Six Apart casts “evanesco”. Fanfic authors cast “expelliarmus”.

This week, LiveJournal began suspending the journals of a few hundred users whose self-identified “interests” in their online profiles suggested that they might be soliciting sex with minors. The crackdown eliminated some sites maintained by incest and rape survivors, others dedicated to literary criticsm of works like Lolita, sites that document the campaigns of roleplaying games and sites dedicated to the art of fan fiction.

The CEO of Six Apart (the owner of LiveJournal), Barak Berkowitz, admits “Well we really screwed this one up…” Not only did LiveJournal delete a wide swath of sites, far broader than the sites they meant to delete to “protect children”, they didn’t communicate their reasons for suspending journals to their users, didn’t give users a chance to change their profiles to avoid suspension, and communicated with the press before communicating with their users.

Predictably, the LiveJournal community rose up in revolt. They flooded the site’s news feeds with comments, organized petition drives, and urged members to move to competitive journal sites. Six Apart now appears to be backing down, restoring journals and generally eating crow.

There’s some interesting lessons in here for both providers and users of web community tools. One of these lessons is a need to recognize the norms of the communities that are built around a specific technical system.

The technology and the history of LiveJournal has led to a very different form of usage than we usually see on weblogs. LiveJournal makes it very easy to restrict your writing to a group of approved “friends” – a process called “friends-locking”. This makes LJ a particularly useful tool for closed conversations, conversations where the ground rules may be well understood by participants in those conversations, but misunderstood by outsiders.

For instance, when the founders of the Pornish Pixies community (one of the communities banned, and later unbanned, by LiveJournal) declare one of their interests to be “incest”, the members of the community understand that this is a community of fanfic writers who write fiction using characters from the Harry Potter novels, and that some of these stories explore sexual tensions or sexual relationships between fictional family members. You may find it strange or gross that people choose to write stories about what might happen in the dorm rooms of Hogwarts, and you may choose not to read these stories. The word “incest” in the profile is there to warn you off if this isn’t your thing. (And before concluding that no one should be writing about these issues, let me recommend kitsune13’s list of “trangressive sex” in literature, provided to demonstrate a wealth of great (and not so great) literature that deals with explicit sexual topics.)

Concluding that the fanfic authors who submit stories to Pornish Pixies are trying to recruit children for predatory purposes is a radical misunderstanding of the rules of this closed community. When LiveJournal reviewed the content of the Pornish Pixies group, they quickly concluded that these folks were writing fiction, not harming children, and restored the group. They had misread the metadata because they didn’t speak the language.

This, in turn, is something of a surprise. There’s a lot of fanfic on LiveJournal, and a substantial portion of that fiction explores non-traditional sexual relationships. You’d think LJ would know their userbase well enough to understand the inadvisability of simply deleting every community that mentioned “incest”. But LJ found themselves in an uncomfortable place. A group of activists calling themselves “Warriors for Innocence” reportedly threatened actions against advertisers on LJ. It’s likely that Six Apart’s response was, in part, a response to commercial pressures.

But by so badly treating some of their core users, LJ may have spooked the goose that lays the golden eggs – the users who create content and provide a reason to visit journals. Under-react and you spook advertisers, over-react, you spook your content creators – it’s a balancing act in the user-created content business, as Digg found out when it attempted to crack down on people posting AACS keys.

The LiveJournal revolt, following on the heels of the Digg revolt, demonstrates that users have power over the administrators of web 2.0 sites. But it’s also a reminder of the decision many web users have made to put their public or semi-private spaces in the hands of private companies. There’s a strong illusion of control in LiveJournal – you can determine who reads your posts, who can post to your community – but ultimately, Six Apart, like most smart companies, requires a terms of service that allows them to remove content for arbitrary reasons. (They’re hardly unique in this – at Tripod, we had a similar clause that let us remove any content, for any reason.)

It’s one thing to move your blog from Blogspot to your own Moveable Type install. It’s a very different thing to try to recreate a community in a space you’ve got full control over… especially when that community is largely psuedonymous, and no one may be willing to have their real name associated with a pastime which, on one level or another, builds on the copyrights of Scholastic.

