The Deathly Hallows of Online Community

LiveJournal's users are revolting! And not just because of their weird obsession with writing dirty stories about Harry Potter. It's a cautionary tale for anyone hoping to profit from online community.

The latest fuss comes after LiveJournal, bought in late 2007 by Sup, a Russian Internet company, laid off much of its U.S. staff, but took days to post a denial-laden explanation of the move on the site, which sparked 2,742 comments in reply.

Who has time to read 2,742 comments, let alone take them seriously? LiveJournal management had it coming, by not promptly acknowledging the layoffs. But the spew is all too typical of indulgent sites which allow users an open forum to whinge. A potential advertiser looking at the behavior of the LiveJournal users who comment on the site's news-posting forum would surely run in horror.

It's just the latest fracas between LiveJournal management and its fractious users. When engineer Brad Fitzpatrick owned the site, paid subscribers rudely accused him of spending the money on "hookers and blow." After blog-software maker Six Apart bought the company in 2005, protests surrounded the introduction of advertising, the removal of pictures depicting breastfeeding, and the banning of accounts involved in child pornography. (Fanatical Harry Potter erotica writers, never the most mentally stable lot, insisted that graphic depictions of a teenage Potter getting it on with Severus Snape did not violate community mores.) And under Sup's ownership, users protested the removal of an advertising-free account.

Underlying all these protests: The notion that users deserved a free lunch — total liberty to do whatever they wanted on someone else's servers and someone else's dime. That their self-expression provided some unspecified, unproven business benefit to LiveJournal, and therefore the site was theirs to run, not the company's.

Of course, the protests never amounted to anything. LiveJournal's fortunes waxed and waned as the vast majority of users, uninterested in the fringe's obsessions, at first gravitated to the site, then moved on to others. The relentness weirdness that infects the site, rather than the protests, seems to be driving away users. The site's U.S. traffic has dropped 25 percent since August, a shift that has had nothing to do with the timing of the protests.

And there's the lesson of LiveJournal: One can crush an online community by cracking down, as Friendster did by deleting parodists' fake profiles. But one can also destroy it by coddling self-indulgent freaks. In Russia, where LiveJournal is a mainstream blogging site and the country's largest social network, Sup doesn't seem to have these problems. Having laid off a dozen U.S. staffers, it would probably be just as happy to lose the site's troublesome American users. Sup executive Anton Nosik put it best to a Russian newspaper earlier this year:

In a situation where people are trying to scare and blackmail us, threatening to destroy our business, there are business reasons for not rewarding such behaviour. This is not just human psychology, which retaliates more the more it is pressed. Problem is that there's never been a successful company whose success was based on bowing to collective resistant forces. No decision — no matter how correct — should be based on pressure.

Nosik, unlike the namby-pamby free-speech believers who used to own LiveJournal, has it right. So Harry Potter porn writers want to boycott LiveJournal? He should only be so lucky.