Arvind Narayanan (arvindn) wrote,
Arvind Narayanan

Lessons from the failure of Livejournal: when NOT to listen to your users

The intended audience for this post is developers building/running websites. I'm sure most LJ users are perfectly satisfied with it. That's my whole point.

In the last couple of months, there have been multiple developments that seem to indicate that the combination of a blogging platform/commenting system and social network is finally becoming widespread: Google added the "follow" feature to Blogger, Facebook switched to a feed-focused redesign, and WordPress acquired IntenseDebate, a commenting system.

It is surprising that these changes took so long: Google's move has been seen as a response to a threat from Facebook, while Facebook itself was pretty clearly reacting to the Twitter/Friendfeed threat on the horizon. Finally, WordPress was arguably forced into action by the rise of third party commenting systems including Disqus and JS-Kit.

What you might not know is that Livejournal had this winning combination of features 5 years ago. Further, they had a significant technical lead over the competition: the now-ubiquitous memcached, for instance, was written to run Livejournal. The site had an API for most of its profile data at a time when no one else did; it wasn't even called an API. Finally, they had a huge (for 2003) userbase.

Here's how they could have capitalized on all of that: put their syndication mechanism front-and-center, which lets you import external RSS/Atom feeds into your LJ friends page, thus making LJ a fully capable feed reader. This could have been followed by the step of releasing either a Disqus-like widget, or a browser plugin that would in addition have made LiveJournal the default commenting mechanism for the entire web. The opportunity was just mind-bogglingly huge.

But none of that happened. The site hung on to its design philosophy of being an island cut off from the rest of the Web, and paid the price. Founder Brad Fitzpatrick has moved on, traffic has been flat for years, and last year they sold to a Russian company in the hope of making something of their Russian userbase. The site is now a sad footnote in the history of Social Networking Services. How did they do it? By listening to their users.

Let me describe four different circumstances in which you shouldn't listen to your users, all of which apply to LJ, and which explains why LJ went the way it did.

Skewed userbase. Livejournal attacted social deviants of all kinds. (I'm not judging; that's why I got on here.) The design of the site — little or no google indexing, no pingbacks, no comment RSS feeds, strong privacy features including granular controls, etc. — made the site an island. If you weren't on there, you wouldn't know it existed. Of course, many users wanted it to be exactly this way.

This is a problem that every website faces when it tries to go mainstream: your early adopters will try to keep you from doing so. You need to have the balls to bite the bullet and go mainstream anyway.

Vocal minority. Even within the deviant userbase, there was one subcommunity that was even more intent on keeping the site the way it was: the people who relied on LJ to exchange illegal shit. Naturally, this minority was very vocal in providing feedback. LJ should have responded by cracking down on the illegal material a long time ago; instead, they made a feeble effort last year by when it was way too late.

Be warned: the users who express themselves are likely to display varying levels of self-selection bias, and aren't representative of your overall userbase, and more importantly, your potential userbase. The only way to avoid it is to actually sit down in person with random people, have them use your site and listen to what they have to say.

Mindless change-resistance. Some users hate it when they have to change any behavior they are accustomed to. Other users protest simply because they like protesting; it makes them feel like they have some power against The Man. There were mass protests when LJ wanted to stop charging money to create accounts. Such users are best ignored.

Facebook pulled off their recent site redesign admirably: they did bucket testing for a long time, ironed out most bugs, and then rolled it out slowly. In spite of it, the anti-redesign groups counted millions of members, at least 10 million aggregated. The important thing to note is that these users weren't threatening to leave the site; they just felt like expressing themselves and their hatred of change. Facebook did what they should, gave them a couple of weeks to get used to it.

Fundamental conflict of interest. Most of the time, your interests are aligned with those of your users: if they're happy, your site grows. Occasionally, you do have to face the fact that you want their money and they don't want to give it to you. When LJ started to put ads on free accounts, users screamed bloody murder. You just have to ask yourself: do we want to stay in business or not?
Tags: facebook, livejournal, social networks, web2.0
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