March 26, 2008
More on LiveJournal Activism Through Strike/Boycott

Last time, I wrote about LiveJournal's recent fiasco over not informing their users of large-scale policy changes on the site. After much debate back and forth between users and administrators, and the (fairly brief, due to protest) temporary reinstatement of an interest search filter, a call spread on LiveJournal for users not to post any content on Friday, March 21st, in protest. The discussion around the move, intended to show that LiveJournal's value was content-driven, and therefore user-generated, raises some fairly interesting issues regarding the growing pains of large, for-profit user-generated content sites.

What was immediately notable was that there was a lack of consensus over what a large-scale, one-day disruption to posting constitutes: content strike or content boycott? The terms seemed to be used interchangeably, varying from announcement to announcement (the woman cited as the originator of the idea uses the term "strike"). At the most basic level, a "boycott" would suggest action by consumers, which strike implies action taken by a labor force against the corporations or institutions that profit from their production. There appears here a certain ambiguity over the role of LiveJournal users, wherein they feel responsible for the creation of content and networks that makes LiveJournal a viable business, but also recognize the role of LiveJournal as a service provider.

Even as they call for action to explicitly stake a claim in the value of the site, users themselves recognize an instability and slippage in the relationship between producer and consumer. Furthermore, while it makes sense to call for a "content boycott," the suggestion of a "content strike" is more problematic, strangely disappearing the user from the action even as it proposes to draw attention to the crucial roles users play in LiveJournal business model.

The different terms aside, a debate arose over the very suggestion of a one-day strike/boycott. Both strikes and boycotts have a long history as tools of protest and political action, and the efficacy of the LiveJournal content disruption was frequently called into question by both sides. Part of it is a matter of basic strike principles -- with a set duration (24 hours), there's no pressure for LiveJournal to meet user demands, knowing everyone will be back at their keyboards the following day, probably in higher numbers to talk about the event. Many comparisons were drawn by various posters to gas boycotts in the past which similarly had little effect.

Some users agreed that the strike/boycott "probably won't do anything" but might be worthwhile just for the "annoyance," which in turn raises the question of "slacktivism," a term used to refer to political "action" that makes people feel as if they are engaged in support of a cause with minimal effort on their part. This criticism has frequently been applied to day-long boycotts and e-petitions (the LiveJournal action seems to be a combination of the two), which brings the question what happens to action when the barrier of participation in a cause gets lowered wearing a bracelet, clicking "join" on Facebook, or not posting in your LiveJournal for a day.

A CMS colleague, Lan Le, proposed in a discussion that in order to think around how these changes in participation online affect political and social engagement, we have to beyond the binary of action/inaction, suggesting that "if the act of being an audience can be an act of citizenship, then we cannot immediately discount the act of forwarding an email either." Citing Yochai Benkler, she proposes that "we look at these e-petitions not as a substitute for action or as a political symbol and more as new ways to circulate information outside the filters of corporations and governments."

She goes on to point out that while the ease of circulation and participation might potentially reduce their direct value, they nevertheless draw our attention to the role of capital in the dissemination of information before now.

Just as with the tensions between roles of producer and consumer that emerged in the dual description of act as "boycott" versus "strike," so too does a tension arise between what have historically be tools of political action and tactics of awareness-raising. Both have value, as long as we don't so far conflate the two that one substitutes the other and we become reliant on the efficacy of knowledge alone to affect change.

On a final note, an interesting development in these LiveJournal debates around around an interview with Anton Nosik, the CBO of SUP (the Russian company that now owns LiveJournal), that was translated for by a user for the benefit of the predominantly English-speaking community of users ready to take part in the strike/boycott.

While the initial translation showed him to be rude and "contemptuous," drawing comments about "oppression" and allusions to the KGB, a consequent translation showed a significantly different tone, and the addition of suggestions that "rudeness" might be attributed to the directness of Russian and other cultural differences. All three aspects of the LiveJournal "strike" debates serve to remind us that while we frequently envision the World Wide Web as borderless and a fresh territory, in which new social, political, and cultural economies and practices thrive, these are nevertheless still in negotiation with the existing practices from which they emerged, that what we are engaged in is ultimately a process of transition.