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					               Gakking Memes: LiveJournal “Conversation”
                                                    Lynn Cherny
                                                   The Mathworks
                                          3 Apple Hill Dr., Natick MA 01706
                                              lcherny@mathworks.com
ABSTRACT                                                             clicking on individual names one at a time. I myself got a
LiveJournal is one of the ―community-oriented‖ blog                  LiveJournal account three years ago simply because this
hosting spaces, due in part to friends‘ list feature and the         feature made it easier to read my friends‘ journals. I‘ve
option of membership in ―communities.‖ As a tool to                  been an active user and observer ever since.
support interactive conversation, it leaves much to be
desired, but continues to be wildly popular. I‘ll discuss            A common way of finding new reading material is to peruse
some of the features that support and detract from its design        ―friends of friends,‖ a filter method that widens the posts
as an effective conversational tool. The widespread                  visible in predictable ways. This practice basically creates a
popularity of ―quiz‖ memes on the site and the                       recommender filter for reading matter. One may also read
―memification‖ of conversation topics suggests that the              the friends list of a single user; I have one friend who for
site‘s features support at least phatic exchanges, and that          months ignored her own friends list in favor of reading
this may be sufficient among its user population.                    someone else‘s!
                                                                     The name of the friends list feature has caused much
Author Keywords                                                      heartache among LiveJournal users, because the contents of
Blogs, community,       conversation,   memes,       posting,        friends‘ lists are visible to others. Hence, there are politics
interface.                                                           associated with who is on one‘s friends list. Some users
                                                                     ―publish‖ their ―friending‖ and ―defriending‖ policies on
INTRODUCTION                                                         their profile pages, so as to try to be clear that it‘s not
LiveJournal [7,10] is a blog hosting site that supports both         actually friends who are on this list and mitigate possible
posting on personal journals and posting in community                bad feelings about non-mutuality of ―friending.‖
journals by LiveJournal site members.            LiveJournal
currently has 5,658,573 members, and because the code is             Filtering the friends list into subsets for reading is a
open source, there are many offshoot sites built on the same         common practice, rather than actually removing people and
codebase. In 2004, LiveJournal won ―People‘s Choice‖                 causing them emotional pain. Filters are not visible. (A
Community Site in the Webby Awards, testifying to its                common response to removal is ―so-and-so removed me,
popularity as a community support tool. (The Webby-given             was I boring/offensive?‖; and see [10]‘s LJ addiction
award went to wikipedia instead.)                                    symptom: ―You have ‗pity friends‘ on your list, who you
                                                                     would defriend if you could‖).
Features that are explicitly intended to support community
in this blogspace include the friends‘ list feature,                 Posts on journals may be locked by the author so that only
commenting features, and community journals. While                   friends may read them, rather than anyone who happens
community journals are interesting as aggregations of                along. Locks may also be created for subsets of the friends
posters (see [3]), I won‘t be discussing them here. I‘ll             list. This is rudimentary security, of course, and gossip
focus on friends lists, and posting and commenting                   about ―locked‖ posts is common: ―If I had a dollar for every
behaviors on individual-owned journals.                              time a friend in a social group accidentally 'leaked' some
                                                                     information about an LJ posting to someone who wasn't in
THERE ARE FRIENDS AND THERE ARE “FRIENDS”                            the friends filter for it, I'd be typing this on a new laptop.
A user on LiveJournal may do the rough equivalent of                 There's no technical solution for gossip‖ [9; and 10].
creating a subscription list of fellow LJers and LJ feeds            It is possible via a LiveJournal-provided API to retrieve
(xml or rss feeds of external sites); all posts from this list       contents of friends lists and graph these in various
are then readable on a single page, the most recent post and         entertaining ways (see Figure 1). But at least one researcher
poster at the top, running backwards through time down the           has noted that, because friends lists don‘t give a true view
page. The subscription list feature is unfortunately named           of who is reading whom, commenting behavior provides a
the ―friends‖ list. Kumar et al. [7] note that most users they       far better glimpse of social networking at work than the
studied listed about 14 people on their friends list and there       static friends list attribute. ([1]; see also [3] for noting this
was about 80% mutuality in friend-listing. The friends list          in chat conversation and rudimentary plots of ―private‖
is such a useful mechanism for reading journals that most            conversation patterns.)
people use one to aggregate posts to read, rather than


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                                                                            Figure 2: Comments display, visible and indented.

