This post is part of Mashable’s You’re Old Week. Break through the haze of nostalgia with us and see what holds up, what disappoints, and what got better with time.
The internet of the mid-aughts seemed softer, somehow.
Before Facebook was used by Russian trolls to incite race-based violence, before alt-right goobers created Gab in their own image, and before, well, Twitter became synonymous with Kanye and Trump, there was an entire online world of message boards, Myspace pages, and chat rooms that in retrospect seem impossibly quaint. And shiningly brightly atop it all as the North Star of our heartfelt earnestness was a little thing called LiveJournal.
But was LiveJournal ever actually any good? Whether or not LiveJournal as a service was a beacon of light or a raging pile of proto-internet garbage that ultimately deserved its fall from the Pantheon of American teens is perhaps a question that’s too large to answer here. However, whether the rough edges of our journal entries were merely smoothed over in our minds by some combination of time and nostalgia, or our budding social-media lives were in fact a place of joy, discovery, embarrassment, and connection is a question we’re totally here for.
And thankfully the staff of Mashable is down to help.
Putting it all out there
For a narrow demographic of internet users coming of age in the early to mid 2000s, LiveJournal was the place to be. Part social network and part online diary, the service launched by Brad Fitzpatrick in 1999 provided users with just enough privacy settings to make their networks feel like the right combination of a secret shared with IRL friends and a place sufficiently open to allow for hours of discovery and exploration.
“Some person was pretending to be someone else and made up a fake boyfriend and a fake pregnancy and it was WILD”
For many, this provided an irresistible pull to pour their hearts out online in a manner that seems frankly pretty wild now.
“I remember looking back at my LJ a few years later and I was mortified,” explained one Mashable employee who wished to remain anonymous. “I would write about my first girlfriend and I swear I must’ve been clinically insane.”
But just because there’s embarrassment years later (after all who isn’t embarrassed of something they wrote earlier in life), doesn’t mean there wasn’t real value then.
“[It] was my first step into internet sharing,” the same employee continued. “I had tons of unfinished diaries and then, thanks to LiveJournal, I had a public diary I could type into instead of crossing things out a million times.”
At the very least, this seems to have cured her of the oversharing bug just in the nick of time. “Imagine if I didn’t have a LiveJournal and then got on Facebook? I would be like those people who write their life stories for their connections to read.”
Which, I think we can all agree: Ugh. Score one for LiveJournal saving a young internet user from a lifetime of terrible online oversharing.
Finding community from a distance
For others, LiveJournal did years ago what we think of as Tumblr’s thing today: Brought hyper-specific fandoms together to celebrate whatever esoteric or slightly nerdy thing plucked at a young person’s heartstrings.
For Mashable’s Petrana Radulovic, this meant The Sims 2.
“I was really into The Sims 2 as a young tween (who am I kidding, I am still very into The Sims 2) and The Sims 2 community was very vibrant on LJ back in the 2000s,” wrote Radulovic.
Interestingly, fearing her parents would somehow discover it, Radulovic never actually made an account of her own. However, that didn’t stop her diving deep and holding on for dear life.
“There was a mix of people who posted stories from their games (using screenshots with the premade characters and stuff) and people who made custom content for the games and I avidly followed this group of people for almost ten years, as they made the transition from LJ to Tumblr and I still follow them after all this time,” she explained. “It was the first real fandom community I was part of, even though I was only an observer, and definitely one of the first exposures to all the drama that goes down in online fandoms (some person was pretending to be someone else and made up a fake boyfriend and a fake pregnancy and it was WILD), but also things that make a fandom strong — collaboration, creativity, and just coming together to geek out about something we love.”
That’s right, Radulovic still follows the Sims fan community she discovered on LiveJournal a decade ago. Which, honestly, is pretty rad.
Old friends and new
LiveJournal, in a real and meaningful way, also managed to keep far-flung friends together while providing a reasonably safe outlet for all that high school drama. And, better yet, it allowed for a measure of privacy in the process.
“It was a place I shared very emo and high school-level drama and feelings with a close group of LJ friends,” recalls Mashable’s Sasha Lekach. “It fostered friendships with out-of-state camp friends and friends of friends that I didn’t go to school with. Without LJ I wouldn’t have gotten to know them.”
But for many, including Lekach, LiveJournal was more than just a way to keep in touch.
“It also became a place where I would talk about really personal things with people I wouldn’t have been able to talk about those things in a face-to-face conversation,” she noted. “But I knew my audience and the way I used LJ wasn’t public, so it was this really cool middle ground between a personal diary and a social network.”
Importantly, Lekach no longer uses LJ (“[I] just got older,” she explained), but she obviously found real value in the way it allowed her to share just the right amount with a self-selected group of people.
Possibly toxic, but definitely inviting
That nostalgia can be toxic is undeniable. Looking back on something fondly without also acknowledging that thing’s flaws can be a problematic recipe, and like any online community made up of millions of users, LiveJournal had its problems.
But the service also thrived in the US at a time when social media felt more hopeful than oppressive, and when the idea of foreign actors harnessing its burgeoning power to sow discord would have read as some kind of bonkers LiveJournal fanfic.
Looking back, it’s clear that LiveJournal really meant something to the people who used it. At the very least, it definitely didn’t throw a massive wrench in American democracy, so it has that going for it.