LiveJournal's fall from grace

James Andrewartha
August 9 2007
A sidebar to my blog post on communities fucking up.

LiveJournal. Oh, LiveJournal. A warning: this is going to be long, because LiveJournal is almost a textbook example of how not to manage a community. LiveJournal was started in March 1999 by Brad Fitzpatrick, who sold it to SixApart in January 2005. Since then, SixApart have managed to progressively annoy more and more of the community by changing policy1. First there was the introduction of advertising, directly contradicting the pre-buyout "promise to never offer advertising space in our service or on our pages." And now, even paid users (who were told they would never see ads (including sponsorships)) are being forced to view sponsored content.

In June 2006, LiveJournal issued a ban on default icons containing breastfeeding, as breastfeeding was "graphically sexual", which is frankly ridiculous, particularly given breastfeeding in public is protected by law in many US states. The policy for default icons had been changed on May 20 to read "nudity" instead of "graphically sexual", but LJ Abuse pretended it had been like that "since LiveJournal's inception" In response to the controversy, there was a half-hearted apology for poor treatment, but not for the actual policy, and a vague promise to "review policies".

At the end of May 2007, over 500 accounts were suspended for "containing material which expresses interest in, solicits, or encourages illegal activity". A Dominionist group called Warriors for Innocence claimed responsibility, and the chief of Six Apart said to CNET that their decision "was based on what community we want to build and what we think is appropriate within that community and what's not." and that errors may have been made, but "I would be shocked if it's more than a dozen." Unfortunately for him, the journals suspended included a Spanish community discussing Lolita, many fandom communities, and survivors of sexual abuse. The LJ community took offence at this apparent capitulation to a group that was not just anti-pedophile, but also anti-gay, racist and Dominionist, when the same objectionable content had been reported in the past and the responses received included

We draw a clear line between protected speech and illegal activity, and we won't remove anything that doesn't cross those lines
Theoretical, hypothetical, or sociological discussion of illegal activity is not in itself illegal. We can only take action against a user if he or she is posting illegal material, is actively encouraging others to commit illegal actions, or is soliciting or providing information on how to commit illegal activity.
and action was only taken when WfI started contacting LiveJournal's advertisers. So they filled up several news posts to the limit of 5000 comments each expressing their displeasure. They also took offence at the management speaking to media first and claiming control of the community's standards, and posting to MetaFilter before taking two days to post a response on LiveJournal. This first response was a mea culpa by Brad Berkowitz, saying their procedures had broken down, and they were taking measures to repair the damage.

The response then contained broad language saying "your account can be suspended for anything illegal", including listing illegal things in the interests section of a profile2, giving this as the basis for why journals with "rape" or "incest" listed as interests were suspended. Over half the suspended journals were later unsuspended, and a dialogue started to understand what the LiveJournal community's standards were. These three news posts also reached the 5000 comment limit, the first one within a day, the second two over the next few days.

Unfortunately for LiveJournal, a previously announced permanent account sale was coming up fast, and people were demanding answers before plonking down $150 for a permanent account that could easily because a permanently suspended account for a ToS violation. So burr86 posted an explanation for why the suspensions happened, reversing the "illegal interests are cause for suspension" ruling. More quotage:
and Barak posted a clarification on their policies which was not well received, because it contained phrases like "No content which is meant to plan, solicit the commission of, seek customers for, or provide instructions for serious illegal activities which could cause harm to others." and the defintion of "serious" was not forthcoming. The last post talking about this was similarly full of vague reassurances, but lacking in direct answers.