  Figure 1: emmastrange’s [5] graph of 100K links from one
                   node in LiveJournal.

COMMENTING ON JOURNAL POSTS
As in many blog programs, LiveJournal allows readers to
leave ―comments‖ on a post; these appear under the post
and notifications are sent by email to the author of the post.
Comments often provide feedback in the form of
affirmation, maybe saying nothing but ―you go!‖ or ―nice
post.‖ A comment may also be left on a comment, ad
infinitum, with those secondary comments sent by
notification to the authors of the previous comments and to
the original author of the post (see Figure 2). Because of             Figure 3: Comments displayed “collapsed” in a long thread.
this proto-threading capability, some journal authors
describe themselves as ―salon hostesses‖ for groups,                  POSTING BEHAVIOR
posting topics of discussion interest to their friends list—or,       Posts on journals often cite other journal posts or posters.
more accurately, to the people who have them ―friended,‖              In LiveJournal, the motivation to link to another user‘s
who then may comment at will to each other (and them,                 journal varies from attempts to get a friend‘s posts read by a
more importantly).                                                    new audience to purely phatic ―shout outs‖ that signal
                                                                      relationships existing between the two (like happy birthday
This delightful concept doesn‘t work well in practice for
                                                                      announcements [10]). It signals a communication or social
anyone but the original author, since unlike on a mailing
                                                                      link exists between the two journal authors.
list, most of the comment authors aren‘t notified of other
comments; one must check the thread regularly if one wants            Memes [2] on LiveJournal, in the form of quizzes and
to follow the group‘s conversation or reply to another                games, are posting viruses that quickly convince the
commenter‘s comment. Since there is no way to view the                participant-observer of the reality of the communication
comments by time stamp, it‘s quite difficult to see the new           network in LiveJournal. Some popular meme examples:
additions to the comments since the last time one peeked at           the Friday Five (originally at fridayfive.org, there‘s now an
them.                                                                 LJ community proposing the weekly questions to post and
                                                                      answer, such as ―what did you have for dinner last night?
A simple content analysis on many comment threads will
                                                                      What did you have for lunch?‖ etc.), the ―page 23‖ meme
show that there is little threading that involves more than
                                                                      (―pick up a book, turn to page 23, report the fifth sentence
the post author and one more commenter, or at most two
                                                                      on the page‖), the ―which X am I‖ memes (e.g., ―which
commenters. When the thread becomes long, the comments
                                                                      tarot card am I?‖, an interactive quiz that returns a
appear as single line items rather being displayed as
                                                                      randomly selected card‘s description when you enter your
complete messages, which quickly makes them too painful
                                                                      user name), the randomized iPod song list meme that allows
to read by anyone checking the conversational thread (see
                                                                      the poster to display her musical tastes to the world. The
Figure 3).
                                                                      ―hook‖ that encourages the meme spread ranges from the


