Approaching LiveJournal as an anthropologist

LiveJournal.com

Pioneered in 1999 by Brad Fitzpatrick (‘LiveJournal’ homepage), LiveJournal is a virtual community for users to blog and share their online diaries with others. Besides the usual ‘User info’ pages, ‘Avatar’ and ‘Comment’ section that are also available on other free blog hosts such as Blogger.com and WordPress.com, LiveJournal, or ‘LJ’ to its users, has two distinctive features.

Firstly, its ‘Friends list’ allows users to add other blogs or communities to a live feed that collates updates and functions as a filter to streamline selected pages into subsets. Adding someone as a friend also allows users to read protected entries tagged ‘Friends only’, that are otherwise not publically accessible.

Secondly, its ‘Communities’ are shared blogs where users can post updates visible to all members. Interests include fashion, celebrity gossip, health, relationship advice, décor and food among many others. There are usually 1 to 5 ‘moderators’, or ‘mods’, running a community; they approve contributions from readers and also edit entries to neaten up the community archives. Readers who have joined communities but never participated through moderation or submissions are known as ‘Lurkers’; they usually introduce themselves on their very first submission.

Every week, LJ holds polls covering a variety of topics and also suggests blog discussions aptly titled ‘Writer’s block’ (‘LiveJournal’ homepage) for users who need inspiration to write. LJ can be accessed via any Personal Computer (PC) with Internet access or through smart phone applications available to Blackberry and iPhone users. As of April 2010, there are 30,829,336 users on LJ and Singapore ranks sixth internationally with 244366 users (‘LiveJournal’ homepage).

Expectations

Prior to starting an account, I had three expectations. Firstly, I thought anonymity would be prized and maintained by all users. The medium, after all, was the Internet that accorded readers a clean slate to refashion their cyber-identities with the use of avatars. Secondly, I thought most LJ users would be exhibitionists and expected few responses from readers. I thought most users would be more concerned with generating information for consumption rather than consuming material put up by other users. Thirdly, I though communities would be barrier-free, meaning anyone would be able to sign up and participate. This was especially since LJ communities were mediated on the open space of the Internet.

Activities

I signed up for a LiveJournal account and participated on it for 4 weeks, prior to writing up this paper.

1. Joining a community
I browsed through the available communities on Live Journal under the ‘décor’ category and scrolled through 10 to 20 pages until I chanced upon ‘Our Bedrooms’. It is a platform that allows readers to post up pictures of their bedrooms, suggest ideas and solicit feedback from other users regarding décor ideas. I personalized my ‘Friend’s page’ and added this to my ‘Interest Communities’ category. In future, clicking under this tab would reveal all submissions posted to the ‘Our Bedrooms’ community. The whole browsing and adding process took less than 20 minutes.

2. Commenting on a reader submission
I scrolled through numerous reader submissions and commented on posts that interested me. According to the norms I have observed from this community, users would generally give positive comments and encouragement rather than criticism and harsh remarks. I, too, began to reply to reader submissions with compliments, storage ideas or my own experiences. I took an average of 5 minutes to go through each blogpost that was usually rich in photographic content and accompanying descriptions.

3. Adding a friend
Occasionally, long exchanges between users in the comments section developed into online friendships. Users are able to ‘Add’ each other as ‘Friends’, allowing each other access to protected ‘Friends only’ entries. Following the norms of ‘Our Bedrooms’, I left a comment on LJ user Esteffa’s blogpost to identify myself before adding her as a friend. It was a simple process that took less than 5 minutes to accomplish.

4. Submitting a post
Submitting a post to the community took me over an hour. I had to tidy up my room and take photographs of it at different angles while worrying over having an adequate amount of lighting. I then resized the photos before uploading them onto the server. As with the unspoken norms of the community, I gave a short introduction and identified myself as a former ‘Lurker’ of the community, before posting up photographs of my room and adding short descriptions of the artifacts pictured. After this, I had to send my draft to the submission queue for community mods to approve my entry. According to community rules, submissions that were offensive and explicit in nature were banned, along with those that commercially advertised products and services. Within 12 hours, my submission was approved and published, and even garnered 48 comments in the next two days. Most were compliments while others were queries regarding the origin of my belongings. I eventually ended up exchanging numerous pointers with several readers (from Singapore, Australia, France, Germany, and Japan among others) who incidentally shared the same interests and passion as I. It was a really enjoyable experience getting to know so many different people in such a short period.

5. Moderating a reader’s post
Occasionally, mods would publish submissions but comment that it needs to be edited and ‘cleaned up’ or risk permanent deletion from the website. I decided to contribute by adding tags to a few of such entries. These tags are collated on the right of the community’s main page, and are useful as quick references for others in future.

Expectations

  1. Anonymity, norms and privacy
    All three of my initial expectations were challenged. Firstly, almost everyone opted out of anonymity. It surprised me that community users were so honest and open in sharing about their lives in the private space of their bedrooms. Most of them posted pictures of themselves with their loved ones or pets and with objects of sentimental value to them. Perhaps it is because users placed themselves in vulnerable positions through the sharing of their private lives that community norms were developed against flaming and explicit responses. Commercial advertising was also banned so that personal information put up by members will not be treated unethically.