This event was unofficially known as "Strikethrough '07". Last week LiveJournal decided remove the strikethrough styling of permanently suspended accounts (changing them to unlinked bold), and to hide them from most profile pages. This was a prelude to the next round of permanent suspension, in which LiveJournal determined some art had no "serious artistic value that offsets the sexual nature of the content", and permanently suspended a user. Let me note here that LiveJournal does have the power to terminate anyone's account for any reason at any time. This doesn't mean that them exercising this power is fair or in the interests of maintaining LiveJournal's community. However, the FAQ entry on account suspension says "a user will be provided with an opportunity to delete any content that is in violation of the Terms of Service before his or her account is suspended ". In particular, burr86 had previously stated:

If it's "hmmm, this is probably in violation, but maybe not 100%" [...]then what happens is a "temporary" suspend. [...]And what happens in those cases is that you'll get an email saying "hey, this is still a violation, but not unambiguously so. please delete it and we'll unsuspend you ASAP.
But what actually happened was the users were permanently suspended, and banned from creating new LJ accounts.

It turns out that there is a "group consisting of members of LiveJournal's Abuse Prevention Team, LiveJournal employees, and Six Apart staff reviewed the content that was reported to us." and that "This group decides whether material potentially in violation of this policy warrants consideration for serious artistic value." In other words, a Star Chamber with no recourse or appeal. The Terms of Service have not changed, in fact Barak said "We are making no major policy changes, we have made no changes to the TOS, and we do not anticipate making any changes in the future." but it's clear that LiveJournal's interpretation of them has.

Combined with the new report abuse form which will appear on every page, the situation is ripe for people with grudges to abuse it and get content they don't like removed. It happened last week to a fanfic review, it could happen to anything that might be "obscene", or is just not heteronormative enough for someone. (But don't worry, being pro anorexia is still ok). Here are some more excellent points (read the rest of the comments too) about the lack of clarity in LiveJournal's actions:

We've been begging for MONTHS to know what's not allowed. None of us know what qualifies as a TOS violation.
Why are child porn pics allowed to remove the offending image, but keep their journals, but these two cases--first time reports, it looks like--were suspended permanently, no review, including other journals (including a *permanent* journal), with no option to remove the offending material?
A lot of the complaints (amongst the wank, which is plentiful) are about LJ being unwilling to STATE THEIR STANDARDS in any way we can understand. First they say "no graphic depictions of minors in sex, text or image"--but they won't define graphic or sex. Then they say "we meant the Miller test" but won't tell us which community's standards they'll be using to decide if a piece fails, nor what artistic/literary merit means to them.
And of course, none of these details make it into the TOS, the FAQ, or the Abuse Policies.
And they're unwilling to make a clear description of the process: which offenses result in a warning and "remove this or else," and which result in an insta-suspension with no appeal?
Even Neopets has a better appeals system.

Continuing on from last time, LiveJournal's official response has been lacking. After five days there has been no official response, despite one being promised Monday evening. In addition, burr86 started mocking people in a roleplaying community, getting an excellent reply asking if he how easily fiction gets conflated with reality?. Meanwhile, news posts started filling up with comments again. It appears this time people are seriously planning on leaving LiveJournal in large numbers, as well as harassing LiveJournal's advertisers. Open letters are being written listing some of the major contradictions LJ/SA have made in their actions and asking for explanations of them. Not everyone submitting to the chilling effect or leaving, but everyone realises that the last fuckup wasn't an accident, LiveJournal and SixApart can no longer be trusted.

Five days after they banned people, LiveJournal gives a response that merely repeats their "unchanged" policies, by the sockpuppet user theljstaff created the day before. The community rejected this inauthentic voice and continue to point out their questions haven't been answered, ask why pro-ana communities aren't banned, and that LJ/SA has lost its Safe Harbor protection.

Finally, go look at LJopoly and its associated lolcat cards

References and further reading

Strikethrough '07 letter from last time another

Boldthrough Large roundup post


1. Why they are doing this, given they bought the site along with its community is a question worthy of another essay, but one answer is they bought the site simply to get the experience in running large websites.

2. For those not familiar with LiveJournal, users can have a list of topics they are interested in in their profile, which can then be searched upon. The FAQ has more details.