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Battered but still breathing, LiveJournal soldiers on

livejournal bloggingTry as you might to avoid it, the “blogging is dead” narrative is inescapable. The debate rages on, with both sides refusing to let it go: Opponents of the blog argue that Internet readers have gotten savvy enough to pick the real experts from the crowd and prefer connecting with them on social sites – and that Web marketing has ruined the medium. Defenders say that more than ever the Internet has put tools into our hands, and that the blog is our personal showcase for displaying them.

Whichever side you agree with, one thing is certainly true: The blog has evolved. The likes of Posterous and Tumblr have snuck in and turned the platform on its head, with their visual-heavy formats and unending streams of chatter. Pinterest and its clones have done the same, taking these a step further by nearly forsaking words altogether. And sites like Flavors.me are blurring the lines between personal and professional content in one space.

The emerging trend seems to be that we’re all critics or propagators instead of actual creators, and collectives for this pursuit are the new way to “blog” (which, for some people, means the form itself is dead). But one outlet, for all intents and purposes and for better or for worse, is still a home for the blog and marches on in all its traditional, open source, Perl glory — LiveJournal.

A Redwood among saplings

While the platform has undergone change since its introduction in 1999, its updates could be described as incremental at best. If you’re anything like me, then you haven’t visited the site much since you were 16, still using AIM, and trying to squeeze as much as you could into your allotted hour (two hours if you could go unnoticed) of Internet time on the family computer. For a lot of people, LiveJournal was a first experience with self-publishing on the Web.

And at the time, it was enough. There were HTML controls and simple text editors. You could upload photos. There were a handful of preset themes. But everywhere else, things have undeniably gotten flashier, which has made LiveJournal look like something of a dinosaur. And it’s okay with that, because it has survived.

“We have no plans to change what LiveJournal is,” says general manager Anjelika Petrochenko. “We just want to feature and showcase what we have, and we don’t want to reinvent what we have.”

Not everyone wants flash. A very subtle redesign that focused on the comment system launched in December, and dissent followed. The new system implemented more visual icon selection tools, and was largely put into place to solve technical problems. “It makes the site run more efficiently,” says Petrochenko.

The general feedback from unsatisfied users was that they liked their outdated format. “[The new visual icon system] doesn’t work for most of your userbase,” wrote user haircurl in response. “Seriously, everyone was quite happy with your old form. Yeah, messy, but like I said it worked for everybody.”

“Some reacted badly,” Petrochenko admits. “But we’re working with them to fix things.”

Connecting the dots

Of course users so dedicated to a platform that they (generally) shirk at change instead of lobby for it are a good problem to have — just ask Facebook.  In LiveJournal’s case, that means sticking with the bare-bones blogging style it’s always been known for. “We are a site where you can actually go and read and talk — not just ‘post,’” says Petrochenko. “Those sites are awesome but if you want to talk, the discussions are here and we want to keep it that way.”

But everyone wants to be bigger and better, and that includes LiveJournal. The site’s plan to get there, however, won’t be to adopt the popular “blogging” styles that have flooded the Web. Instead, LiveJournal is going to start promoting the communities within its site.

“The whole idea is to surface the amazing content that we already have,” says Petrochenko. And niche audiences have found homes here. Popular celebrity blog OhNoTheyDidn’t rakes in more than 300,000 page views a day, Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin’s account at NotABlog has gotten quite a bit of attention, and artist Audrey Kawasaki. Petrochenko also tells me that a variety of entertainment, gaming, fan fiction, gay and female rights blogs are thriving.

new widgetsNow, popular and populated communities will be featured on the homepage and in the news posts, and we can expect press coverage for specific verticals LiveJournal is promoting from here on out. New widgets will indicate these selected sites, and a new advertising revenue model will introduce interactive ad campaigns as well.

The enduring weight of words

blogging 2.0There’s something to this scheme — and the fact that it’s not schemey at all. LiveJournal isn’t just going to “Instagram” or “Pinterst” itself. Interactive design and intuitive, rich visuals can overwhelm the landscape of personal-use applications, often overshadowing how useful or enriching the product actually is. And words, more than anything, have been sacrificed. LiveJournal might be riddled with angsty rants and attention-seekers, but there are plenty of gems in the rough, and plenty of valuable dialogue to be found. You just have to look for it; and that’s exactly what the site is going to try and help readers do.

But it’s the battle between the old and the new that plagues LiveJournal’s progress. Regarding the proposed changes, user Kit Rathenar says it seems like the site is moving away from what it’s formerly focused around: blogging and semi-private conversations. 

“I haven’t yet left LiveJournal, but at the moment the only thing keeping me there is that i have years’ worth of conversations, friendships, and journaling stored on there and don’t want to lose either my data or my friends,” she says. “Much as I appreciate the fact that LiveJournal isn’t the site I originally joined — my first account on there dates back to 2001 — and I understand that change is inevitable, especially on the Internet, I can’t understand the current LJ owners’ seeming desire to alienate their existing userbase to make room for newcomers.” 

LiveJournal hasn’t subjected its users to much change, and thus striking a new pace is unsurprisingly met with resistance. It’s been a haven for users that appreciate its old school consistency, and naturally an evolution isn’t being welcomed with open arms. 

Even still, you could argue it’s one of the only true blogging platforms left. This site, thanks in part to its popularity in Russia after being bought by media company SUP, has been able to maintain a strong if underground following. Now it just has to toe the line between staying fresh while remaining a santuary for supporters of blogging 1.0.