March 14, 2008

LiveJournal (who host this blog) will no longer let new users sign up for their advertising-free “Basic” account. Instead, new users can get the “Plus” account, which has adverts (if you’re using some quaint non-Firefox browser which still shows you such things), or they can get the “Paid” account, which doesn’t.

The announcement of this changed followed LJ’s standard practices of bungling and evasion when communicating with their customers, which new-ish owners SUP correctly describe as “the values and legacy of LiveJournal”. This has annoyed a few people, but I’m not sure why, because they should be used to it by now.

Anyhoo, livredor and hairyears are hosting some interesting discussions about it, here and here. hairyears makes the point that buying LJ is not just about buying people’s writings, you’re also getting stewardship of a community (or lots of communities) with their own values. My impression is that this applies more to LJ than to “proper” blogging sites, because of LJ’s mix of blogging and what we’d now call social networking. Social networking sites have the feel of places we go with our friends, so it’s not very surprising that we can be vociferous in defending them (LJ isn’t the only one with epic failures of customer relations: Facebook had the Feed and Beacon debacles).

Servers and bandwidth are not free, as GreatestJournal has been finding out (the hard way). But how do you make money out of such a prickly bunch? danahboyd‘s commenters have some good suggestions.

Geeks who still use Usenet (you remember, Usenet) have suggested a peer-to-peer system as a way around all this nonsense (see the comments on both livredor and hairyears‘s postings). This sort of thing is a reflex response from geeks to any outside manipulation of their stuff, until their enthusiasm is curbed by older and wiser geeks. Having been curbed, I realise that you’d need good answers to questions about how you make such a thing work, how you make it usable by non-geeks, and, related to that, how you interest people who don’t think the peer-to-peer part is intrinsically cool. Freenet has been around a long time and hasn’t become popular. BitTorrent has, because it gets people something they want (warez, pr0n, TV programmes, Linux DVDs) in a way which scales better than the centralised alternative.

I think robhu is right to say that the web browser has to remain as the interface (though that in itself makes security interesting), but it’s not clear that HTTP has to be the transport for such a thing. His idea of a federation of LJ-like servers is interesting, but once you centralise, you’re back to the question of how the people running the big servers make any money. There might be a place for the Usenet model, where each ISP runs a server for their users, or perhaps for the MSP model (which Usenet is moving to as its popularity declines), where I pay the people running a good Usenet server a yearly fee to access it.

The networking effects are a killer: you need something special to get off the ground and up to the stage where people are joining because other people are there. That, or you bodge your thing on the side of an existing infrastructure: can we do this using XMPP or Usenet or email, I wonder?