There’s an interesting opportunity for fanfic communities on LiveJournal at this juncture – they could move, en masse, to another provider who pledged to project their rights aggressively, and to remove content only after review, and only in the more serious cases. Or Live Journal could attempt to win back the faith of their community by demonstrating that they understand the seriousness of the mistake they’ve just made. Will either happen? It likely depends on how comfortable fanfic writers are holding private conversations in the legal equivalent of the food court of a mall… or how comfortable Six Apart is hosting communities that they don’t understand.

How big is the fandom community on LiveJournal? The “fandomcounts” community, started yesterday, has 30,000 members already, and the explanation text for the page is available in 24 languages. That’s a big set of people, one that a company like Six Apart would be ill-advised to ignore.

(An explanation of the title for non-Harry Potter fans, as this is usually a blog about technology, media and Africa: The reference is to magic spells used in dueling – Six Apart casts a spell to try to make something disappear, and the fans respond with a spell designed to disarm their attacker… And no, I’m not a fanfic author, though some of my dearest friends are.)

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10 Responses to Six Apart casts “evanesco”. Fanfic authors cast “expelliarmus”.

  1. Mona says:

    What a sharp and insightful summation of the recent events and possible future reactions. As a fan, I thank you.

  2. Pouncer says:

    The norms component is incredibly important – I’ve been on LJ since 2002, as part of the fanfiction and general fandom communities, and there’s a tremendous amount of discussion about just that topic – what are the rules? How are they transmitted? How do you deal with people who are encountering fanfiction for the first time? What are the artistic and societal implications of unlicensed derivitive work?

    One reason LJ users were so outraged had to do with Mr. Berkowitz’ quote to CNET about the type of communities they were trying to “establish” on LJ. Those communities are *already there*. And *we* built them, organically, over time. Until Six Apart understands that basic fact, I and many others remain fearful that they will act in ways that are entirely contrary to what fandom wants and needs.

    I know that I will be writing Six Apart (and calling their offices) to inform them of my concerns and potential ways to bridge the comprehension gap that was so clearly demonstrated this week.

  3. Six Apart purchased LJ but, at least as recently as the Strikeout, doesn’t really seem to participate in LJ. They don’t understand their users because they aren’t “of” their users. You’ve got to use your own product is all I’m sayin’.

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  5. Erica says:

    I finally blogged this – except it became an essay about “user generated content” and ownership and a vision of users as actual stakeholder/shareholders/citizens of legally protected web spaces. So, if you have a free moment or ten, here it is

  6. Ethan says:

    Thanks to everyone for kind comments on this post. I’d urge everyone to read Erica’s essay – it advocates formal representation for user communities in the organizational structure of community media companies. It’s a great idea, but I think it will require someone to found a new LJ-like company with representation baked into its articles of incorporation. Even then, it’s possible that the idea would disappear with sale/merger of the company, but it would be fascinating for someone to make it part of corporate DNA…

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  9. StarWatcher says:

    they could move, en masse, to another provider who pledged to project their rights aggressively, and to remove content only after review, and only in the more serious cases.

    As you may or may not have heard, a group of fans got together after that mess and agreed to take it into our own hands — develop a provider, a clone-LJ blogging site, an all-inclusive fanfiction archive, etc, etc. Called the Organization for Transformative Works, it’s still in a process of development, but many of us in fandom hope that it will soon be up and running. After this latest nonsense of trying to hide any interest that smacks of sexuality, there may be a lot of GLBT folks and GLBT-friendly folks joining us, even if they’re not in fandom.

  10. Ethan says:

    Thanks, StarWatcher – I wrote about OTW in December – http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2007/12/12/transforming-how-we-think-about-fiction-and-copyright/
    Several of the organizers are friends and I’ve been following the discussions closely.

    It’s worth noting that OTW has committed to building an archive of fan works. It’s less clear whether they’ll produce the sort of community software that LJ users have grown used to.

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