Georgina Voss: So, I don’t remember the first time I went online. It was kind of always there, really. There was a point— Well not always there. There was a point when it wasn’t and then there was a point one day when the computer in my dad’s study suddenly had the Internet on it. And it was big, and bricky, and the things we printed out from it were slow and bricky. And it was kind of there. So it wasn’t a big exciting event really, because the possibilities of it never grabbed my brain in the same way that I got the excitement—overwhelming excitement of getting my first text message. That was thrilling. The Internet kind of just…wasn’t, really.
So I used it a bit for work. I used it as as an undergraduate. It was nice to know a web site was there, but the web sites were never of the amazing capacity and speed that they are now. What I find useful now certainly didn’t exist fifteen, twenty years ago at all.
The realizations I have now of oh my God you know, I can find as many pictures of piglets wearing cowboy hats as I want, I didn’t really even have then. I just had like kind of…[inaudible] imagination around it. And I didn’t in the beginning find it particularly useful for social stuff either. We had at university a very kind of…early, lumpen email system. But because it was a university system we could all find each other through the university by our tag names, our usernames. And they had this thing called fingering. So if you fingered someone’s user ID, you could see when they lost logged on. And obviously this was a recipe for heartbreak and angst and drama in ways you couldn’t even imagine if you were pursuing someone and you sent them an email and they didn’t respond. You could tell when they’d last logged on. You know, if you’d broken up with someone it was you know… I can’t think of anything more designed for 18, 19, 20 year-olds drunk on angst in the computer room at three in the morning than what they’d developed.
And I was also not particularly into games as well, either. So a lot of stories that my friend have about how they stayed up to 3:00 AM in the college computer room playing this or that game, that just wasn’t a space I inhabited. So I don’t think I was meant to be one of those early pioneers, or at least what was built wasn’t built for a pioneer like me.
I poked around in some of the earlier online message boards. A little bit, because the anonymity of it actually just made it kind of strange and too fast-moving for me and I couldn’t quite get my hook to it, in a way. And then message boards came along. And they were a little better because you needed to have longer posting and it was a little more…to me a little more intimate. And there was one in particular that a lot of my friends were on. But again, I ended up reading, you know. I was looking at what they were saying a lot more than actually engaging with themselves. And that was partly because I think and write quite slowly. My brain might be quite sharp and spiky in places, but when it comes to translating that into a written response, I’m very very slow. And by the time I’d read what my friends were talking about, and particularly of my friends who were a lot more engaged in music and culture than I was, and when they’d been talking about this album or that cultural or political point, or this thing about queer theory, by the time I’d kind of thought of this three-line comment that I wanted to say, the conversation would’ve moved on quickly, and I just… you know. And the structure of the message boards never really gave you a space to actually say, “I don’t want to comment down at the bottom of the thread, I want to come in and comment at the top of the thread here.” But I can’t do that now. It was all very much kind a linear drop drop drop drop system.
The other thing about that was the material nature of engaging online. To do that at that stage, you need a big heavy computer in front of you. I didn’t own one. This was the stage where laptops to me as a post-graduate student in the early 2000s were prohibitively expensive. I knew one person in college who had one, and he was way ahead of all the rest of us. And a networked laptop at that.
And I was also doing a type or work which meant that I wasn’t in front of the Internet all day like a lot of my friends were who were either undergraduates or had jobs which enabled them to be online all day so they could have one screen open where they were doing their work doing copywriting or they were writing their essays, and then another screen open where they were constantly engaging with this chat about you know, “Have you seen this film,” or about this point here, blah blah blah.
And I didn’t. I would get the computer room at college every—even every few hours wasn’t enough. It wasn’t constant engage—all this talk of you know, constant [inaudible] and being in this brave new digital cyber world, you know. I kind of checked in on my cyber world like every four or five hours but then had to check out again, or then had to leave the computer room and go off campus to go home. So I’m aware this is kind of you know, quite a tiny violin, but it just…that thing, that belonging, I’d never really felt it.
And then, I think it would’ve been about early, mid-2003, possibly before then, I went to a big queer event where a lot of people already knew each other and were talking to each other, and who had these things called LiveJournals. And that was a question of the event, of you know, “Hi, I’m George.” And they’re, “Alright,” and, “Are you on LJ? What’s your LJ name?” And this I think was still at the stage where you needed an invite to get on. So there had to be that kind of [inaudible] social contact, too.
