When cultures collide: LiveJournal, Facebook and the privacy chasm

Frank on Facebook

Frank the LJ Goat, selling out.

So.  A few days ago, the blogging site LiveJournal announced a shiny new feature: the ability to cross-post journal entries and comments directly to Twitter and Facebook.   From the tone of the post, LJ staff were clearly expecting to be showered with gratitude.

For those of you who squander spend time on those other social networks, we’ve just made it easier to stay in touch with your grandparents, forgotten acquaintances, and former bosses on Facebook and Twitter without having to leave the comfort of your LiveJournal home.

At the time of writing, there were 142 pages of comments to this News Update (over 10,000 comments) pretty much unanimously condemning this move.   The Twitter part hasn’t disturbed the users, but the Facebook part has completely exploded in LJ’s corporate, er, face.

The main complaint? Cross-posting creates a huge privacy glitch.  Someone who had Facebook Connect enabled could apparently cross-post a comment to their Facebook, even when commenting on someone else’s locked-down journal.  True, Facebook friends wouldn’t be able to see the whole locked journal entry, but they could read the comment title and then poke around.

The thing is, that while Facebook has persuaded most users to adopt real-life identities, Livejournal is very different.   The vast majority of LJ users have usernames, not real names.   It’s very common to have pictorial avatars and icons, rather than a personal photograph.  Many LJ bloggers lock all or some of their entries, in order to emote more precisely about all manner of subjects from My Chemical Romance to how much grief they are  getting from their distant relatives, their boss and their Facebook friends.

Cleolinda Jones, who maintains a popular blog on LJ, has researched the effect of the cross-posting, and yes, it’s a privacy black hole.  Not because it reveals you immediately, but because anyone with a little talent at triangulation could begin to identify the Facebooker’s LJ friend.

Livejournal, like Bebo, Myspace and other journal-style sites, is losing out to Facebook and Facebook-like practices. It’s not trendy, if it ever was, and a search for stories about this particular user backlash gets one hit on Google News.  (In contrast, the story about World of Warcraft’s attempt to get users to adopt real-life names gets 13.5 million hits and a story in The Economist).

What is particularly telling is that while LJ alerted its users 5 days ago, there has been virtually no management comment, other than a short update to the original news item.

Update: Thank you for taking the time to offer your honest feedback. We understand and appreciate your desire for privacy. We share your concerns. Most of us would not want to publish our LiveJournal usernames or FO (friends-only) comments to Facebook or Twitter either (to the extent we even use them). Please give us a little time to address your concerns. We are listening, and we’ll do our best to respond.

What, said the commenters, is the point of launching a feature which you already know your users will hate? Unless it’s a done deal…

Commenters are beginning to move from earnest argument to vitriol and cat macros.

It’s been five days, now. Five days. Fucking irresponsible. Disgusting. Lazy. Careless. Idiot. Fatcat. Bastards.

One of the interesting things about the user feedback is not only the emphatic rejection of moves which would threaten privacy (and we’re talking about a service that users may pay for) but also the visceral dislike and mistrust of Facebook  culture. Facebook is indeed for the public face – but many users want to keep an alternative service like LiveJournal that preserves an odd semi-public, semi-private internet space. Even if such spaces are going the way of the chatroom.

I’m personally sad about the move.  I’ve been on LJ since 2004, happily yakking about books, film and TV to an assorted collection of geek friends.   I am still hoping that the wilder elements will be thrown out (like the persistent tick-boxes under comments that invite you to cross-post to Facebook and Twitter, which still show up, albeit in grayed-out form, even when Facebook Connect is switched off).

If Facebook is the office, Twitter is the cocktail bar and Livejournal is the cosy pub where you talk to old friends about inconsequential stuff and deep feelings.   I’m fearful of anything which continues to roll out Facebook’s monolithic approach to internet culture: there’s enough of it already. Plenty of room for something different; but I’m not sure the site owners see it that way.