Because all blogposts since the inception of ‘Our Bedrooms’ in 2003 (‘Our Bedrooms’ Profile) were catalogued and referenced with tags, all personal information put online is “eternally stored in memory” (Baym 2006). I was concerned that the entire database of pictorially captured bedrooms if appropriated by stalkers who can thus easily track them down, might jeopardize the privacy and safety of users (Mills 2008). In the event that this does occur, members may contact the administrators of LiveJournal directly and request for public posts to be taken down before launching an investigation. With tension between full participation and security, onus thus falls on users to ensure that their privacy and safety will not be risked.

  1. Networks, communities and copyright
    Secondly, there were disproportionately more reader comments than submissions. Interestingly, the comments section of every blogpost encompassed a wealth of data, and even more so than the actual blogpost intended to share ideas. It was a refreshing experience reading through other readers’ helpful advice because I had not initially expected the community to be anything more than another platform for plain exhibitionism.

    In an apt display of the “strength in weak ties” (Granovetter 1973), the “wisdom of the crowds” (Surowieki 2004) formed a pool of knowledge that other users could tap from as “cognitive surplus” (Shirky 2010). According to Metcalfe’s law, “the value of a network increases rapidly in the number of users connected” (Hendler & Golbeck 2007), and with 17, 928 users (‘Our Bedrooms’ Profile), ‘Our Bedrooms’ has proven itself to function as a “network society” (Castells 1999). Users who freely shared tips did not seem to be concerned that their ideas would be stolen or copied by others. In fact, most found it flattering that others would want to emulate their taste and style. Copyright thus did not appear to be a pressing issue.

In terms of the content shared, there were some areas of tension. With multiple sources of information, it is easy for new users to feel overwhelmed and lost. Also, users ought to compare the personalized advice given to them with other more authoritative and credible voices such as furniture companies or professional interior designers.

As a “community of interest” (Armstrong & Hagel 2000) who is brought together by their love for room décor, readers from all parts of the world could relate to my interest in vintage Victorian furniture certain cartoon characters, resulting in a spaceless proximity and sense of intimacy negotiated online. Users were also very interactive with two-way dialogue between submitters and readers, and among readers themselves. Despite being physically isolated and never having met each other in real life before, ‘Our Bedrooms’ is what Anderson calls an “imagined community” (Anderson 1983) where readers are emotionally bound together via their common interests through computer-mediated communication. The Internet is thus the medium that has allowed the very phenomenon of online communities to occur.

  1. Inclusivity, interactivity and communication
    Thirdly, not all communities were inclusive. I stumbled upon other communities that had stringent membership rules. One community for eating disorders (ED) required members to be ED patients themselves, with pictures as proof, before being allowed to sign up and read members’ posts. However, ‘Our Bedrooms’ has proven itself to be an open community of personalized exchanges.

Interactions revealed elements of both interpersonal and mass communication: blogposts were personal and semi-public in that only members of the community could have access to them; not all members of the small audience are known to the amateur submitter; and exchanges were almost always reciprocal and non-hierarchal in nature (Deuze 2006).

References

Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (1983). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.

Armstrong, A. & Hagel III, J. (2000). ‘The Real Value of Online Communities.’ In E.L. Lesser, M. A. Fontaine & J. A. Slusher (Eds.), Knowledge and Communities, pp. 85-95. Boston, MA: Butterworth Heinemann.

Baym, N. K. (2006). ‘Interpersonal Life Online’. In S. Livingstone & L. Lievrouw (Eds.) The Handbook of New Media (Student Edition). London: Sage.

Castells, M. (1999). ‘An Introduction to the Information Age’. In H. Macay & T.O’Sullivan (Eds.), The Media Reader: Continuity and Transformation (pp. 398-410). London: Thousand Oaks; CA: Sage.

Dueze, M. (2006). ‘Participation, Remediation, Bricolage: Considering Principal Components of a Digital Culture’. The Information Society 22:63-75.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973). ‘The Strength of Weak Ties’. The American Journal of Sociology 78(6):1360-1380.

Hendler, Jennifer Golbeck. (2008). ‘Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web’. Semantic Web and Web 2.0 6(1):14-20

Mills, J. L. (2008). ‘Privacy and its Contemporary Context: Why Privacy is Disappearing’. In Privacy: The Lost Right, pp. 13-58. New York: Oxford University Press.

Shirky, C. (2010). Cognitive surplus: creativity and generosity in a connected age. London: Allen Lane.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The wisdom of crowds: why the many are smarter than the few and how collective wisdom shapes business, economies, societies, and nations. New York: Doubleday.

‘Our Bedrooms’ Profile. n.d. <http://community.livejournal.com/ourbedrooms/profile&gt;, accessed April 13, 2011.

‘LiveJournal’ homepage. n.d. , <http://www.livejournal.com/&gt;, accessed April 13, 2011.

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