March 14, 2008
Participation and User Value: LiveJournal's Latest Debacle

The social blogging site has had quite a tumultuous past year, starting last May with what has been called Strikethrough 2007 by users, wherein hundreds of community and fan journals with content ranging from fanfiction to abuse and molestation survivor support groups to discussion groups for Nabokov's Lolita were deleted on claims of child pornography.

Then there was the licensing, then sale, to Russia-based company SUP toward the end of last year, which, according to Wired, raised suspicions of censorship among Russian users and general wariness of change amongst US users.

To ease the transition, a LiveJournal advisory board was created with founder Brad Fitzpatrick, Professor of Law at Stanford Lawrence Lessig, Internet investor and journalist Esther Dyson, and danah boyd, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Despite some changes made to the abuse policies, the change in ownership caused little uproar amongst LiveJournal users, until now.

Last week, it was revealed that LiveJournal had made a drastic policy change, without bothering to inform current users. LiveJournal began with two account options, "basic" and "paid," with a former having less features than the "paid" account in exchange for being free. In 2006, LiveJournal introduced a "plus" account option, which offered more features than the "basic" in exchange for hosting ads.

Last week, they did away with the "basic" option, so that all new accounts would have to pay a fee or host ads. While this is an annoying (and arguably poor) decision, what really angered users was that there was no announcement of the change on the LiveJournal news feed, the news traveling instead by word of mouth. Users were angry that they were not notified of such a significant change in policy, and the revelation that at least three of the four members of the appointed advisory board had spoken out against the decision.

Further outrage ensued when Jason Shellen, LiveJournal's VP of product development, jumped into to discussion to explain that the move wasn't just a bid to increase profits, but "about creating a new registration process that was easier for new users to understand . . . it was quite confusing and included a table of options that was not very inviting to new users."

Many users found it understadably unconvincing that three options was too difficult and confusing for new users to handle. Even more telling of their failure to understand the community they were trying to run was Shellen's claim that the change was not included in a LiveJournal news post because "the news post was because it doesn't affect users other than new users and News updates are for existing users."

Not only does this statement fail to take into account the habits of LiveJournal users, especially those active in communities who regularly create new journals for different social groups, but it also overlooks the way networks function on a fundamental level.

In a system where the value is created by those involved and how they are networked to one another, everything that affects new users by nature affects existing users as well. The move to remove unpaid, non-ad-supported accounts suggests those journals add relatively little or no value to the network. This stance fails to grasp the logic of online communities.

As both Brad Fitzpatrick and danah boyd point out in their blogs, people who do not pay for their journals may very well be producers of content for people who might pay and they may be the audience for content that a paid user might not otherwise post. Value is user-generated, and people want to engage, participate, and invest at different levels. It is only when this is allowed that a social network is able to spread and flourish. That is the fundamental misunderstanding at work: SUP sees the site as theirs--their servers, their service--and it is certainly within their rights to set the prices of those things.

But the value of the site is not in the platform, but the content produced by the users, and in alienating them, the site runs the risk of losing its worth.