16 Responses

  1. Interesting. I don’t really use LJ anymore but in the spectrum of open-closed my LJ and FB are on opposite sides (but not diametrically opposite, since I’ve attempted to navigate the labyrinthine FB settings to limit visibility of certain sections). It seems like a desperate roll of the dice from LJ owners to remain relevant, without knowing or caring about what the loyal (albeit diminishing in number) user-base feel.

    Also interesting to note that this happens the same week that their former stablemate Vox gets shut down.

    • I think that’s really common. Plenty of LJ users are on Facebook, but the uses are different and the functionality is very different.

      I had thought that the most recent LJ owners got the site in a way that Six Apart simply didn’t but there has been precious little improvement and innovation. Dreamwidth, which was started by a couple of ex-LJ people, has managed to innovate considerably, but I find it a bit narrow – many of the early adopters are ultra-fans. The other competition is sites like Tumblr.

      LJ’s Facebook page says that LJ ‘willfully [sic] blurs the lines between journaling and social networking’. Which was always true, but even more so now. Blurring boundaries is all very well, but people want to be very clear about their persona, context, and visibility.

  2. I am glad that this storm is getting out to the public, like I mean people will start to notice how dumb the feature really is. I’m a paid LJ user myself and I’m getting more anxious and paranoid each day. I’m part of the group of people who refresh the comments page every 5 comments. I really hope LJ does something about this. I’d hate to leave but me and my f-list are already setting up Dreamwidth accounts just in case and importing our journals. I’m so not happy with this. 😦

    • Thing is, it’s really not getting out. At least the IT boys got worked up over World of Warcraft. There’s nothing in mainsream media about this.

      The conundrum for LJ was always how to grow and innovate while keeping the core users in all their diverse, geek, queer, emo locked-down countercultural glory. Unfortunately, I think there are very, very few internet entrepreneurs who understand and value that culture.

      I absolutely hear you. I have a paid account, and I’m really not sure what to do. I would love LJ to become more mainstream (rather than more fannish), while hanging on to its culture of networking in a semi-private context.

      • After all this silence I’m kinda getting the feeling that this feature is irreversible and the contract’s done and signed between FB and LJ months ago. 😦 And the staff was instructed to just keep quiet and wait till all of the fuss has died down. OTL

        It would be really shameful if that were the case. It is most likely that they’ll make an announcement tomorrow after the holiday. I hope they have a good explanation for their absence.

  3. It is interesting to me that the “upgrade” dropped on nearly the eave of an extended Holiday weekend, giving the LJ suits nearly a week of cover. I’m an LJ user and was horrified to the the “feature” implemented and swiftly disabled Facebook Connect and pingbacks.

    But a lot us us don’t by into the crusade towards “everyone connected to everything and everybody all the time, and damn privacy concerns” championed by FaceBook, Twitter, and Goggle.

    Since the overwhelming majority of the 500 Million FB Members are NOT technical users, few understand the implications of what’s happening. Some very powerful people smell BIG MONEY to be had out there and the complaints of individual malcontents are not going to stand in the way of virtual SKYNET! Selling out your customers, clients, and audience to cash in, is an old and honored tradition world wide

    But to sum up, I’ll quote another LJ user, quite simply: “GIVE US AN OPTION TO DISABLE CROSS-POSTING ON OUR OWN JOURNALS TO PROTECT OUR PRIVACY.” But we have no idea if anybody is listening, 10,000 angry comments later.

    • a lot us us don’t by into the crusade towards “everyone connected to everything and everybody all the time

      That’s it, exactly. All of us are part of overlapping circles of friends, family, co-workers, aquaintances and so on. This may not be true for web developers, I don’t know. But I know I want to manage my circles so that I share information appropriately.

      They’d be mad not to backtrack on the Comment function, but like you I find the silence pretty worrying. There have been lots of user dramas before, but this is the first one that’s made me seriously consider whether to move on.

  4. Excellent post. I’m amused that there are so many pages of coments! Personally, I don’t get the drive to cross-post everywhere – it seems to defeat the object.

