A Site to Pour Out Emotions, and Just About Anything Else
By DAVID F. GALLAGHER
NLINE journals have a bad reputation: emotional train wrecks and narcissistic ramblings plastered on the Web for all to see. But the extraordinary growth of a site called LiveJournal suggests that the genre might be gaining ground in the mainstream. For many young people, keeping a Web journal is less about soul-searching than about keeping in touch with a circle of friends and perhaps expanding it.
LiveJournal users have built a sizable community around what was once a strictly solitary pursuit. With no advertising, the site (www.livejournal.com) has signed up 690,000 registered users in four years and is adding another 1,100 every day. The site includes software tools that make it easy for members to publish new journal entries, read and comment on the latest updates from friends and find journal-keepers with similar interests.
Brad Fitzpatrick, who graduated in March from the University of Washington in Seattle and now lives in Portland, Ore., wrote the first version of the LiveJournal software during the summer of 1998, before he left for college, as a way to keep his high school friends up to date on his activities. When some college friends wanted to try out the program, Mr. Fitzpatrick turned it into a Web-based service.
"Then all our friends from high school started using it to keep in touch," he said. "Within a month there were 1,000 people on it."
To cover his costs, Mr. Fitzpatrick turned the service into a low-key business venture, giving extra features to people who paid a subscription fee (now $25 a year) for their accounts. About 5 percent of the site's users are now subscribers, enough to allow Mr. Fitzpatrick to hire a small staff. The site also has a strong volunteer spirit, with users adding new features to its open-source code and designing graphics for one another's pages.
All kinds of people maintain pages on LiveJournal, but the site's own statistics show that its users tend to be 15 to 21 and predominantly female. Many people who have pages at LiveJournal or similar sites like DiaryLand maintain that the form is distinct from Weblogs, or blogs. The journals tend to be more inwardly focused and offer fewer links than blogs, although the categories overlap.
Most LiveJournal pages are chronicles of the mundane: movies watched, friends seen and the occasional dispute with parents. There is little to attract would-be voyeurs. But for most journal writers, strangers are not the intended audience, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University's interactive telecommunications program who has studied LiveJournal's approach to building an online community.
"It's not for readers — it's only for participants," Mr. Shirky said. "Most people's lives are boring to anyone outside of a small circle of friends." LiveJournal's innovation, he said, is catering to small, self-organizing clusters of people rather than treating its users as an undifferentiated mass audience. He compared it to a dinner party. "We all understand how you can have an intimate dinner party for 6 but not for 60," he said.
Ashley Miller, a sophomore at Louisiana State University, has a typical cluster, which includes two longtime best friends, several new college friends and two people she met through the site who share her love of the rock band Rubyhorse. Her Friends page, the equivalent of a buddy list, lets her read her friends' latest journal entries in one place. Each entry offers room for feedback on its own discussion board.
Ms. Miller has been using her journal lately to complain about her summer job at a movie theater. She said the journal was a more efficient way of communicating than phone calls or instant messages. "I do not always have time to sit on the phone for hours," she said. "Posting everything in my LiveJournal for my friends to see makes things easier on them and myself."
Mr. Fitzpatrick said that journals had an advantage over e-mail in that they do not place any burden on friends to respond. "With e-mail, even if you say, `Don't reply,' you're kind of expecting them to read it," he said. A journal makes no such demands, he said, because "you're telling everyone" rather than anyone in particular."
For those who do not want their words to be read by just anyone, LiveJournal lets users restrict access so that for example, a particular entry might be accessible to "my close guy friends only," as Mr. Fitzpatrick put it. He also complied when users asked for the ability to make some entries readable only by the person who wrote them. Of course, journal keepers needing that level of privacy might want to consider whether old-fashioned paper might serve them better than the Web.