Based in part on several emails I sent to mailing lists in the spring and summer of 2004, edited and expanded into essay form. This is about personal LJs -- for my take on LJ communities, see LJ Communities != Mailing Lists
Disclaimer: I have an LJ, which I use to make site update announcements. But that's it.
written spring/summer 2004, re-edited and posted November 23, 2005
Man, can I not deal with Livejournal. At all.
I've been trying to deal for four years or more now, and the more I try to come to grips with it, the worse my reaction gets. I understand how it works, I'm not afraid of it, I'm not stupid or a loser or a technophobe or anything else I've heard non-LJ users called. I just. Can't. Stand. It.
The way it's set up to function leaves me insanely frustrated, while the social structure leaves me feeling alienated, shamed, embarrassed, angry -- pick a negative reaction, I've had it regularly with LJ. I also inevitably get bored or squicked by a significant percentage of the posts I see. The negativity cocktail is severe enough that I simply can't take part in it.
I read LJ posts only when someone I trust tells me I should read a specific entry for a specific reason, and I'm not thrilled about doing even that.
LJs simply make me feel bad. They make me anxious and frustrated, tense and unhappy. I read LJ entries and feel disconnected/alienated from the people who are writing them, no matter how well I know them. On top of that is a heaping dose of shame, for being a voyeur and spying on them. My stomach gets twitchy, my shoulders start going up, my jaw clenches, and every instinct in me reads those physical signals and starts screaming 'LJs are bad! Run away! Hit something!'
The crux of the problem is the erosion of the line between personal and public information. People consider their LJs to be their own personal space, in which they can natter on about anything. Except -- no, they're really not. They're public webpages (unless you lock down every post to a small group of deliberately hand-chosen people, in which case, I'll never see it and therefore I don't care in the slightest).
If I don't know you personally -- for the love of god, shut UP. Would you stand up on a box in Grand Central Station and start talking about your sex life, or your cat's digestive health, or your financial issues? Would you walk up to strangers and say 'Hi!! I'm all excited right now, because the new water heater went in today, and tomorrow I can have a hot shower for the first time in four days!'
If someone at a bus station did any of that in front of me, I'd probably head straight for the nearest security guard on the theory that this is an insane person, babbling away to strangers and making a public spectacle of themselves.
If I do know you personally, I want you to tell me personally about what's going on in your life, whether via email, phone, IRC, or IM. And not just the big stuff, but the little everyday stuff, too -- the things that (used to) make up the day-to-day conversations between friends. I don't want to be just another tiny, insignificant part of your audience, reading about your life in public form letters that you put out there for all and sundry to read. Really, I don't.
Whether I know the poster or not, I find reading personal information in LJs -- from day-to-day minutiae to rampant TMI -- to be unbelievably alienating and distancing, as I'm pushed into the role of studio audience hearing a monologue, rather than individual person being addressed directly as part of a two-way conversation. It's an unpleasant feeling at any time, but far worse if I know the poster. I walk away from those posts feeling completely miserable at the loss of connection and intimacy.
And it isn't just alienating and misery-inducing, it's deeply shaming. The idea that I'm supposed to go poking around in people's lives to find out what's going on with them is abhorrent to me -- as abhorrent as pawing through someone's underwear drawer, or reading their paper diary. It doesn't matter if they left it open, I shouldn't be in there. If they don't want to tell me something directly, I shouldn't know it.
So if I read someone's LJ entry, I feel like a peeping Tom, or an eavesdropper, or something equally unpleasant. They didn't specifically invite me to read it, I just barged on in and read whatever I felt like. They don't know I'm there, because I'm behind the see-through mirror not making a sound. It gives me the willies.
Even finding out about their personal lives by accident -- if I went looking for fannish discussion and got personal info instead -- is creepy and shameful. Doing it deliberately? Every day? God, no. If other people want to be exhibitionists, that's their choice -- I am not a voyeur, and I resent being told that I have to become one to stay current in fandom.
Saying 'but they posted it in public, so of course they wanted people to read it' doesn't help. If I'm at the mall and some people are there talking about their personal lives as they wander about, that doesn't give me license to walk into the middle of the group and start peering at them like they're fascinating specimens at the zoo, or something, and certainly doesn't give me license to barge in and join the conversation. Personal conversations are personal, no matter where they're held. Just because other people don't want any boundaries at all between themselves and other people doesn't mean I'm obligated to erase mine, as well.
And every time I decide to give LJ another try, I see posts that contain non-fannish content.
How am I supposed to react? I wasn't specifically told this information -- some of it possibly intensely personal -- so what do I do? Am I supposed to mention it, on the theory that this person assumes that everyone and anyone has read her LJ? Am I supposed to pretend I don't know about it, because this person didn't tell me that she wanted me, specifically, to read/know this information? Am I being a bad person by reading someone else's personal thoughts, or a bad person for pretending I haven't (and thus not offering expected support, etc.)? I've seen people get upset or unhappy when people they weren't expecting to have read their posts left a comment or reacted in an unexpected way, and I've seen people get upset/unhappy when people failed to leave a comment. So -- which is better, or more appropriate?
