Reinventing Journaling

by Jens Alfke ⟿ May 15, 2015

Journaling is a style of blogging that’s gone out of style lately, for some reason, but it’s dear to my heart, and to many of my friends'.

Journaling is exemplified by LiveJournal, which has a long proud history as the first social network and possibly the first turnkey blogging system (begun in 1999, it slightly predates Blogger.) LiveJournal still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self. The UI and functionality are stuck in an early-2000s timewarp, and worse, most of the users are gone, having decamped to Twitter and Facebook.

So what distinguishes journaling?

  • Pseudonymous — You don’t have to reveal your real name, and you can choose a username and icon that fit the image you want to convey.
  • Protected — Posts can be hidden from the public, made visible to only friends or a subset thereof.
  • Social — Users have visible relations to other users, forming a social graph.
  • Personal — Generally used to write about your personal life and thoughts.
  • Medium-size entries — Posts of all lengths are possible, but on average run to a few paragraphs. Longer than a tweet but shorter than an essay-length blog post.

This combination is important, and it’s not found in the now-popular platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, not to mention “traditional” self-hosted blogs. Most importantly, the combination of pseudonymity and protection allows people to construct identities and social relationships that don’t intersect with their “real life”, and use those to explore who they are and what’s important to them. This is obviously valuable for adolescents, but really, people of all ages can use it (including those on the verge of a mid-life crisis, speaking personally.)

The social graph in journaling often has much less of a relation to real life than it does in, say, Facebook. Some people are appalled at the idea of sharing personal thoughts or problems with people they don’t know, but many such issues involve those in their family or IRL social circle and can’t easily be discussed with them. (Or can be, but of necessity in ways that are very different than the ways they’d be discussed with people not so involved.) Consider a teen from a conservative family who’s struggling with gender identity, a person with an absusive partner, or a spouse rethinking their sexual orientation. Writing about such problems to an audience that’s not involved isn’t the same as talking to a therapist or clergy, but it can have some of the same benefits, especially when one can find a community of like-minded people.

If journaling is so great, what happened to it? On the one hand, LiveJournal (its primary platform) didn’t evolve fast enough. LiveJournal started as a labor of love and open-source project run by volunteers. As one of the first social networks, starting in 2001 it was hit by major scalability problems that are well-known now but were new at the time. Much of the developers' work went into keeping the site running, and not enough into improving its functionality or user interface. (Ironically, the tools Brad Fitzpatrick developed to grow LiveJournal, especially Memcached, became widely used by the sites that came later.)

When LiveJournal was acquired in 2005 (?) by SixApart, a larger startup with better resources, those resources went into building Vox, a new social network with many LiveJournal features but a more modern interface. Unfortunately there was no automatic migration path or connectivity, so network effects doomed Vox and it never gained a user base. Meanwhile, LiveJournal continued to limp along without significant upgrades.