I’ve been following the Livejournal Content Strike with interest. For those of you who aren’t LJ nerds, LiveJournal was started by Brad Fitzpatrick, a computer science student at the University of Washington. It evolved into Danga, a small, independent company that (although a bit idealized now through the rose-colored glasses of time) remained committed to open-source software and user input. In 2005, Danga was sold to SixApart, who in late 2007 sold LJ to a Russian company called SUP.
There’s been an inherent tension all along among LJ users and the owners of LJ. Historically, LJ has depended on users for moderation, development, FAQs, and so forth. LJers also obviously provide all the content that makes the site appealing to advertisers and new users. Some of the major controversies on LJ:
1) SixApart adding advertising to the site, after Danga had promised no advertising – ever! on LJ
2) SixApart removing ~500 accounts for use of the terms “incest” or “non-con” in their user info. Many of these were fan fiction communities, targeted by anti-child-predator activist groups like “Warriors for Innocence.” (I recently presented a piece about the discourse around “child predators” on social networking sites and how it’s used to justify content regulation and misguided legislation; the LJ debacle is a good example.)
3) SixApart asking users to remove icons that depicted breastfeeding
4) SUP eliminating “basic” accounts (free, no advertising) for new users.
Each of these met with various degrees of user protest and backlash. #2, especially, caused a huge storm of controversy, largely because fandom is very well organized and networked. But it’s #4 that’s caused the current strike, and what I’m most interested in.
What’s interesting is that I don’t think it’s the policy itself that’s pissed everyone off; LJ users are obviously aware that SUP needs to make money, and although I think most people don’t like advertising online, AdBlock quickly fixes that. The problem lies in the way that SUP handled the change.
- They didn’t run it by the “LJ Advisory Board” that includes well-known user advocates like danah boyd and Brad Fitzpatrick, after promising to use them as a resource for any major decisions
- They claimed the choice to remove free accounts was to make the site easier to use, rather than as a revenue generation mechanism
- They announced the change buried in a lengthy post on the LJ News community
LJ users began to organize two initiatives: a boycott of LJ advertisers, and a Content Strike on Friday, March 21 in which LJ users pledged not to update their journals.
That’s when the real shit hit the fan. SUP evangelist Anton Nossik gave a Russian-language interview in which he called the boycotts “blackmail” and stated:
I don’t know any of LJ posters familiar to me, those I have friended and commented, that would want to join said boycott. I honestly don’t know any people that would seriously take up that initiative. So I am presuming such an idea to be marginal at best. Something like calling all the advertisers in the American section of livejournal and calling on them to cancel their ads…Where would one find people stupid enough to call serious companies? It’s one thing to call a newspaper in hopes that it’ll make you famous on its pages. But a company… They’d just get asked: “Who are you? Why should I listen to you?”…. In a situation where people are trying to blackmail and intimidate us, threatening to destroy our business, there are business reasons not to reward this sort of behavior. This isn’t just the psychology of someone who becomes more stubborn the more they’re pushed. The issue is that at no point in the history of any successful business, success was not reached by bowing to aggressive, unfriendly force. No decision — even the most correct one — should be taken under duress.
There’s something refreshing about the candor with which Mr. Nossik approached his users, given the typical American company’s “we’re taking this very seriously” non-action. But calling LJ users “blackmailers” and “idiots” isn’t very good for public relations, and given that the tactic of boycotting is a time-honored protest technique with a history of success, not very accurate either.
I think one of the reasons Brad Fitzpatrick sold LJ in the first place was that LiveJournallers take LJ very seriously, and feel that the company has a responsibility to take them seriously. This isn’t bad, but it means that the users are EXTREMELY invested in the product (and I think Brad felt that he couldn’t spend the rest of his professional career being personally criticized on a micro-level for every change on the site). HOWEVER. I subscribe to a ton of marketing newsletters, left over from when I was working on marketing surveillance techniques like behavioral targeting. 99% of the content on these newsletters is “how to get customers to engage with your brand.” LJers are intensely emotionally connected to the brand. And given the obvious, that LiveJournal’s profit comes, directly or indirectly, from the users, it seems short-sighted and counterproductive not to take their concerns at face value and try to do something to appease them.
But we see this time and time again. Rather than actually appeasing user concerns, businesses get upset that they can’t control user engagement in the way that they want. Nossik seemed furious that users were organizing against a policy rather than passively accepting it, and has responded defensively and back-pedaled with spin. LiveJournal’s official PR people are a bit better at communicating in status quo business-newspeak but still haven’t actually suggested any improvements to the decision-making process.
Interestingly, I went to the Users are Revolting panel at SXSW (I also took copious notes, and left them all at home today, so forgive me as I vaguely paraphrase). Jessamyn West from Metafilter, a woman from Linden Labs, and one of the editors of Lifehacker talked about user protests oand rebellions and how they handled it. I was fascinated that Lifehacker’s big example was 12 people complaining about a banner ad that showed naked butts (they removed the ad). Metafilter’s recent crazy threads about sexism involved more people, but ultimately resulted in a lot of talking, and some high-profile female users quitting the site. West pointed out that Metafilter’s general response to speech they don’t like is more speech, trying to use discussion and dialogue to work through issues collaboratively. This is a far superior technique to either the usual Best Buy / Verizon / Wal-Mart corporate spin response or Nossik’s defensive reaction.
Ultimately, the switching cost for LJ is too high for most users to do a permanent boycott. But this ties into one of my main problems with Web 2.0: how can we idealize participatory technologies as “democratic” when they are all oligarchical corporate environments in which what the users want doesn’t necessarily have an effect on what policies are proposed? The built environment equivalent would be tearing down town halls and having all public meetings at the mall, where you can’t pass out flyers, wear politically controversial t-shirts, or congregate with teenagers en masse. User boycotts are a response to market forces, but they’re also predicated on a very old-school idea of participatory democracy in which citizens– not just consumers– deserve a say in their governing.