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possibility of self-revelation or creative introspection (e.g.,       sustained involvement‖ in groups [6], it leaves something to
the better Friday Fives) – which might be real conversation           be desired. The friends list is a sadly named mechanism for
starters to journal authors who can‘t think of topics to post -       broadcasting and limiting one‘s reading list of journals, but
- to playful, witty randomness.                                       it‘s difficult to know who is reading what or whom due to
                                                                      private posts and sub-filters on friends lists. This is an issue
Some journal posters behave as meme hosts, posting
                                                                      for participants who struggle with understanding the
nothing but the latest meme that infected them during their
                                                                      community and don‘t know who their own audience is.
reading and passing it on, if it‘s a good meme meeting the
                                                                      Comment threading mechanisms don‘t support group
criteria for long life [2]. Often the meme will come with a
                                                                      interaction well. Nevertheless, it‘s clear that there is cross-
―shout-out‖ to the poster it came from: ―gakked from
                                                                      pollination of post topics throughout the LiveJournal space
carmen_lj‖, where ―gak‖ means ―stolen or borrowed
                                                                      because memes spread like mad. More substantive topics
without permission.‖
                                                                      circulate as well, but they must in some sense take on the
Memes in the form of quizzes and small interactive applets            character of memes, become vastly simplified, source
are so popular that there are entire source sites for them            unknown, in order to continue traveling; but they don‘t
(e.g., [10] and memegen.net: ―Memegen lets YOU create                 usually go very far, in contrast to true memes.
your own quizzes and tests that work with blogs or journals
like LIVEJOURNAL or XANGA.‖) The interactive ones often               REFERENCES
provide some extra dimension of visualization or                      1. Abrams, Steve. Post on LiveJournal lj_research
information about other users or LiveJournal itself (whether             community (2004).
real or in jest). Examples of informational ones include the          2. Bjarneskans H., Grønnevi, B., and Sandberg, A.The
―what states/countries are your friends in‖ visualization                Lifecycle of memes.
meme, and the social clique calculator tool. Popular memes               http://www.aleph.se/Trans/Cultural/Memetics/memecyc
spread so fast that the unwary author of an interactive                  le.html
meme may find himself swamped out of business by
requests, as happened to the Secret Crush Meme database               3. cemcom (cemWEB Research Project). Post on
maintainer [8]. The appeal and spread of these quiz and                  LiveJournal 12/20/2004.
display memes is a topic of ongoing research for me (I                   http://www.livejournal.com/users/cemcom/7511.html
should have some survey data and classification metrics by            4. Cherny, L. Conversation and Community: Chat in a
the conference date).                                                    Virtual World. CSLI Press, Chicago, IL, 1999.
Substantive conversations spread across journals as well,             5. emmastrange. Post on LiveJournal, 9/22/2004.
via friends lists. Among one interest-based group of                     http://www.livejournal.com/users/emmastrange/66649.h
posters, I‘ve seen the remark ―everyone is talking about                 tml.
[plagiarism/entitlement/status/etc]‖ as an introduction to a          6. Goffman, E. Alienation from interaction. Human
personal post on the subject. Readers who don‘t read                     Relations 10 (1957), 47-59.
exactly the same list of friends may wonder ―who‘s
                                                                      7. Kumar, R., Novak, J., Raghavan, P., Tomkins, A. The
everyone? Where is this happening?‖ and check the poster‘s
                                                                         blogosphere: Structure and evolution of blogspace.
friends list. But it‘s very difficult for readers to find the
                                                                         Communications of the ACM (2004), 35-39.
conversation out there in the friends network, especially if it
originated in a comment thread somewhere or happened                  8. The LiveJournal Secret Crush Database.
days ago on a friend‘s friends list. Topics usually move                 http://madscience.dyndns.org/ljcrush/.
around the journal space without names attached (either               9. Newitz, A.Security lacking at social network sites.
because they‘ve been forgotten or deliberately left off).                SecurityFocus (2003).
Unlike memes, which succeed because of their generality                  http://www.securityfocus.com/news/7739.
and simplicity, abstract discussions stop at the boundaries
                                                                      10. You Know You‘re Addicted to LiveJournal When…
of an interest group and mutate quickly beyond recognition.
                                                                          http://www.blogthings.com/LiveJournal.html.
CONCLUSION
LiveJournal is undeniably wildly popular. As a tool for
community or sustained conversation, or ―reciprocally




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