    I always thought LJ was actually ahead of the game in terms of its platform – blogging and networking through “friends” before other online networking sites took off: it brought a whole level of relationships to LJ.

    I can see Dreamwidth booming…!

  5. Thank you so much for drawing attention to this. I’m one of those who moved out of LJ with great speed once I realised this wouldn’t be taken away (I am a bisexual in a highly religious/fundamentalist area and have security concerns if I get outed by someone). It’s not about trusting my friends; it’s about the invasion of my privacy by an asshole company that I’ve avoided like the plague since its spawning. And the not-response from LJ is nothing new – they’ve done this before, when (among other batshittery) they deleted anyone who wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (whether explicit or not) or had HP fanfiction in their interests because it was child porn. I stayed through the outrage then, but this was the final straw.

    • the invasion of my privacy by an asshole company that I’ve avoided like the plague since its spawning

      <- Aha! Facebook! Had to read that several times.

      I think most social media sites appear to disapprove of privacy, and one of the things that I really dislike about the debate is that those who want to stay private or pseudonymous inevitably end up on the back foot. The argument of 'you have nothing to fear so long as you have nothing to hide' can be difficult for some people to counter.

  6. I’ve been on LJ since July 2001. I ended up there because I’m a media fan girl and that’s where everybody I knew migrated (from mailing lists). I write and read fanfic based on genre tv, books and movies (TPM, Sentinel, Stargate, etc.). That’s one side. On Facebook, I’ve got my photo and my dog, and pics of my SO and I connect with people I work with and relatives – it’s an ENTIRELY different place and ENTIRELY different reason for me to be there. I don’t want people I work with at a conservative church run organization knowing I read Sentinel fanfic. And if I have to leave LJ and go somewhere else to get the separation and privacy I want to keep it that way, I will.

  7. It’s been five days, now. Five days. Fucking irresponsible. Disgusting. Lazy. Careless. Idiot. Fatcat. Bastards.


  8. I agree 100%. I did not and will not enable that feature on LJ.

  9. Yesteraday, the LJ Staff tossed out a news post [ http://news.livejournal.com/129284.html%5D with this minor response to the flood of enthusiastic DO NOT WANT.

    “… We understand and appreciate your privacy concerns. For this reason, we’ll be modifying the comment cross-posting portion of the Facebook and Twitter Connect feature so only comments on public entries (those marked ‘Everyone’) can be cross-posted. Once we implement this change, it will no longer be possible to cross-post screened comments or comments left on Friends Only entries. …”

    And quite frankly, they are not there yet.

    While I appreciate and have every expectation that the US LJ Staff were gagged by the deal-making bosses, that was over a week and a half. And the codechange does not have a clear timeline for implementation.

    But people are still clamoring for the full opt-out on their own journals. Another users put it very crisply,

    “If people want to OPT IN for their own journals and enable them to have their content reposted, then it should be something they choose, or have the ability to OPT OUT. ”

    With the suggested change, the only other option will be to make one’s ENTIRE JOURNAL Friends-only. But there is stuff that people are willing to let passer-by read – under their LJ Handle, provided that they can keep their mom, RL friends and bosses FB world properly insulated from their LJ persona.

    As a design professional, I have a FB and Twitter (hardly used) account, and a website and professional blog (See link) but with each outreach by the Facebook/Twitter/Google legions to EAT THE NET… I am more and more reluctant to install and apply the many modules, tools and code hacks to enable various levels of cross connectivity to them, lest I lose control and allows the data miners, stalkers, and marketeers to freely rummage through my digital underwear drawer. The forces of e-commerce have succeeded through the human instinct for social interaction beyond any government’s wildest dreams of Big Brother access to pry into our electric lives, to the point were the only real security is to fall off the grid.

    Mind you this is from a Designer who makes about 60% of my revenue from WEB DESIGN. Ouch. I plan to keep LJ’s feet to the fire to give us the tools to lock down our journals with fine grained precision. A full Opt-Out Option. Unless it happens, I will likely let my paid account expire and drop back to a basic account, and take my business to a more user-respecting environment.

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