And I liked the people I’d met there, and I thought well you know, if they’re all communicating on this thing, then I’ll add that to my kind of list of reading and I got myself a LiveJournal. And I knew a few other people who had them but I’d never really signed up. It just seems like another form of blogging, and I knew people who had blogs but it wasn’t again quite that same kind of pseudonymity, but not quite, kind of space to talk, but not quite.
And that was that, and suddenly all the things that people had been saying about how online communication and engagement and relationships and all those forms of kind of your life splicing into someone else’s and someone else’s and someone else’s across this kind of online platform, suddenly that all made sense. I don’t want to say anything as cliché as like, “And that was when I saw in color,” because you know, it really wasn’t like that at all. It was still…back in 2003 it was still reasonably clunky…you know, we had a limited amount of icon pictures we could upload. A lot of the LJ tags were still quite crunchy. It crashed a lot.
But it was brilliant. It was fantastic. It was a space where instead of just having to write a quick response, you could write a really really long, considered post. It was a space where if you were like me and someone who thought long and hard before writing a considered comment, you could come into an earlier point in the conversation and insert a comment because of a threaded comment system, which was astonishing and really worked well.
You didn’t have to just have your one little kind of handle or name that you wanted. You could have little pictures, you could customize it. You could make the space your own. And you could also filter the friends that you wanted to see things. They didn’t just have to kind of splurge out onto a message board at 3:00 AM, “I hate my life! It’s all so awful.” You could find a small filter for that and splurge that out.
You could make small filters for the people who were doing academics at work like you, or who were doing similar queer events like you, of who wore similar types of hats to you. And then you could find all the communities that were out there as well and join those different communities too, and engage in different ways.
And it felt like it all made sense. And it still kind of astonishes me…and I realize you asked me, this is probably—we’re literally coming up to my ten-year anniversary on LiveJournal now. I know. And I say I would’ve been 24, 25 when I got my first LJ…my only LJ still. And my LJ name, which I’m not saying on this—let people find me—is related to the fact that it was the year that I started my PhD. And so it was a kind of aspect of…you know, that was how I picked my name.
And I know people have picked their name and then changed and changed and changed and changed it. But over that ten years, what LJ has which I really hadn’t seen many other spaces do, is allow the kind of change of lifestyle and how people’s lives evolve and adapt and shift, but still lets me do that in that space, you know. What I talked about on my first post was stuff that—kind of teenage diary stuff that you look back slightly with your fist in your mouth and go, “Oh my God.” But you have those comments and those conversations still captured in amber to look back on, even if—you know, as I have done, you lock down the earlier part of your LJ so the past few years are only visible to your friends. The conversations have moved on. The traveling I’ve done, the kind of different lines of work I’ve gone into, the things which are priorities or are really important to me now, in some spaces are not necessarily the same as they were then. But LJ has kind of enabled all of that and still lets me write long, angsty or thoughtful posts but still lets me get advice from various communities that I’m in. It’s about as horizontal as it can get as a platform. There isn’t that strange thing of kind of Facebook fans sites. It’s just there are people there and they have their LJs, and that’s what they are.
I think one of the things I genuinely like most about it, which I’m aware that I might be spoiling by talking about this on a podcast, in the way that a restaurant critic says you know, “But there’s this one tiny place, and it does the best gnocchi you’ll ever have! If I tell you where it is…” and you know, then everyone swarms this gnocchi restaurant and then that’s the end of it, it’s gone.
What I like about LiveJournal is its stealth, basically. No one thinks it still exists. So Twitter, even if you’ve got a private Twitter, there’s still kinda those linkages that’re there and the public Twitter’s public. Facebook is Facebook, you know. All these platforms are kind of collapsing into each other like one gigantic black hole all sucking back to one glorious, single unified identity. And LiveJournal’s like, “Oh really, fuck that. Have as many livejournals as you want, you know. Log in how you want to. Call yourselves twenty names.” But also it’s the thing that most people is still not going. It was the thing that people used five, ten years ago. And they’re like, “Oh you still have a livejournal. It’s still around?” Like that doddery old man is still walking around the estate? Oh my God.
