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How Dreamwidth is helping save LiveJournal

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Disclosures: I volunteer for both LiveJournal and Dreamwidth; I keep my journal on both LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, largely mirrored, with occasional posts to InsaneJournal. I condense the ephemera of my impressions into generalizations; if I am lucky, I can remember where I was to have gotten that impression.


I think Dreamwidth has helped save LiveJournal.

No, really; I think that LiveJournal is in a much better place right now than it was six months ago. It may even be in a better place than it was a year ago. I'm feeling more general enthusiasm and hope than I was then, and most especially, I'm no longer experiencing the quickly-repressed desire to pack up my journal and flee into the night (with the exception of my Suggestions duties, as I wouldn't leave Carrie in the lurch like that, as my shoes would be hard to fill).

I haven't been paying steady or close attention to news comments for a while, not since the level of animosity against SUP, LiveJournal in general, and some actual personal friends reached full shriek. I had better things to do, like kiss a facehugger. I have checked back intermittently, and I have noticed a change in the last two months. It seems to me that the people who had been speaking out with the most anger and betrayal about LiveJournal's decisions have finished migrating off the service.

I just didn't see that same level of pain and outrage the last time I looked. Annoyance? Oh, yes, plenty. A la carte userpics were promised, but there hasn't been much of an update on the progress there. "My Guests"? Oh, yes, that's getting the classic debate, where people who will opt out and never use it complain about its very existence, and people wonder who would use it and why it was even implemented (it's a frequent request in suggestions, for the record). But the anguish has dramatically lowered.

The launch of Dreamwidth has played a role in that drop-off in a way that no other alternate journal service has. I did not see the same level of drop-off in user anguish with the large migrations to GreatestJournal and InsaneJournal -- indeed, if anything, there was just an additional element to some of the complaints.


GreatestJournal came first, and with GreatestJournal came people who'd moved much of their activity to GreatestJournal arguing that LiveJournal should offer features comparable to GreatestJournal's. This became a running joke with people who were planning to stay with LiveJournal. Evidently this is a lot more funny if you actually have the numbers behind what userpics cost to offer. I don't have access to the numbers behind the scenes, but one assumes that LiveJournal has priced its userpics features to account for the cost and give them a reasonable cut. Let's start with LiveJournal's current pricing on the userpics add-on. With that, a paid user can upload up to 100 userpics. 30 userpics are already included with the paid account, so this is +70 userpics, at $10 a year: slightly over $0.14 per userpic per year. So. If LJ had been selling 1,900 userpics to a user at the going rate, that would have been $271 worth (rounded down to the nearest dollar). Heh. So the GreatestJournal users were roleplaying on GreatestJournal, liking what they found there, and wanting LiveJournal to duplicate those features, because they still had significant time spent on LiveJournal, because people in their social network were still using LiveJournal, and LiveJournal was more stable.

With GreatestJournal's rise in popularity, sadly, came GreatestJournal's decline in service, abandonment by its operators, and eventual death. This left the unlucky GreatestJournal users not only displaced yet again, but with bonus data loss. That would make anyone upset and bitter. GreatestJournal users scattered, evidently primarily to InsaneJournal and back to LiveJournal.


There were not so many fantastic claims made about InsaneJournal's features, although its owner has recently attracted a certain number of incredulous stares for selling permanent accounts like candy and dropping the price. (Free hint, Squeaky -- that business logic depends on a constant influx of new users and/or characters, and likely a regular dropoff/disuse of some of the depreciated accounts. Not a wise gamble.) InsaneJournal's management was instead held up as a better and more trustworthy alternative to the regime at LiveJournal post-Strikethrough -- at least by certain parties.


A curious pattern emerged: while certain clusters of individuals loudly expressed their displeasure with LiveJournal policies, innovations, and management, and stated their desire to move to a platform where these issues were not a problem, nevertheless the loudest voices stayed interacting, advocating, and campaigning on LJ, even though they had moved almost all their online lives elsewhere. Starting from the time of Strikethrough up until very recently, comments in news have included some of the same very irritated people saying the same things, along with general good old-fashioned trollery (for where discontent and its ilk are loudest, trolling follows).

Essentially, there was a large and vocal population whose trust had been betrayed, and it seemed increasingly certain that the breach of trust had been irreparable. But why had these people not already left, if they were so very disenchanted and only using LiveJournal in order to complain about it? Clearly there had to be something keeping them.

