Antenna (antennapedia) wrote,
Antenna
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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.

Tags: fandom, meta
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