A Requiem for Livejournal

March 15, 2011

Ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas – Phaedrus

In which rows of asterisks function as transitions:

I suppose it’s come to a point now where I really have to admit it to myself and make it real by writing it (“Write it!”): It is gone now, or at least, no longer alive. The online community where I felt the most comfortable of any space on earth, digital or analog, is now relegated to artifact and memory. The space in which I met the most meaningful people of my life, the safe place where I could really be myself since high school – is gone and never, ever coming back. The space where I spent my youth – even if this space is reducible to mere 1’s and 0’s – is an ex-thing. It was not even afforded the dignity of total destruction, but rather, it petered out into insignificance.

Oh, sure, the site is still up, the servers humming somewhere. It’s all the rage in Russia, apparently, but the US-based Livejournal is dead and gone, a digital post-nuclear holocaust inhabited only by a few unkempt survivors who are suspicious of outsiders. I know. I am one of them.

For years, as Facebook has gotten creepier, I’ve urged people to repatriate to Eljay, but it never happens. I hit reload on my empty friends list; I look at the IP hits on my journal; I think of the dozens of people who have left the site, drifted away, one by one. I look at the empty landscape and wonder, how did we get here?

***

Once upon a time, I was 17 years old and my friend Andrew Like-Slettuce kept urging me to join this blogging site. I already felt pretty cool because I had been on Blogger, but one day to humor him I opened the URL and saw what he’d been talking about. I saw the user profiles listing interests and was charmed. I saw the field for “current music” and was utterly enthralled. Surely, what was missing from my life was a way to blog that let me broadcast to the world my interest in Werner Herzog and apocalypses. I needed to tell the world what I was listening to while writing about New Jersey diners, verbs, and dollar stores. I missed achieving “early adopter” status by mere weeks, but I was hooked within minutes.

Before social networking was all the rage, Livejournal connected users in a meaningful way. With a few clicks, I could add new friends to my journal who shared my interests in “seedy diners” and “old classroom films.” Before all the hand-wringing about internet presence and privacy, Livejournal offered “granular” security – a feature Facebook will never have and that Twitter can’t seem to implement. Before all the inane memes and surveys hit Facebook, we on Livejournal answered them, and more cleverly. I knew what serial killer I’d be and what disease I was no later than 2003. Before blogs had effectively coalesced into a sphere, Livejournal brought people together, and used language to do it on one site.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I loved coming home after spending time with friends and reading a different account of everything that had happened; it was Rashomon before I ever lived in a place where I could have seen the movie Rashomon. Livejournal illuminated for me the infinite possibilities of experience, writing, and perspective. Livejournal let me keep in touch with friends from each of my left-behind lives, as I embarked on a relatively transient adult life (New Jersey, Florida, Germany, New York, back to New Jersey, now the Midwest, hopefully somewhere else soon). Livejournal created a nexus of meaningful communication among all the people who meant a lot to me in each place. Livejournal archived all my writing, throughout each chapter of my life. Livejournal helped me learn about new books, places, and lives. Most of my exes are or were on Livejournal. Heck, I even got one of my cats because of a Livejournal post (he has a Twitter now).

In its heyday, almost everyone I knew – everyone who mattered, anyway! – was on Livejournal. At one point around 2005, I had met most of the people on my friends list not only because I tend to get evangelical about things I think are cool, and thus got people to sign up (remember those invite tokens?), but because I felt a certain intimacy with the people on there, enough so that I made a point of meeting up with Livejournalers.

The deep emotional intimacy – that’s  something I really miss and will continue to miss about Livejournal. In Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer describes how we never or rarely think about the intimacy of dead animal flesh in our mouths. I immediately thought of Livejournal: I thought of the intimacy I felt with the people who knew me only from the inside of my mind, and how inadequate other human relationships sometimes felt in comparison. Livejournal felt authentic, it felt important. Food is in your mouth, but the friends who read my writing – and, more importantly, the people whose writing I read – were in my head. I could keep an online presence but lock my entries so only friends could read them. I could keep some things public. It was freaking awesome.
Through Livejournal, the quotidian could be transformed into a document, a collaborative experience to which many people responded. While I too was occasionally guilty of living life so as to generate Livejournal posts, I never saw it as solely about me. My life as documented was only meaningful due to the participation of others. My Life, The 17 to 28 Years, was made by Livejournal. For me, Livejournal was made by the comments of others.

