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Assimilated!

By Annalee Newitz

IT'S FINALLY HAPPENED. Though I swore that I would never become a blogger or a live journaler, I finally gave in. I've been assimilated. Resistance is futile and all that crap. Of course, I've kept some of my integrity: I will not blog. But I started my live journal last night. Hovering quietly under the window on my computer where I'm writing this is another window where my browser is pointing right at www.livejournal.com.

Mood: dorky
Music: Marilyn Manson

Although you can structure each live journal (LJ) entry pretty much however you want, the system does have two built-in boxes you can fill in for each entry: mood and music. I like this feature. I want to know what music my LJ friends are listening to, and I want to keep track of their vacillating moods. Am I becoming a masochist? A neurotic voyeur? Is my writing starting to sound like an LJ entry?

Mood: contemplative
Music: Victor Krummenacher

I joined LJ because I got kicked out of a cafe in New York for using my laptop. There's a lovely public wireless network located near the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker streets in the Village, and so I picked a cafe nearby (tellingly named Caffe Dante) where Charlie and I could hang out and check email. As soon as I'd logged on, the waiter brought us our rather overpriced dish of ice cream and said, "Computers aren't allowed here." I figured I must have misheard and continued typing. Then another waiter came over. "You need to put that away," she said. "We don't allow computers here because they ruin the laid-back atmosphere." Ah yes. Authoritarian rules about what one is allowed to do at Dante's must also be part of that crucial "laid back" feeling. We cancelled the rest of our order and scuttled across the street to a computer-friendly coffee spot.

There, bathed in radio frequencies only my wireless card could hear, I logged on and thought about computer-based communities. I was suddenly reminded of the feelings that drove me to start chatting online when I was a teenager. I wanted to be part of a group where playing with computers and writing were what constituted "laid-back." I missed having online friends. But I didn't want a soulless blog, full of pointed observations, hip links and endless layers of reputation system drama.

Mood: wary
Music: Meat Loaf

One of my LJ friends warned me, "When I joined LJ, I started finding things out about people that I didn't want to know. If I meet somebody cute at a party, I don't want to go home and find out that they're an emotional train wreck." Frankly, that sounds good to me. I'd rather know in advance about the train-wreckage thing before I start fantasizing about the babe at the party. Perhaps the most dangerous part of LJ, to my mind, is the Cult Problem. For those of us on LJ, the community seems perfectly normal. For those outside, it's a dangerous social menace.

One of my close friends, a paranoid hacker type, said, "Oh shit, you're going to become one of those live journal people and I won't be able to talk to you. Anything you write about me will be searchable!" He outlined a future LJ scenario in which the company starts making money by charging users to keep their journal entries private. He's convinced LJ wants to copyright my entries and eradicate my privacy. Whatever. Currently, the privacy policies seem pretty good. LJ users can set up their entries to be readable by everyone, just a few people or nobody. You can also prevent search engines and spiders from gaining access to your journal.

Some pay to join LJ, but admission to the community is free for people who already have friends on LJ. Members in good standing gain access to codes that allow new users to create accounts. In other words, the deep structure of LJ is based on communities of friends. This is reflected in the way accounts are organized, too. Everyone has a "friends list" made up of people whose journals they read, and the LJ software creates a dynamically updated webpage for you with all your friends' latest entries posted in chronological order. And hey, if you want more friends, you can friend surf to your heart's content on LJ, looking for people whose list of interests match yours.

Mood: grouchy
Music: Adam and the Ants

Who reads LJ? So far, nobody has commented on my paltry number of entries, but there are more than half a million LJ users right now. And LJ code is open source, so you can build your own damn LJ community if you don't like this one.


Annalee Newitz (ljfiend@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd whose LJ nickname is actual human.


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From the October 10-16, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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