Nostalgia and Paperwork: How LJ is like AOL

The LJ mess over censorship gives me flashbacks to AOL in the 90s.

I used to do “remote staff” work for AOL, semi-volunteer stuff. A few years were spent on the chat patrol, and later I had a full-time job for another company that included a lot of message board and chat management. I was doing this work in some way or another from 1990 to 1995.

During this time, AOL grew from a small business to a huge one. In parallel, the community of users started as a town and ended as a nation. It all happened way too fast. Growth rates of dotcom companies and online communities are a cliche now, but this was the first time, and no one knew what to do or even what was happening.

The community standards of discourse, including what was out of bounds in public communication, suffered. People with limited social experience and no background in language or youth culture suddenly had to make decisions about what was appropriate in chat, on message boards, everywhere. Staffers were supposed to chide people who broke the rules or knock them offline, but the rules kept changing. Meanwhile, so many people were pouring in that the variety of possible problems was disorienting. It was hard to get any consensus about community standards when the community was doubling in size every month. The lists of unapproved words and phrases and activities grew long and ridiculous. I wish I still had some of those lists.

Nervous chat monitors and board supervisors were presented with social and linguistic issues beyond their knowledge. GLBT people were booted for discussing their lifestyle outside GLBT forums. Discussions about the role of drug use in society were knocked offline for “drug use promotion.” The rules were applied inexpertly and unevenly, and some staffers appeared to make up their own. The flood of teenaged users brought a whole new set of problems: minors mixing with adults, incomprehensible teen culture, suicide threats.

The situation was handled poorly. Years of arbitrary decisions, ignorance, dissembling, and prejudice went by. By 1994, anyone on “chat patrol” was completely snowed under with constant reports of rule-breaking. It was impossible to catch up and clearly pointless to try.

In the end the problem was solved with money. The company had grown so much that they hired good attorneys, professional senior managers, and more people inhouse to deal with community management issues. Bad behavior that presented a legal threat was still pursued, but they wisely gave up most attempts at regulating discourse in a gigantic community.

LJ is right at that breaking point. They’ve become huge, and there’s no village any more. Large groups within LJ have their own community standards, and don’t appreciate regulation from outsiders who don’t understand the context of discussion. Pranksters and civil libertarians will test the limit of any rule. Outside pressure groups will demand the impossible, and news media will report on anything that looks odd and give it a lurid tabloid spin.

People who enjoy blogging and are good at computers can build services like LJ and make them a roaring success. These aren’t necessarily the right people to manage a community the size of a city. They will be inconsistent, arbitrary, socially inept, prejudiced, anxious, and worst of all ignorant.

LJ needs some people with professional expertise in communities and the law. They need one or more attorneys with a very good understanding of the civil and criminal liabilities of a company like this. And they need a sociologist or its near equivalent who can grasp the nature of LJ’s culture and subcultures without reflexively applying standards that don’t make sense.

Most of all they need to be consistent, which is the first thing the attorney or sociologist is likely to tell them.

With luck it won’t take three years the way it did for AOL.

23 thoughts on “Nostalgia and Paperwork: How LJ is like AOL

  1. “With luck it won’t take three years the way it did for AOL.”
    The upside is, if LJ truly is following in AOL’s footsteps, it’ll take years to bleed enough users to make it disappear. šŸ™‚


    1. They deleted a lot of fan communities and posts that included slashfic and fan fiction with sexual elements. After that they haven’t had a consistent policy and have driven people nuts, and they capped it off this week when one of their employees made fun of the whole thing in an open forum. It’s been a huge banana peel slip for a while now.


    1. Re: AOL
      But I bet you never knew that the Member Room Virginians Online would regularly be closed because, well, it has the word VIRGIN in it.
      {S iloveaol} <—– I really wish I still had this sound someplace.


      1. Re: AOL
        that shit never happened under MY watch!! Veronica, I can’t speak for. She was dumber than a sack of wet bricks. The real touchy one was when one of those idiots closed Fibromyalgia Support because they didn’t know what it was.
        working in TOS kicked ass. LJ should hire me to run all their content moderation.


      2. Re: AOL
        I remember that fibro fiasco! What WAS she thinking? Oh, wait šŸ˜”
        Nice thing was, you did know what you were doing. I miss the good times. And OK, I vote for you for K(evin)B(acon)TOS šŸ˜€
        Lobby Z has 21 people.
        Lobby Z has 22 people.
        Lobby Z has 23 people.
        Lobby Z has … we’re sorry, the content you’ve requested is not available at this time.


      3. Re: AOL
        no way…. Veronica went to Radford University. No woman has ever left that university a virgin. She was also roommates with my High School President’s sister, and she was a maaaajor party animal.


  2. It seems every startup tries to re-invent the wheel and is so narrow as to not take a hint from the history of other companies who had the same issues. My thought here is that LJ probably thinks that the issue they experience are far too complex or unique to look outside the LJ bubble to what has transpired in other businesses.
    Having seen the crest and downfall at the last place I worked (Screenlife), I wonder what it would take for LJ to heed the lessons learned elsewhere.
    My purse smells like gum.
    *getting one in for Random Monday*


  3. AOL Hollywood Cafe
    I was a regular in the Hollywood Cafe on AOl which was a hotbed of miscreant behavior and some real freaks. There’s a great essay about it in the book Hollywood Interrupted by Brietbart and Ebner. Occasionally some spurned lover or a newbie would start screaming for a TOS person/chat monitor and when the Man would come in and announce themselves with their cheery “hello :)…” instantly the regulars would go into “doyo ubelieve thepenis mighti erthanthes word’ “Yesm ypenismi ghty” “Howmightyy ourpenis/Mightierthantypinger” etc.
    Like how can you TOS 24 people quoting, paraphrasing and poorly typing Bulwer-Lytton?


    1. Re: AOL Hollywood Cafe
      All too often that person was me, stifling laughter. I worked for Hollywood Online. If you ever saw HollywoodU dealing with the “cafe,” well, that was me.


      1. Re: AOL Hollywood Cafe
        OMG! LOL! Then you prolly recall Fauxreal, Keyser Soze, CBlack, JDolomite, CohibaSmoke (that was Christain Slater) Anamorph and the other regulars!nHow freaking funny. You should def read the Hollywood Interrupted chapter which goes into EGirl, the cyber celeb-stalker who worked for AOL. I loved the cafe and am still friend with people from it–IRL–who I met there!


      2. Re: AOL Hollywood Cafe
        Indeed, and I remember being abused or amused by almost all of those people. Anamorph was a cool person and I liked Faux and Keyzer too.


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