***

In 2009, I wrote a paper for a grad seminar about the LJ Community EFW, in which I argued that this community was an instance of performance of early adopter status. Now I would revise that argument slightly to note that these days, merely being on Livejournal is an inconsequential act of resistance. What are you doing there? Is that site even still around? That’s so 2003. Everyone’s on Facebook now. I like reading your stuff, but Livejournal is too annoying.

At least in the USA, the site owners have managed to fail spectacularly at adapting the site in a meaningful way to the changes in the Internet. At the same time, they have also managed to alienate a large portion of the strong community that made Livejournal what it was. The site has changed hands numerous times in the past few years: Six Apart, SUP, and Livejournal, Inc have all owned it, insofar as anyone can really own a site powered by user-created content (a topic for another blog post, but the answer is probably: total ownership, you’re just a content farmer for a corporation). Nobody has ever leveraged the user base for anything meaningful, and the site seems to operate on a delayed-reaction strategy.  Only a few weeks ago, they implemented a pathetic attempt to add social gaming / data mining (and, that’s like, so 2009, right?). It was late in the game before they established Facebook / Twitter implementation, which as usual was implemented in a way that managed to alienate, confuse, and upset a significant portion of the user base, who were sure this meant non-consensual exporting of data elsewhere on the web.

I’m not sure how things are on the Russian-language version of the site, but the English-language site has become a tacky ghost town. If I am accidentally logged out, the sheer annoyingness of how the ad-plastered site is presented to “free” users makes me kind of dizzy. My paid account is expiring in a few months, and for the first time since 2001, I think I will let it lapse.

Many of those who remain on the site are blasé about it, even condescending towards my nostalgia. Of course all things end, of course all sites and all forms of beauty must fade and die. Of course everyone in my age cohort (except me, I guess) has moved on to Careers and Families and Home Ownership and Children and God, Everyone Just Grows Up, Get Over It! But that doesn’t make it any less painful – not after a decade of it being a big part of your life. Any space of one’s youth, even if it’s virtual, inspires pain and melancholy when it goes to seed.

***

One of the things I found most moving about the movie Up was the function of the space of the home itself, and how it performed a resistance to change by retaining its charming mid-century aesthetic, even in the midst of hideous corporatization. The interior of the house indexes a lifetime of stories, hopes, and dreams, some achieved, some not. In the scenes that show the house, the most vibrant colors in the palette are in the balloons that buoy the house over the anonymous gray urban corporate-scape. One could over-read this as a metaphor for the hive mind – that the remaining indexes of the past are buoyed, perhaps, by the buoyant nature of collectivity. Maybe.

the house from up leaving the 21st century city

To me, Livejournal has become like that house (which, I suppose, means that I have become cantankerous Ed Asner). As the web has gone  multimedia, Livejournal remains totally rooted in the textual origins of the Internet itself. As the Wild West of the 90s Internet has consolidated into a few corporate-owned cookie-cutter type chains, Livejournal remains a “humble and solid” index of what the web used to be.

Those of us left, perhaps, assert our early adopter status by continuing to use an online social network / platform that is rooted in the textual Internet. On one level, using the textual in this way reflects an identity claim as a literate citizen: after all, using the Internet once required significantly more intellectual, economic or educational privilege than it does today (and of course, privilege is still needed to access it).

Building worlds and communities through words alone is a more difficult and powerful goal than doing it with bells, whistles, and cat pictures. On one level, participating in a relatively old-school site like Livejournal in the current Internet environment is a statement of “I was there way back when. I was there before you.” Or, “We were there before those other people.” These are statements about which I feel ambivalent. At its core, could my nostalgia merely be no more than an index of my discomfort with the web being accessible to more than an elitist few?

Of course, this too leads to interesting questions. Where does a space exist, particularly if it is digital? What is a space and where is a public?  If an easily-accessible archive remains of a time that is gone and nobody has died, is anything really lost? Can it ever be reconstituted? What is the Live in Livejournal? If the site simply shifts and grows in one country and dies in another, is the space really gone? What, if anything, will replace it?

Of course I can look back over the 10 years of my writing, but the thing that made Livejournal alive is no longer there. Of course most of those people are still alive, but the online diaspora has scattered everyone to the digital winds.

Of course, maybe there’s a future, a new place to write and meet new people. At least, I need to hope so. But Livejournal, I miss you- and I’m using Livejournal as a synecdoche for those of my friends who drifted away from the site and thus from me. Keep in touch.

–Miranda / audesapere

Current mood: Nostalgic

Current Music: “Come Dancing” by the Kinks