with you-- II just take exception to the OTW claims-- they haven't been bogged down in their own idealogical campaign-- the development committee has been working for most of that year to build from the ground up. They do have an opening date for v1.0 of the archive and that's this summer.
Word. And they're absolutely dealing with scalability issues, as scalability has been one of the problems with the existing archives -- Yuletide nearly buckles under the strain at 10 PST every 24 December.

The ideological issues OTW has been dealing with have (many of them) been in support of the archive, because content is going to have to drive function. For instance, age restrictions? or geographic limitations on what's accessible where because Australian law on chan differs from American? And so forth. But that's my speculation: I don't really know what the content policies are going to be, nor how they're going to be handled in terms of archive design.
This is a nicely comprehensive post. And I think you're right that the alternative to LJ will probably have to come outside from fandom, if only so that it doesn't get bogged down in the kind of strife that OTW has already seen from early on, as well as the usual grumble-mumble of people who don't think their I-want-a-pony feature requests are getting adequate facetime :P. Just like you said, no one knows until someone manages to build something, and that just adds to the inertia of people on LJ.

As for synecdochic's poll, I'm boggling at how many (almost 60% at last refresh) people wouldn't budge from LJ unless all their friends were going. I guess that just reinforces how intensely the social nature of LJ has bound people to it-- makes me wonder if there would have been such a great move from Usenet et al if there were better social features :P. This is one of the things I quite like about decentralized blogging a la Wordpress and Blogger: the blog's identity is mostly separate from whatever system it is built on, so switching to better or more secure building blocks involves only counting the costs of a software upgrade.

And that is one thing I'm starting to want for the LJ alternative, whatever it is: more of a separation between social features and the building blocks of a blog. I'm tired of walled gardens and half-walled gardens because it is so hard to move out of them. LJ is actually not so bad in that respect, since you can export entries and (with a bit of work) comments, but the social bit doesn't come with you. I feel like I'd rather start with a social component that is easy to import to and from from the get-go, so that's just a part of transferring your online identity elsewhere. So I guess I'd add "makes a better, more portable Social API available as well as older ones" to feature #4.

As far as importing the flist goes, the most plausible way I can think off to do the flist "transfer" is to integrate some kind of RSS reader into the service and offer new readers the option of grabbing their LJ foaf file or whatever and feeding it to the RSS reader, and then use that same RSS reader to perform the flist function by adding whoever the person friends/follows on the new site. I really, really hope it's that simple: build a less basic RSS reader that's sensitive to input, and make it work with authentication for LJ clones.
I have to say, the thing about synecdochic's post that intrigued me most was the bit about complete interoperability with the fooJournal sites. If I could move to another hosting platform while keeping my LJ friends without hassle I'd be about 5 billion times more likely to hop.

As it is, I post to both LJ and IJ, and whine to myself about having to read two f-lists. I'd love to send that the way of the dodo.
I have a paid user account on Journalfen, right now, as a kind of emergency backup system for if LJ ever really jumps the shark. After messing around on GJ and IJ, and discovering I pretty much hated them both, I decided to wait, as you said, for the better alternative.

I am watching both OTW's archive project and Syne's polls and ideas VERY closely. I think that fandom will move if and only if the alternative is better, and if the move is en masse. Me, I'm not going anywhere while I can still touch in with 90% of my online friends with one handy post.

GREAT POST. Very very well put. Thank you.
If I could be guaranteed a good (same or more than what I'm making right now) salary for doing this, I'd join such a company. (30-year old writer, editor, publicist, executive-level assistant.)

Edited at 2008-03-27 02:57 pm (UTC)
Content creates inertia. People have a lot of content stored up, and few good ways to move it. Some people have five years of journal posts and comments, plus five years of fic that might or might not be backed up elsewhere.

This is exactly what I think.

I have well over 3000 memories stored in my memories folder on this journal. Most of them are fanfic. I don't want to lose those, but if I quit LJ, I will, and it's likely I will never find them again, because unlike my current fandom (Transformers), some of my past fandoms abhor FF.net like the plague and LJ seems the only place the fanfic I have in my journal memories has been archived in.
You've just pointed out something I missed in my essay, I think: Even if you move/rescue your own content, what happens to the fic posted by other people who don't make the jump? All those memories, as you say. Sigh.
Great post, this pulls together a lot of things. And I agree about the subscription model. A lot of people were willing to spring for permanent accounts on IJ when they ran $40 or less even if they weren't really planning to use them. A lot of people are spending that much each year on LJ. My guess would be that most of the content producers have paid accounts and most of the more casual readers have unpaid ones, but that's a complete guess on my part. I definitely think tiered accounts should include a free type, even if it's basically just a name registration for comments and access with nothing else attached.