And that’s great. So yeah, it’s completely stealth. People say is it not just populated by Russian teenagers? And like yes, yes it is. Don’t come near LiveJournal. Don’t go hunting for us, you know. We might be here if it’s secret.
And that’s in a space where it does feel like there’s this push towards the grand unifying identity that allows me to log in everywhere, provided that Mark Zuckerberg is happy that you’re doing so. LiveJournal just feels like, “Aha, well screw that. Log in under whatever username you feel will be most apt to you today and that’ll be fine for us.”
I think also as well around the timing of it, it laid the way for obviously a lot of other social media platforms. I mean, you’re engaging with people, you’re giving out personal information, you’re posting pictures, maybe videos. You’re probably getting angsty in ways at three in the morning that at nine in the morning aren’t necessarily the best idea in the world but you know, what’s done is done.
But LiveJournal I think gave a lot— It certainly gave me my training wheels for how to engage other bits of social space. We…people I know on LJ, I think we learnt quite quickly (or probably some not as quickly as we should’ve done) where the limits of sharing and oversharing are. How passive aggression is managed in an online space. What language you use when you can’t see someone’s facial reaction, and so how you tone down or mediate what you’re saying in a written sense so that you can express yourself more fully. Which groups of people you do and don’t talk to and what information you share within those subsections.
And so what really struck me when Facebook came along…however long later it would’ve been, five years later, probably? Maybe four, five years later. The people I knew who had LJs, when they migrated—or when they got Facebooks as well, it was a space they knew, and they were fairly confident in knowing if they were sharing information, who they would be sharing it with, what would be taken from that. It was a known quantity.
Whereas people who came kind of fresh to Facebook, it was just madness. It was kind of like seeing the darker side of someone’s…inside someone’s head, with no kind of controlling voice or boundary on it. All the people you’d kind of broadly known, school or university friends, suddenly talking about aspects of their life that had they had livejournals they would’ve learnt how to filter out those conversations but instead it was just a massive splurge of, “And then I broke up. And then oh my God this is my parents,” and it was just like, No! No! Learn what this platform is doing. Learn how you’re transmitting yourselves on it.
But they hadn’t had that kind of initial training space that I think LiveJournal certainly offered for me as a way of kind of negotiating it. And again, I look back at my early stuff from 2003 now, like I said completely locked down, just…with my fist in my mouth. It’s kind of… But I guess I look back at my teenage diaries which are covered in stickers also with…you know, with my fist in my mouth just at the kind of language that I was using. Enormous drama, capital D drama, that was being invoked in the name of something or other; getting a reaction. And that’s adapted and evolved within the LiveJournal space. And yeah, I still make use of a bunch of different other spaces to talk in and connect in and do all the other terribly dull, SEO, buzzword‑y type things and manage whatever facet or spike of my identity I need to use for one particular day or another.
But LJ just, it feels like kind of a safe, stealthy, underground, bottom line that can be relied on. Actually something a bit more…if not authentic but you know, closer than anything else, which is a bit more shouty.
I think you’d— You’d asked us to all think about what I miss the earlier days… I’m not sure that I do, actually. It’s funny, I was doing some reading for the book, and also for another paper I’m writing back on a bunch of papers that were published around 2002 that was looking at this new phenomenon of new media. And it was talking about things like CD-ROMs, and intranets, and this brave new space we’d be inhabiting. And the fantastic…you know, what could be built there. And I’d never a part of that conversation. It felt like— You know, I said I wasn’t…in that group of pioneers. I’m happier now that there’s actually a space that has been built up that I feel like I can modify what’s there and make it you know…and adopt it to my own desires, rather than having to try and fight for or engage in a conversation that I wasn’t equipped with the skills to engage in fifteen years ago, you know, but I know that stuff now.
Do I miss any of it? Not really. I still go—I mean… Seriously. The moments of wonder I have now are genuinely things like—exactly like I said earlier of you know, that moment I realized I can find a video of that or I can look for a picture of that or I can as a researcher find that thing that however many years ago it would’ve been…sixteen years ago in the libraries at university I would’ve had to go to the science library and photocopy my way through a stack of articles from one of the biochemistry journals. I don’t have to do that anymore. I cleared out one of my desks earlier this week, and ditched a ton of papers from my PhD because I knew I could find them online. That stuff is the miracle to me. Yeah. I’m kind of—I’m interested about what comes next, but I’m not sure that I miss much about what came before.