One of the fascinating phenomena of LiveJournal-like social media platforms is that the platform itself becomes a contact management system -- while one is likely to have an address book of one's regular contacts, one may not have bothered to make a backup copy of the email addresses -- or indeed, names! -- of one's entire friends/contacts list, relying on their presence on the site and the site's retention of their profile information and any contacts posts they may have made. This makes social media participants vulnerable to disruption of their social circle if the site folds, if they are ousted from the site, if someone is removed, or someone merely stops using the site and moves on and lets their contact information become out of date. And assuming you know where your friends have gone, if they all scatter to different sites, the problem of keeping up with them is going to become really difficult really fast.

And if this is a social media site, if the site or someone's account goes up in smoke, there goes possibly years of content unless someone had a backup saved. (If your social media site is your rock, it takes a special kind of paranoia/IT experience to think of making a backup, and possibly needs IT experience to extract a backup from the site.) There were assorted tools for personal backups (working more or less depending on the journal in question) but nothing to ensure that any particular existing social cluster could make a transition from LiveJournal to another platform intact.

The howling in LiveJournal's news posts wasn't primarily rabblerousers and troublemakers. It was the desperate cries of people convinced the ship was about to steer itself into an iceberg and/or already going down -- and discovering that there were no lifeboats. Yes, it was of course possible to download your journal a month at a time, and download comments with some form of client. But it was tedious, the existing clients to do it automatically had a tendency to break, and LiveJournal staggered under the load if thousands of people tried to back up their journals at the same time.

That's not to say that LiveJournal was remaining unmoved by all the fuss. From my privileged position as a volunteer, I saw what felt like significant changes from within LiveJournal trickling down from levels above that which I had direct access to, although there were precious few concrete things that I could put my finger on. It seemed like communication between people reporting bugs and requesting features and the people actually fixing the bugs and building the features became better. Releases moved more smoothly. Communication about current issues, maintenance, and all the geeky little details started improving. I was convinced that the tide had turned in December 2008. But the overall tone of news posts remained grim, and then there were the layoffs.

The layoffs kicked Dreamwidth development back into high gear. (The wife of one of the owners was one of the LiveJournal employees affected by the layoffs.) Amazingly, despite the general outrage over the layoffs, the Dreamwidth project maintained a reasonably cordial relationship with LiveJournal (at least the support, volunteer, and development portions). Dreamwidth owners put pressure on their volunteers and advocates to stay classy. (It didn't always work, but due to the large number of current and former LiveJournal volunteers involved with Dreamwidth, internal trash-talking was generally quelled, which affected wider speech in public forums.)

In the Open Source spirit, Dreamwidth and LiveJournal trade patches, and there have been sightings of Dreamwidth owners and LiveJournal employees having a chat over a beer. Dreamwidth is rare among projects running the LiveJournal codebase in that it is a code fork, rather than a straightforward clone. Dreamwidth has a dedicated group of developers, not just a handful of system administrators, and they are actively making changes and improvements to the code.

Even though both sites have many of the same capabilities, Dreamwidth is changing the code behind the scenes, to make it less coded-in-Brad's-dorm-room-in-1999 and more modern, powerful, and understandable to future developers who are not Brad. Does the code work as is? Yes, mostly. Are weird, back-end parts of the site that only staff and volunteers use actually easy to use and make work? Um. Heh. (The translation system, which includes parts of the documentation system, is consistently described as a "shambling horror". That's the user interface. The code is worse.) After a piece of software has been around a while, its users gather all sorts of little, low-priority things about it that can be lived with, but that get up their collective nose and drive them up a tree. Dreamwidth has the volunteer developer resources to get those things fixed, and is encouraging a culture that looks for them and reports them.

Dreamwidth is unique in the contributions they make to not only their own branch of the code fork they have created, but to the parent LiveJournal open source project itself. A significant number of Dreamwidth patches have been taken up by LiveJournal. Some of them are quiet little things only seen in the code-firehose of changelog. Some of them are significant enough to be listed in lj_releases. Denise, a new developer who had not worked with code prior to starting Dreamwidth, contributed a patch that strips positioning from CSS in comments, stopping that jackass in the comments from putting images all over the entry and other commenters. Dreamwidth is actively giving back to LiveJournal, by flagging some patches that fix inherited bugs to go upstream. Since both LiveJournal and Dreamwidth are open source, Dreamwidth can pick up new patches that LiveJournal has implemented (as all clone sites can do, although not all bother to), and LiveJournal can also have someone keep an eye on Dreamwidth's output, and pick up other patches that Dreamwidth has released for the public. This increases the effective developer pool for both sites, freeing up developers to work on other issues.

