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December 20, 2005

Filed under: culture»internet»emergent

We Built This City

How do we organize ourselves online? I'm not talking about writing style, or subject content, or even virtual spaces like Second Life or WoW. I want to talk about the message in the medium of the weblog, and compare it to something that I see as a contrasting approach: the big L word, Livejournal.

When I first started doing this, I was basically bored with the entry-level work that the Bank was giving me. The Washington Asia Press had just folded, meaning that I didn't have a regular writing gig any more--not entirely a bad thing, since I was burnt out on writing about anti-Communist Chinese-Americans and post-election politics. So I grabbed the least complicated CMS system I could find, tossed it onto the band's old server, and started dropping text files whenever the urge crossed my mind.

I specifically didn't choose LiveJournal or Blogspot. This is largely because I am a control freak, and partly because I don't like being part of a branded community. My experience with the former has come through reading Belle's LJ page. Unfortunately, you probably can't read it yourself, because she's made it accessible only to people on her friends list, and I doubt our readership overlaps much. I remember when I was introduced to the concept of that filtering, and I thought it was odd--I write mostly in a columnist's voice, so I am less concerned that I might be sharing too much with the audience.

But over time I've realized that the friends function of Livejournal is, in fact, its most important feature. Sure, it lets you lock a private diary away, and some people want that. But what it also allows the writer to do is create a friends page, which is basically an RSS feed that collects all those Livejournal streams into one convenient place. If you've got access to one of these for someone like Belle, whose friends are mostly well-educated and witty, it's like having a little Algonquin Round Table right there online. Instant community, albeit one that is pretty much isolated to everyone else firewalled away behind livejournal.com.

Blogs don't typically do that. I guess you could build an RSS reader into the sidebar of a Moveable Type or Blogger page, but it'd be a pain. Instead, you're expected to create your own personal stream, and a blog will have a list of links down the left side. The reader is not allowed to listen in, but has to become an active participant in following the conversation. The advantage is a wider range of inputs, but more work for both the reader and writer. Patches have been created to add more community interaction, like Trackbacks, but I think they're still pretty primitive.

Intrinsic in these two extremes are very different viewpoints--at a basic level, there's a disagreement in the end goal of conversations on the web. Livejournal doesn't want to be a new publishing apparatus, really. It wants to be a way of strengthening existing relationships, and building new ones. My Intercultural Comm professors would have called it a collectivist approach, similar to a lot of Latin American or Asian cultures. Blogs are individualistic: as my copy of Samovar and Porter's "Communication Between Cultures, 4th Ed" quotes, "The loyalty of individualists to a given group is very weak; they feel they belong to many groups and are apt to change their membership as it suits them." They want to be their own little magazine--whether about a given topic, or in some cases, all about the interesting parts of their own lives.

Neither collectivism nor individualism is superior, clearly, and these trends are not absolute between the two online styles. Sites like gameblogs.org, to grasp for an obvious example, serve as the glue between different Blogger-type content producers. Simultaneously, there are sites like Sisyphus Shrugged that do outspoken political writing from the Livejournal platform. And even individual sites will mix things up from time to time, forming communities or going off-topic. I'm also curious about the impact that seemingly hybrid communities, like MySpace, will have. As for myself, I like this approach, but it feels cramped sometimes, particularly as my interests bounce from topic to topic.

In the meantime, I think it would be really interesting to see the results of a study for personalities across the communities. Do people end up in one place or another based on how they want to connect? Does it change your writing style, and your general manner of interaction, to work within one network versus another? Do users of Livejournal really see the web differently than I do? And perhaps more importantly, how will these structures evolve over time? While I'm far too American (one of the world's most individualistic cultures) to feel comfortable as just another group member, I see the advantages as something that needs to eventually cross over. I think it's likely to be the next online killer app, when someone does it right. As more and more people move online, there's going to have to be a better way to organize them.

Future - Present - Past