“The Linux of social media”—How LiveJournal pioneered (then lost) blogging

No spoilers, but with the departure of a certain high profile fantasy writer, LiveJournal seems to have been left like Jon Snow here.

Last April, famed writer and hero-murderer George R.R. Martin announced that he was hoisting his ancient blog from his moldering LiveJournal onto his personal website. For casual Game of Thrones fans, it was a minor hiccup at best—most clicked the new link and never looked back. For a certain strata of enthusiasts, however, this was a far more momentous move. Described as “the last holdout” by longtime LiveJournal volunteer-turned-employee Janine Costanzo, Martin’s blog was perhaps the once-blogging-giant’s last bond to the world of great pop culture. So while the author may never finish his most beloved literary series, his simple act of Web hosting logistics truly marks the end of an era.

Growing up on the Web at the dawn of the social media age (circa 2007), it felt like all the connectivity-obsessed sites forming the burgeoning core of the new Internet were haunted by a faded spectre called LiveJournal. As a teen, I never actually knew anyone who had one, but I heard whispers and rumors about drama on the service all the time. And based on candid conversations with some of the figures who made LiveJournal what it was, it turns out that impression isn’t far off. LiveJournal, or LJ, as its users lovingly called it, was a different kind of social media service, one that is almost unrecognizable in a world dominated by the anonymity-shattering power of a Facebook or Twitter. But, as many of its former employees attest, LJ ultimately had the opportunity to become one of these “second-generation” social behemoths. Instead, a stubborn userbase and questionable business decisions harried those ambitions. And now, Martin’s latest figurative casualty—the severed LiveJournal—serves as a brief reminder of the platform’s ascendance and the decisions that brought this blogging icon crashing down.

Built from the dorm

Like many eventual household names in tech, LiveJournal started as a one-man project on a lark, driven by a techy teenager with too much time on his hands. As founder Brad Fitzpatrick recalls, in 1998, after getting kicked off America Online for messing with its service too much, he managed to convince a local ISP to enable his personal website to use the Common Gateway Interface protocol. The move allowed him to write custom scripts that would produce dynamic objects on his page, such as his exact age in seconds, counting ever upward with each refresh. The novelty of these dynamic objects astounded Fitzpatrick, to the point that he eventually made a one-line textbox that floated above his desktop’s Start bar so he could type in and post to his site.

“It didn’t even have a post button,” Fitzpatrick recalls. “It was just the Enter button. My early LiveJournal posts were stuff like ‘going downstairs to get a Coke,’ or ‘I’m bored.’ It was very much like early Twitter.”

After giving the script to a handful of friends, Fitzpatrick realized that every update he made meant that he’d have to hand it out all over again, so he let his friends piggyback off his server for ease of use. When Fitzpatrick soon went to college at the University of Washington, the script spread with him. He eventually got his entire floor of his dorm posting, along with friends in different states. The service grew organically from there.

These handful of early users shaped the functionality of the site with their behavior. For example, when friends started complaining about the unsheared “walls of text” that some of their peers would post, Fitzpatrick added a “post” button so they could space out their paragraphs. There was no way to respond to other people’s output initially, no matter how insipid—until, of course, Fitzpatrick decided that he wanted to make fun of one of his friend’s posts. He next added in the comment functionality just to post “a snarky-ass comment.”

“Everything was like that,” Fitzpatrick says. “Current mood, current music, profile pics—it was all screwing around and trying to add whatever new things we could do or what the Web supported at the time.”

At a certain point in his college career, around the year 2000, Fitzpatrick realized that LiveJournal had turned from a fun way to mess around with CGI scripts into something approaching an actual business. “At that point,” he recalls, “the mission became: keep the damn thing alive.” So, as he approached graduation and the popularity of the site continued to mount (plus the cost of the servers kept spiraling ever upward), he began to wonder if he needed to hire some people to help him keep the site from falling over every week.

That’s when he met Lisa Phillips, a systems administrator at a local DSL company in Seattle. She happened to make a LiveJournal post right as Fitzpatrick was trying to move his embattled servers out of his dorm room. “A bunch of us were LiveJournal users at the company,” says Phillips. “So, I just reached out to him and said, ‘I don’t know you, but we have room.’ It was literally a rack in a closet, but we had room.”

Needing to hire a full-time sysadmin, Fitzpatrick approached Phillips with the job in 2001. Because they were both 21 at the time and he had never hired anyone before, Fitzpatrick brought his dad along to help construct something approaching a formal interview process. “It was surprisingly professional,” Phillips says. “And I got the job. I was the first person paid to work at LiveJournal as a sysadmin for the entire site.”