Do I now owe them an equivalent revelation about myself? Relationships should be equal, which means more or less equal knowledge of each other. That's how we get closer -- you tell me a story about your childhood, it reminds me of something from my childhood, which reminds you of some wacky thing you cousin did, and I laugh and talk about my crazy aunt, and you segue off to last year's awkward Thanksgiving, and I roll my eyes and nod like crazy, because the same thing happened to my at my brother's wedding three years ago. And we're closer for it.
So when you post in your LJ about something that happened in your life -- do I owe you a story of my own? Even if I don't know you, and don't particularly want to invite you into my life? I mean, I was reading your LJ hoping to see your reaction to last night's SGA, not to hear you talk about your life. If I don't reciprocate -- gah. I now know way more about you than you do about me, and I feel like I've completely invaded your privacy, even though you're the one who dumped that information on me with no respect for my boundaries.
I have absolutely no social conditioning to help me deal with any of this, and it leaves me unbelievably anxious and off-kilter. The only way I know how to deal with it is to avoid it completely.
But let's say I wake up tomorrow with all my social conditioning having done a complete 180. Would I tumble headlong into love with LJ, as so many others have?
I very much doubt it. The social aspect, while a huge part of why I avoid LJ like crazy, is only one part. Even if I stopped being uncomfortable with non-fannish material, it still wouldn't be what I wanted to see.
Fandom for me is an immersive thing -- I want to be able to immerse myself in fannish discussion, without worrying about being pulled out of that headspace. Heck, I want to be able to immerse myself in one fandom at a time, without being yanked hither and yon in a different direction with every post.
I want conversations with a lot of people talking to each other, not every individual fan posting individual soliloquies that have nothing to do with anything or anyone else.
If I make a filter for NUMB3RS, I want everything that appears in that filter to be about NUMB3RS, and I would really like it if the posts were related to each other, part of a single ongoing conversation with many voices, full of tangents and offshoots but all connected. I don't want a dozen posts on a dozen subjects written by people who happen to be interested in NUMB3RS.
Some people have suggested communities as a way to get what I want. So I tried that. Total failure -- see my LJ Communities != Mailing Lists for details.
Others suggest using 'newsletters' (which are nothing of the sort -- they're just collections of links). I suppose those are a step closer to what I want, but they're just links to soliloquies -- they're not discussion. And given how many people combine topics within one post, there's no real way to be sure they're only about the subject you want.
So, LJ upsets my emotional balance by leaving me constantly off-kilter as a result of the lack of personal/public boundaries in people's posts. It frustrates my desire for fannish conversation as a result of the 'LJ poster as sole proprietor' feeling -- where fandom used to be an island in the ocean of mundania, now it's an archipelago of thousands of tiny islands, each big enough for only one person and wholly separate from the others. And I can't swim.
You'd think that would be enough, huh? But there's more.
Every time I get involved in a discussion about Livejournal, someone tells me, very sincerely, that if I would just use it, I'd see how flexible/customizable it is -- I can set it up to do whatever I want!
Every time, I bite my tongue to keep from asking just how much crack they're smoking. I have no idea where they're seeing any flexibility at all.
What I want -- what I'm strongly wired for -- is a system of flexible order, one where I have pretty much total control over the reading experience. Where I'm able to sort and filter things however I wish (by person, by subject, chronologically up or down, alphabetically up or down, by 'read' or 'unread', you name it), and then save what I find interesting and delete the rest. Where I can killfile anyone whose posts annoy me, and have it be effective across the board no matter where they post. Where I decide what I want to read, and when -- if I want to wait a month to read or reply, no problem. Where I have total control over avoiding subjects that bore, annoy, or squick me, while still being able to read everything that interests me.
Livejournal, on the other hand, is a system of rigid chaos, giving the user next to no control over the reading experience. The most you can do is say 'show me everything that these people write, while ignoring everyone else'. You can break that down a little bit further, but only by saying 'within the set of people whose every word I want to read, show me this smaller subset first'. That's it. That's the 'flexibility' it offers.
There's no easy way to read posts from oldest to newest. You're forced to either read backwards in time (newest to oldest) or scroll past things in hopes of finding the beginning, so you can read up through everything you just skimmed. I like to watch a conversation build, not watch it deconstruct from end to beginning.
There's no way to sort by subject. If, like me, you prefer to immerse yourself in one topic at a time, you're screwed. To find all the posts about, say, last night's House, you also have to wade through god knows how many posts on god knows how many subjects, from other fandoms to politics to intensely personal TMI to the incredibly boring minutiae of people's lives to the meaningless droves of quizzes, surveys, and 'memes'.
There's no way to exclude subjects no matter how boring, offensive, or squicky you find them, other than by excluding every single person who might ever mention that subject in one of their posts. Which is still no guarantee that you'll never see them. All it does is make sure that you'll never see anything interesting that those people say, either.
