Teesside Snog Monster (jiggery_pokery) wrote,
Teesside Snog Monster
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Why I love Dreamwidth even before I have an account there, and why you might not

Blogging about blogging is the lowest form, as ever, but consider this a heads-up that I consider the omens point to Dreamwidth being a great, possibly the best, place to post for the next few years. Nothing lasts forever online, though the Long Now Foundation acts as if it is and Weaver's Week is well over eight, so about quarter of an Internet century old. That said, Dreamwidth looks like it has the sort of momentum in its development and in its nascent culture that it may be as exciting to be a Dreamwidth member as it ever was to be a LiveJournal member, even at LiveJournal's peak. In short, I consider Dreamwidth to be cool in a way that I haven't felt for any other communication platform for the last few years.

Some of you have been reading about Dreamwidth ten times a day on your Flist already and others may not be familiar. The idea behind Dreamwidth is that some of the people who worked LJ once upon a time are producing their own LJ-like web site that, in theory, will benefit from LJ's strengths but will avoid the errors that made LJ suck. It is based on the LJ code but makes the changes that should have been made but never were because they would have broken too many other things. It's not a project arising out of a grudge against LJ management, though frankly that would have been motivation enough. It's not a fandom project, though it will be fandom-friendly. (And, er, non-fandom-friendly, for people who aren't fans of anything.) Most importantly, there will be people working on it, both the owners and volunteers, aiming to make the project better (for their definition of better, which can broadly be considered "more capable" and "more usable") rather than more profitable. The site is currently undergoing closed beta testing, though open beta testing is expected to start around April 30th.

There is a school of thought that the adoption of Dreamwidth will mean "just one more tab to keep open", and I can sympathise. In recent discussions, people have suggested they want to have a single place where they can keep track of everything, and that's not so unreasonable a request - after all, it's how many of us have been trying to use LJ for years. Indeed, I myself have argued (paras 8-10) that there's a social benefit to everyone sticking together on the one service rather than scattering to the four winds, back when GreatestJournal (or was it InsaneJournal, or uJournal, or Blurty, or...) was offering icons up the wazoo. I still do believe that. It's just that these days, I am so dissatisfied with LiveJournal's operation and so enchanted with Dreamwidth's promise that I will do what I can for the discussion I want to follow to all be happening over there rather than over here. The benefits of supporting the DW movement do seem to me to outweigh the costs of splitting the discussion.

It's also relevant that most of us are now used to spreading ourselves over many sites in a way that we weren't, even just a few Internet years ago. I have accounts on InsaneJournal and IziBlog just to see Flocked posts from some of my Friends over there. I have an account on Facebook where I interact with relatives, co-workers and a few classmates. (I have an account on Friends Reunited, the UK cultural equivalent to Classmates.com, which I never use.) I have an account on LinkedIn in the vague hope that that counts as networking. Heck, I've even signed up to Twitter just because so many of you are on it. (After a few months, I've finally sort of got the point of Twitter. I have long insisted that "Microcontent is rubbish", and it is. More specifically, Twitter is for small talk, which is pretty much by definition inherently rubbish, but good for strengthening relationships. As I'm notoriously rubbish at small talk, I ought to start Tweeting just for fun and practice.)

So with this in mind, as soon as I can - and hopefully no later than when open beta starts, currently planned for 30th April - I am going to sign up for a Dreamwidth account and start regarding that as "home". I'm not going to stop reading you all over here, and I'm not going to stop posting things over here, particularly when I want to post content under Friends lock but want my Friends over here to see it. In fact, from the perspective of users over here who aren't over there, it'll hardly look like anything has changed. Culturally, though, I expect to regard Dreamwidth as my new Internet home and LiveJournal as just a mirror of it. Certainly I expect to give Dreamwidth the love that I had for LiveJournal in my first couple of years here, which has long since been frittered away.

This is all subject to change if something else proves to suit me better, of course, or if Dreamwidth proves sufficiently awful in an unpredictable fashion. An obvious problem is that Friends-locked posts will unfortunately work particularly badly when I Friends-lock in two different places and inadvertently split the discussion. This may be less problematic than only posting it to one of the two and requiring those on one to use the other. (Seeing my Flocked posts appear on both services is going to be annoying for some of you, I'm afraid, much like when we see people Tweet with a #fb tag and then see the Tweet pop up on Facebook as well. There's no good solution to this, other than my moving across to one or the other completely.)