(Even though Dreamwidth isn't even out of beta yet, it's already picked up a pair of clones: http://www.scenejournal.net/ and http://www.deathnote.me/ )

Dreamwidth's launch provided not just an alternative journaling platform with similar features, but also the ability to import your existing journal from most LiveJournal-compatible sites, complete with comments controlled by the OpenID login of their owner -- either publicly, or (with default security set to private before starting the import process) as a private backup. WordPress also implemented a migration-from-LiveJournal feature at around the same time. With a trivial amount of effort, anyone could leave LiveJournal and keep a copy of their online history accessible to the public in their new location, not just on their own computer. People who were significantly disenchanted with LiveJournal had motivation to do whatever it took to move themselves, yet the process had been too involved for the bulk of their social groups who were not actually hopping mad. Whole social groups had the ability to pick up and move, if they so desired. Suddenly, the insurmountable task of leaving but leaving in good order had become trivial, and that's enough to properly shift very upset people and their whole social groups into a new site.

Keeping communications open between sites was another barrier to exit. Two reasonably robust options for cross-site communication had existed for some time: syndicated feeds (pulling friends' posts onto one's preferred friends reading page from whatever site they were posting on), and OpenID commenting, to diminish the need to remember a whole passel of passwords for logins to a whole passel of social media sites to which one's friends have migrated. Awareness of these is growing in LiveJournal's little walled garden.

People who have expressed a desperate need to get off have now departed and lost the urgent need to attempt to change LiveJournal into the the site of their dreams while still harboring resentment and distrust. The people who have been worried about all their data going down with a sinking ship have presumably made their backups. The knowledge that another option exists takes pressure off any situation. Even if any given user decides that they still like it on LiveJournal and they'll stay despite the things that drive them crazy, it is psychologically advantageous to that user to have made a choice rather than being forced into staying by default because LiveJournal is their only viable option.

So how exactly does loss of customers wind up as an advantage to a service? People who have worked customer service intuitively understand the point of diminishing returns with a customer. Some customers/users will, by their very nature, take up more time and attention from customer service and technical support. Now, not all people who take up a lot of time and attention are actually a problem. Sometimes they're just good at locating bugs, particularly in weird edge cases. A cooperative user working with technical support can be a great asset, because they can help get weird technical problems nailed down and turned into known issues that can be fixed.

An antagonistic user at odds with customer service over an issue that is unlikely to be able to be resolved is a drain on the service, particularly when the user has ceased to give financial support to the service, and is taking up significant amounts of time and attention that could be used to help users whose issues are possible to resolve.

Would it be better to be able to mend fences between the user and the company? Oh yes. In an ideal world. Whose fault is it that there's a rift in the first place? Whose fault is it that it remains open? I tell you, when something gets weird and long-running, it is possibly impossible to sort out who is more at fault. It gets worse when it's a scenario where most parties have failed to catch the Effectively Communicating With Each Other train on top of whatever issue started it all.

Dealing directly with the sort of situations that make you want to go hug a cactus for a pleasant change is hell on the crew, and diminishes the level of service that other users get. The user-facing crew that survives ugly situations with antagonistic users may be better able to cope with future ugly situations, but they also may not be as inclined to be genuinely enthusiastic or go above and beyond the call of duty even with users who are not combative.

I find that it's hard to identify the same users who were upset to the point of toxicity on LiveJournal in their new native environment on Dreamwidth. Sometimes one can be lured into the cynical belief that if someone is acting unbearably nasty on one front, then they're an all-around nasty person. That's not always correct. A fundamental, irreconcilable culture clash that cannot be resolved will result in a toxic and hostile environment until somebody goes. These people have found a blogging community service that fits them better, and they are happier and more productive for it.

And no longer embattled with the same factions of the userbase, LiveJournal responds, with further attention to detail in new feature rollouts, and a high level of responsiveness to beta feedback. LiveJournal is changing. LiveJournal is up and running and starting to actively develop instead of just treading water. I can taste the way the development team is providing output as a fully operational team once more when I look at lj_releases. Stuff from suggestions is bubbling through. Releases seem to be happening more smoothly. Promising new volunteers are starting to pop back in. Code patches shuffle back and forth, today Dreamwidth picking up a new feature from LiveJournal, tomorrow LiveJournal snagging a bug fix from Dreamwidth.

The project rolls on, and the userbases of all LiveJournal-based sites are the more secure for having more talent devoted to the project, and another viable option.


Cross-site chatter: Dreamwidth, LiveJournal

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azurelunatic
Azz (bolt of blue) Обещанного три года ждут.
azurelunatic on Dreamwidth (my active journal)
Gone away, gone ahead,
Echoes roll unanswered.
Empty, open, dusty, dead.
Why have all the Weyrfolk fled?

Where have dragons gone together
Leaving weyrs to wind and weather,
Setting herdbeasts free of tether;
Gone, our safeguards, gone, but whither?

Have they flown to some new weyr
Where cruel Threads some others fear?
Are they worlds away from here?
Why, oh why the empty weyr?

-- "The Question Song", Anne McCaffrey
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