The public is separated from the personal.

I suspect that this will actually be a drawback for many people. For example, the embedding of video seems to be a major advantage for many people but since the video isn't actually hosted onsite, I fail to see how it's any more helpful than a link to a streaming site. The only advantage I see is that it increases comments because it serves as a reminder for viewing whereas a link is more easily forgotten.

Similarly it's not at all difficult to make public posts public and private ones private right now. What I suspect though is that, with rare exceptions, people keep things either mostly open or mostly closed. It seems to me that the fannish content is a draw for the private postings -- otherwise there would be no reason to integrate the two in the first place. Fic could remain on archives or personal websites and journaling could remain on LJ. For that matter, writers could create personal fic communities for their fannish materials and leave their journal completely flocked, they wouldn't even have to change logins, and the communities have unlimited membership. Only a few people tend to do this though. I also suspect that the fact that people appear as people and not just authors/artists etc. at a site like LJ tends to increase social connections between writers and readers so it has a large scale motivation as well.

Fan newsletters are something that can be aggregated by software

If I'm following your thinking, this would necessitate that people do consistent tagging since a content analysis tool would be a problem to develop, especially if certain fic content was locked with higher privacy levels. Given how many people are still not using tags a considerable time after their implementation, and how often those tags are not useful, I would think newsletters would still miss a lot. Unless people had to use tags in order to post and perhaps had some preselected ones readily available.
I think I should have been clearer about what I mean by public vs personal.

Public: fanwork (fic, art, manips, reviews, essays); content intended for public consumption; the sort of content one puts into archives.
Personal: journaling; anything one might consider controlling access to.

For me, public means "the story I posted a couple of nights ago" and "this essay". I intend that content to be read by a wide audience. Personal means the thing I wrote about soldering the pickups for my build-a-guitar project. I expect that only people who are interested in me personally would want to read that; that is a smaller audience than the people who are likely to read my fic.

I think the two kinds of content need different handling. Different means of discovery. I *want* the fic to be indexed by search engines. I want it to appear in newletters & tagged by global shared tags. The journal posts I don't want to be so discoverable. And here's another thing: I suspect there are people who follow me for the fic posts who don't want to read me maundering on about that guitar project-- they want a way to follow the fic posts and nothing else. And there are people on my LJ flist who avoid my fic like the plague, but enjoy my other posts.

I'd love to see a site design treat these two kinds of content differently. If that makes sense.

And yeah, I think public (outward-directed) content gets global tags, and the inward-directed journal entry content should get private tags (the kind LJ has now).

I sort of wandered here after poking around at reactions to a post I wrote on similar subjects a week ago (“What’s SUP, Doc?”).

I actually don’t think that LJ is descending through the levels of credible ownership, although that’s a wonderful turn of phrase (and something I’ve certainly seen happen). Without rehashing my post too much, in Russia, LiveJournal is the social media property. It’s MySpace, Facebook and Blogger all rolled into one. SUP is indifferent, but they’re not clueless — they’re indifferent to you. The fannish communities on LiveJournal are, at least partially, under the impression that LiveJournal needs them more than they need LiveJournal. This is pretty much 100% backward from the way SUP sees it. And, SUP is pretty much right.

I’d really like to see any hypothetical “ElseJournal” be something other than, well, somebody else running LiveJournal’s software. Even though I’ve never looked at LiveJournal as a good place for publishing fiction in the first place, your analysis of what a replacement for LJ should handle seems spot-on. It also doesn’t sound incredibly far off from ideas I’ve had for another site for years, but I’m proceeding at an exceedingly glacial pace there.

And everyone wins with Markdown.

That's a great post; informative and perspective-setting. Thanks for the link. And it pushes me even further in the direction of thinking that fandom needs a new home, 'cause its current one is going to change in ways it probably won't like.
Thanks! I tried to stay focused and at least mostly constructive-- I want to find a solution here :)
Just wanted to say thanks for the brilliant and balanced analysis. You've articulated a lot of things I could only ponder intuitively. Thank you for putting (eloquent) words to a volitile and difficult subject. Hope you don't mind if I save this to mems! (Yet another feature non-LJ forums won't/don't all have ...)
Cheers ~

Erin
your post has been up a while, but i just recently found it via link in another discussion, and i also wanted to say thanks for this analysis.
as erinrua said, you had a much better way to articulate what i have just insufficiently tried to say to some of my friends: for all the ranting and whining last year over LJ, majority of them wont leave. I wont leave.
for the reasons you said!

though, i am still hoping and counting on OTW, and that some day, their archive will come.