All that on top of the fun of the username landgrab, of course, and watch me moan because I haven't upgraded my online home to prime username real estate yet. Sometimes people on my Friends list announce they have codes up for grabs, but these go in the wink of an eye rather than in "forty winks" - you really have not to snooze for more than ten minutes or so before you lose. Incidentally, [info]denise currently subscribes to every new personal account during the closed beta period, so her profile lets you keep count of how many personal accounts there are (2,227 as I type, but who knows how many more by the time I post?) as well as all the usernames that have gone. That could be an opportunity for someone devious if they can work out how to use it.

Setting up at a new service will also give me a chance to reassess what I want my journal to do for me; I'm going to bring my userinfo up to date, it being a couple of years stale by now, and my interests no longer need be an attempt to get to exactly 150 forming a full A-to-Z. Hopefully I can get rid of some of my more encumbering notions of blogging as performance art and teach myself that it's OK to post shorter and more frequently. Hey, I've found my one true love through LiveJournal; I don't need (and certainly don't want) to have to go through that again. DW seems to me like a good opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to reinforce the relationships I have - and, no, this isn't a euphemism for defriending or deprioritising friendships with people who don't move.

Technically, currently the biggest advantage of DW is a feature I am unlikely to use in practice, the splitting of the concept of "friend" into "subscribe" (the "appears on your Flist" functionality of Friendship) and "access" (the "sees your Flocked posts" functionality of Friendship). I tend to think that people on LJ recognise that declarations of Friendship are not guarantees of full use of both aspects of the Friend functionality outside filters, and I'm sure that people will quickly make the same realisation on DW; we're going to filter as much as ever, whether or not we choose to use the functionality to make it explicit. (However, not at first; DW doesn't have filtering capability to begin with. It's high on the priority list, though.)

With all this in mind, bear in mind that I love DW to pieces. In the spirit of fairness - quite probably, fairness to excess, by presenting devil's advocacy that I think may overrepresent the opinion of a small minority - I'm going to admit that I don't think DW is perfect and I don't think DW is for everyone. Here are some of the reasons why DW may not be for everyone, but why these objections are not sufficient to put me off.

Before I start, it's relevant to distinguish between the Dreamwidth site and the Dreamwidth movement here, much as it is relevant to distinguish between the LiveJournal site and the LiveJournal codebase. The LiveJournal site runs on a mixture of free / open-sourced code and non-free code, with several different other sites running the free code - plus, usually, as little non-free code as they can get away with, or extra non-free code to make their site a more inviting proposition. The Dreamwidth movement has published a set of Guiding Principles, announcing a commitment to releasing code as open source. "We are committed to making it easy for others to install and maintain their own instances of our server code." Accordingly, I can think of some reasons why some of you might prefer to use another implementation of the Dreamwidth server code, once the DW server code is released.

The skeptical among you might now be reminded of the old LiveJournal Social Contract, which these days has turned into a redirector to a page with core values and technical goals. It's up to you how important a change at LJ this represents. A true pessimist might be similarly skeptical about Dreamwidth's ability to live by its Guiding Principles in the long term - or even feel that the establishment of such principles is necessarily setting the movement up for a fall. Anything is possible; when I say "nothing lasts forever online" above, it's somewhere between plausible and inevitable that Dreamwidth could jump the shark somewhere along the line due to bad fortune or bad decisions. However, I reckon that my near-seven-year LJ run is as long at one location as I might dare to hope for even with a wonderful enterprise. (I kept up physical diaries for about seven years, too, as it happens.) Remind me of this in the space year 02016!

It would be possible to object to the Dreamwidth site on the grounds that it is being operated by a US for-profit company owned by the two technical principals of the site, synecdochic and xb95. There are at least two potential criticisms here.

I think the choice to bind the Dreamwidth site by US law is more dictated by the fact that its two principals are based in the US than anything else. It seems likely that someone could use the Dreamwidth code to start another site in a different country whose legal system might suit you better, and this may be a better fit for your needs. I suspect that some of the DW code will have been written in an attempt to meet the requirements of US law - most specifically, the existence of COPPA meaning that web sites must treat their members under the age of 13 in different ways. Perhaps a Dreamwidth-affiliated site hosted in another country would have to partially rewrite the code to strip out irrelevant COPPA protection and to obey local laws, such as EU data protection legislation. If this is sufficiently important to you, you may find yourself unable to support the Dreamwidth site while still supporting the Dreamwidth movement.