There's no way to killfile someone. I keep hearing 'you can avoid people you don't like!' as one of the big selling points, but I don't understand why people say that -- you can certainly decide not to read anything a given person says in their own LJ, but you can't avoid seeing what they say in communities or in comments to other people's posts. That's not even close to being an effective killfile, to me.
There's no way to sort comments chronologically, so as to get one long thread of conversation. Instead, you're stuck with many short, isolated, sub-threaded conversations. For me, conversations make more sense when I can experience them the same way they happened, so I'm not confused/disoriented by people in one subthread referencing something that happened 17 subthreads down, half an hour earlier. Or without having to reorient myself from the end of one long tangential subthread back out to an immediate reply to the initial post, which by that point I'd nearly forgotten.
There's no way to track 'conversations' that get hijacked from LJ to LJ -- if you don't know and have 'friended' every single person who might have something to say, you don't see it. I never know where anything is or who's involved or where I should be going, never mind in what order I should be reading things. It's intensely frustrating for me as I get lost and flounder around.
There's no way to mark posts or comments as 'read' to set them off from new, unread material, or to put them aside to answer later when you have more time. On LJ, everything is 'marked' as 'new' all the time, and if you have to find a post again, you have to scroll through everything. You can't skip around, reading the most interesting posts first and then shifting to less interesting posts -- you have to read it all in order, or deal with skimming through it all over and over again to pick out different posts each time to read, hoping you don't miss anything.
There's no way to delete or hide posts or comments so that all you're left seeing are the ones that interest you -- you're stuck looking at everything, even things that are actively offensive to you.
There's no way to participate in a conversation at your leisure -- if you comment more than a few hours after the original post, it's too late. Everyone else has moved on and forgotten about it already. At best, the LJ owner and one other person -- if you're replying to an existing comment -- will see what you have to say. You may as well just drop them an email. 'You can answer it in your own LJ' makes no sense to me -- that's not answering, that's posting a separate soliloquy. It's not continuing a conversation with another person or group or people, it's holding forth before one's personal audience.
There's no way to know if a conversation within a comment thread has continued except to keep going back to the thread over the next several days and skimming through the entire thing, no matter how long it is, hoping to find something new. Or keep a list of how many comments have been posted on every conversation you find interesting, every day, going back to check each one every day to see if the number has risen, and then skimming through the entire comment thread if you see an increase.
There's no way to search, so the only way to find current discussions on subjects that interest you is to sort of flail around and hope you stumble across something. It's bad enough that people are out there doing those 'newsletters' -- regular lists of posts they see in their fandoms so people can find them -- but there's no guarantee that those people are actually seeing every single post. Anything they don't see doesn't get included, and therefore the people who rely on these lists to do their 'searching' for them don't find out about them.
There's no way to archive posts that you want to go back to. The closest thing LJ has is the 'memory' function, which is nothing more than a list of bookmarks. To use it, you have to make sure to add all the posts you might someday be interested in revisiting. Then you have to hope you remember what's in each post if you're looking for something -- including, say, a third-level comment on a tangential subject within the comments to the original post that you bookmarked -- because they're not searchable. That may be no problem for people who only want to bookmark a handful of posts, but I like to be able to get to anything I've found interesting, which covers a lot of ground. I have 50,000-plus saved emails, not including my sent mail -- how am I supposed to find something in 50,000 unsearchable 'memory' bookmark links? And what happens if the original LJ owner deletes the post, or her entire LJ? Heck, what if she locks her entire LJ and I'm not one of the chosen few who gets to see it now? How do I refer back to what she said in that case?
As near as I can tell, what people mean when they tell me that LJ is totally flexible is really, 'look, as long as you change your needs to match exactly what LJ does and never ask it to do anything else, it's totally flexible -- you can make the colors on your page be whatever you want!' They certainly don't mean that LJ will do what I want it to do.
All that, and I haven't even touched on the rampant egotism, the widespread passive-aggressiveness, the lack of consideration for others, the infantile behavior patterns, and half a dozen other things I can't stand about LJ and the way fans use it.
I know that there's no going back. The mailing lists I'm on are either largely dead or full of hyperactive idiocy -- the passionate, intelligent, far-ranging discussions that I used to live for are long gone, barring an occasional burst of activity on FCA-L and Prospect-L. Even people who agree with me that mailing lists are better for actual discussions, and mourn their loss, still prefer to post to their LJs if they have anything to say -- why wouldn't they, when they're the queens of their domains and can demand that everyone be nice to them all the time?
But I miss common fannish spaces, and equal footing, and personal privacy (both of my life and from others' lives), and earned intimacy. I miss fannish discussions, with people posting to the same place from every direction and arguing and getting passionate and talking at length in equally shared space, instead of 'commenting' briefly in reply to someone else's 'entry' in their personal space, always aware that the owner of the space can delete anything she doesn't like; or deciding that they don't want to 'comment' in someone else's space, and simply posting their own soliloquy on the subject in their personal space in front of their own approving audience.
I miss the way my friends (and my culture) used to grimace at TMI in public places; I mourn the way they now embrace it.
I miss the boundaries that defined fandom and gave me a place in it.