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Thursday, December 09, 2021

Do you remember LiveJournal?

LiveJournal is a hybrid blogging and social networking service started by Brad Fitzpatrick in 1999. Users could create a blog that usually served as a public diary, and then they could add people they know who also set up LiveJournal blogs as "friends." Friends' blog entries are aggregated on a single page, allowing users to see at a glance what their buddies are up to, like a proto-News Feed.

The service was many people's first experience with a Web 2.0 application, and, in particular, the first for many teens. LiveJournal quickly acquired a reputation as a clearinghouse for suburban, adolescent angst - collections of lengthy, startlingly sincere lamentations of broken hearts, occasionally interspersed with awful, copied-and-pasted Dashboard Confessional lyrics and "Which 'Hey Arnold!' Character Are You?" quizzes. (I always shot for Gerald, but I'd always wind up being Eugene - or, on a good day, Mr. Hyunh. This was a source of mild consternation.)

LiveJournal was, in many ways, a forerunner of much of the purportedly revolutionary social media environment we're in right now. After all, it was started before the word "blog" was even coined and before the phrase "Web 2.0" gained any sort of currency, and it predates both MySpace and Facebook by about half a decade.

It was also among the first social media to receive the same flak that Facebook and Twitter catch on a regular basis now. You know the criticism: It's narcissistic. It's self-important. Nobody really cares how hilarious your cat looks when he's asleep.

But I've never thought that the self-absorption was what we were supposed to take away from social media. And I'll go as far as to say, without any irony, that LiveJournal and its successors have made me sort of a better person.

The most important thing LiveJournal did for me - and I say this as someone who never actually kept one - was serve as a reminder that everybody is living their own lives. That's kind of tautological and not anything revelatory, but it was useful: It's one thing to be aware of that as an abstract concept, but it's another thing to see it in action - to see heartfelt and emotionally complex outpourings of hopes, dreams and insecurities spill onto the Internet from people who you've mentally filed away as that kid who "sort of is a jackass" or "seems like kind of a slut."

That's what I believe the takeaway from social media is supposed to be: The people in our lives are not just characters in our own story, and that everybody, in fact, has their own story - their own aspirations, their own joys and fears, their own private battles that they're quietly fighting. And for every person about whom you probably don't really give a damn, there's probably a parent who wants desperately for their kid to be happy or a person whose heart is getting broken at the news that their best friend is having a rough day.

We don't have to think that everybody has an absolutely fascinating life story for which Ira Glass must be summoned to record. But we should at least remember that everybody does have a story, and we should respect that.

LiveJournal is now a living vestige of the early Web 2.0 era - it still exists, but there are tons of other services on the Internet that can do everything it does better and more easily, and with less ugly advertising. In fact, the service, once on the verge of seeming indispensable to both Internet and teen culture, wound up being sold to a Russian company in 2007.

But its legacy lives on - not just in trivial updates on what someone had for lunch on Twitter or very awkward, very public breakups that play out on Facebook, but in the understanding and compassion that all that nonsense is, weirdly and inexplicably enough, supposed to inspire.

Joe Dellosa is an advertising senior. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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