Some might object to the Dreamwidth site on the grounds that it has been designed to operate as a for-profit corporation. This is, essentially, the first issue addressed in Dreamwidth's Business FAQ document. I'll leave it to you to decide how convincing the reasons they give are. I'm not sufficiently expert to know whether there are alternative ways that the enterprise might have been designed within US law which might have resulted in a non-profit or a co-operative while avoiding the 501(c)(3) problems. The company is clear about what it intends to do with its profit, and also clear about the process if the two principals get sick of running the site; a lesson learnt, among other things, from the last days of brad at LJ.

It also helps convince me that the heart of the business is in a place that I like, for-profit or otherwise (though it might not convince you) that synecdochic has written about her background and her intentions for Dreamwidth's place in life. Beside that, even if DW had been set up as a not-for-profit, that doesn't mean that the principals couldn't have acted for their own benefit rather than that of the site - for instance, by paying themselves unduly high wages. The site's commitment to open operations should make such abuses clear and thus almost vanishingly unlikely.

There are a large category of people who will practically not be able to use the Dreamwidth site, whether they approve of it or not: those who do not speak English. LiveJournal has always placed considerable emphasis on the variety of languages in which the site can be used; this has resulted, among other things, in the site becoming one of the foremost, if not the foremost, Russian-language blogging platforms. However, the site's attitude to translation works better in some cases than others; as new pieces of text are added to the site in the native English language, they may not necessarily be added to other languages for some time, if at all. There are some occasions where phrases may be combined in ways that make sense in English grammar, but may not work so well in other languages. Lastly, LJ tags are designed to make sense and be easily memorable abbreviations in the English language, whichever language you may be working in. It works well enough in some languages for the site to be popular in some countries, but it's clearly not perfect.

The Dreamwidth movement takes an alternative approach to this. The Dreamwidth site will only ever be in the English language. However, the site's commitment to open source means that it ought to be relatively easy for (almost?) the entire code to be run by someone else in another language, who may well want to sort out all the translation issues into a single language at a single stroke. Accordingly, over time, we might expect there to be a Russian-language implementation of the Dreamwidth code, a French-language parallel Dreamwidth site, a German-language one and so on and so on, as well as likely several parallel English-language implementations of the code. Again, this has the drawback of splitting locked discussions among many destinations.

The Dreamwidth movement aims to solve this by a notion sometimes referred to as "federation", whereby users who have accounts on multiple Dreamwidth or LJ codebase sites ought to be able to see posts that they can see under Friends-lock on one site at all sites in the federation - and all this without compromising the security of the Friends-locked posts to the outside world. This has got to be the true killer feature for Dreamwidth, if they can make it work well, for those of us who might not want to have to track several different sites. It's also a heck of a technical challenge, and currently it's unsolved - it's just ("just"!) bug #710 on the Dreamwidth Bugzilla. However, it's listed as a bug that is blocking the open beta, so presumably a cunning plan is in place. The whole operation does rely on OpenID to some extent, which some have argued against, though I'm not sure how current the OpenID criticisms are.

As a thought experiment: could someone start a rogue site using the Dreamwidth code, attract users to it who start federating Friends-locked posts from other sites to this rogue site and then start publishing the Friends-locked posts in public? Surely it's possible, but presumably it's no more of a concern that a site that might make Friends-locked posts that are posted there public.

Iain once posted five tests, as was in vogue at the time, of ways in which he might have liked LiveJournal to develop. I'm fairly sure that some of the above properties of the Dreamwidth site will act as a disincentive towards his participation, but he may have more time for the movement at large. The concept of federation, if well implemented, should go some way towards easing his concerns regarding the legal basis of the site and his concerns regarding the single geographical basis for the servers. It's also been publicised that another feature stopping open beta is the revamping of the journal style system so that people might change their styles by use of the web standard CSS system rather than LiveJournal's rather opaque and proprietary S2.

There is something of a common theme to some of the above: there are lots of developments that are currently blocking open beta, but not in place. You can see the bug counts on a frequent basis, but the race against time is a difficult one. Even when the site enters open beta, ready for prime time or not, there are a long list of plans for features to be implemented. There's so much that's to be done and yet so much not yet done.

But there's so much that has been done; see the bug counts, and see these fascinating descriptions of how much can be done in just one week. See how many people are working on the project! See how many people are volunteering on the project already, and how many more are signed up to volunteer once further infrastructure is in place. The staff page shows that many of these have some fairly ideal credentials, too.

