LiveJournal — a ’90s SF start-up gone Russian

Have you, dear reader, ever heard of a little site called LiveJournal? Founded in 1999 by Brad Fitzpatrick in his college dorm room, LJ became a leading blogging platform at a time when the word “blog” hadn’t even come into popular usage, and one of the first social networks, along with the likes of Xanga, Diaryland and MySpace (which is the only other one of those sites still around today). LiveJournal was the only one of those that was open-source, however. The site reached 5 million accounts in 2004 — for reference, Facebook was only created in that year — and today has over 12 million, although a large number of those are probably inactive.

I’m not sure I’d have learned Russian if it weren’t for my early teenage use of LiveJournal. At one point it was so popular that even my friends and other students in my suburban Ohio high school signed up for it. In the early 2000s the site progressively gained an ever larger share of users from the Russian Federation — I can’t speak to the cause for the platform’s popularity from the Russian side — perhaps due to an early influx of hackers attracted by the open-source framework — but I had fun looking at their pictures and squinting at the Cyrillic text.

Brad Fitzpatrick. A California programmer who somehow ended up changing Russian internet forever.
Brad Fitzpatrick: a West Coast programmer who somehow ended up changing RuNet (Russian internet) forever.

This pronounced regional popularity riding on the wave of the Russian internet boom would actually lead to LJ, aka Zhivoi Zhurnal or ЖЖ, being bought out by a Russian company, SUP, in 2006. Brad had to publicly defend his decision to sell because there was a lot of acrimony from the American userbase surrounding the deal, which you can still see in comments on that post — mostly concerns about the FSB (the modern incarnation of the KGB) accessing users’ friends-only entries and other sensitive information. It doesn’t seem like any of these fears materialized, but the site outside of Russian circles does feel like a ghost town now.

For the truly curious, here is a timeline of the rise and (American) fall of LiveJournal and what Brad is up to nowadays (hint: the big G).

But why, you may ask, do millions of blogging Russians and Muscovites like LiveJournal? The platform is designed for longer entries, like this one, and I’ve noticed that Russians tend to not mind longer posts and discourses, unlike us Americans/Westerners. Facebook and Twitter have mastered the art of fast-food interactions, but even on FB I often see my Russian friends go into very long posts and comment discussions. LiveJournal favors long entries that are more like a three-course meal. Who knows, maybe it has to do with a literary tradition of very long novels 🙂 For most users, LJ helps friends keep in touch and know each other’s inner thoughts, and find new interesting people.

Also, the site is one of the last living social networks that is not part of Web 2.0. The interface is no-nonsense, but not slick, and even non-paying users have a very high degree of control when customizing their page layout.

Drugoi's LiveJournal, even monetized with ads at the bottom.
Drugoi aka influential Russian blogger Rustem Adagamov’s LiveJournal, mostly about regional news, even monetized with ads at the bottom. He has 80,000 readers on the site.

The site later integrated Yandex search, the Russian answer to Google, and Russia-specific ad services. LJ is so popular among the Russian blogging class that the current US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, has his own account where he apparently does some grassroots diplomacy in both languages.

Acting as an informal online marketplace, communities like mac-sale allow users to sell new and used Apple products, with dozens of new posts each day. LJ even helps the Russian diaspora overseas link up in region-specific communities like ru_italia and ru-berlin, which again, has multiple new posts by members daily. And there are such “ru” communities for just about anything under the sun, from jurisprudence, to different programming languages, and that new Russian urban exploration trend known as roofing.

Many Russian public figures, from graphic designers to travel photographers to political opposition leaders, pop stars and TV anchormen, also have LJ accounts, some of them quite profitable from sponsorships and ads. But that would be for another post 🙂

So if you want to get to know your Muscovite friends better, ask them about LiveJournal, aka Zhivoi Zhurnal, and whether they use it. Chances are, they do or have.

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