This shows that the project has momentum and talent and dedication and love behind it. Dreamwidth is making so much progress that it's hard not to love it. This is as fascinating and exciting as projects of this type come. That's why it's just damn cool, as far as I'm concerned, and that's why I want to associate myself with it, in whatever way, shape or form. To an extent, I'm not even sure how much I care to what extent the Dreamwidth project meets all its goals, so long as the momentum remains so strong and the project develops in delightful ways, even if they aren't necessarily the delightful ways I'd have thought or requested. It's a delightful case of open source volunteerism against the establishment that LJ has become.

Part of this inevitably reflects a degree of cult of personality; something doesn't become cool unless there are cool people working there. One more reason why you might not love the Dreamwidth project is if you have something against its principals, but I absolutely do not.

It's true, and it may be relevant to some people, that synecdochic (in another guise) ran LJ Abuse for some years, at a time when they did some questionable things. To some people, that may be a strike against her ability to run another similar site. While I don't necessarily agree with all the things that happened, I think it would be blinkered to hold these past events against her; while the "I was only obeying orders" defence is stronger in some circumstances than others, I think that running the site and setting its policy is as good a chance for her to show how she'd like to run a site, given the relative lack of constraints at DW that were in place at LJ. If you must, judge her on how she runs things by choice, rather than how she ran things by compulsion. Her reflections on her time in charge of LJ Abuse and how DW abuse might be different are a revealing starting-point, and I like what I see.

It's an oversimplification to say that I think Dreamwidth is cool because I think synecdochic is cool, but it would be wrong to say that that isn't part of it. I get the impression that she'll co-run the site with insight, love and an ingrained streak of wisdom that other people just won't have. azurelunatic has this fascinating post about the trials and tribulations faced by LJ over its years, and what sort of things that LJ users might want from someone running a site. She is a tremendous communicator and fiercely charismatic. Furthermore, she has major, major kudos just reflected from being held high in the opinions of some of those whose opinions I trust.

Voting for a place to focus your social networking is like voting for a political party. Anyone can promise anything, but at the end of the day, probably the most important factor is how people react to the developments which could not have been predicted. Due to their backgrounds and the way they present themselves in the rest of their lives, I'm far happier to put my trust in the Dreamwidth principals, their hopes and their vision than I am anywhere else. In short, I vote Dreamwidth. You might not; there are some of you who, I suspect, will only really ever be happy to vote for themselves - or, depending on how you interpret the paradigm, not vote at all. Placing your trust in an organisation with something as emotive and significant as an online home is an issue that many are struggling with; the_shoshanna has this post, well worth reading, about how she came to the decision for herself. Nothing is certain, but I'm convinced that Dreamwidth is as good a bet as anywhere.

That said, it's important to recognise that synecdochic is a fairly frail flower, who - mixing metaphors like a cocktail - piles her plate exceptionally high despite a relatively short supply of spoons. While there's sense to the cliché that "the only way to get something done is to make sure that a busy person does it", I'm glad that it's not just all her; xb95 also looks like an exceptionally competent brain and thus a very strong bet, and the strength of the rest of the volunteer team cannot be underestimated. (The fact that the two disagree on so much, and yet seem to be so good at co-operating to form a consensus from different starting-points, is another major reason for confidence in the site management.) I'm very glad indeed that the "sale of the site" policy has been codified in the Operating Procedures, and it more or less clears my qualms about what might happen in the case of a brad-style burnout. However, LJ lasted a long time and developed a long, long way before the burnout, so I'm hopeful for a good run.

And yet there was a point when I seriously thought that DW wasn't going to make it. Case in point: look at the archives of the dw-discuss mailing list, or - at least - the volume of discussion from month to month. DW was touted as "coming Summer 2008!"; when September rolled around and discussion on the list dried up, I thought it was a still birth. Seems that LiveJournal, Inc. firing people at the start of 2009 - barely legally, but with a horrible lack of class - was just the spark that the project needed. That sort of downtime reminds me that nothing is guaranteed, and every web site out of your control is always, in part, going to be a gamble. You know what? I don't mind that. In fact, it's part of the fun!

The excitement I find in Dreamwidth is watching the development of the functionality and the culture, whose priority I perceive to be more about having a service that the developers themselves want to use and less about making money. Remind you of anything? Could my strong feelings just be nostalgia for the brad days of LiveJournal? Perhaps; after all, the Golden Age of anything is "just before you discovered it"...

Sidenote: the current raw LJ stats make interesting reading, with the newbyday figures being as strong as they have ever been. I don't think LiveJournal's going anywhere, days after its tenth birthday. However, look at the bottom of the stats page and the graph of age distribution. Can't help feeling that an awful lot of those "29-year-olds" aren't going to be legitimate somehow, and I wonder just how many of the new users might be similarly spam-scented.
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