Form overrides function: LJ mass deletion ’07

The events of the recent LiveJournal mass deletion highlight an oft-overlooked aspect of community-driven websites: Form overrides function.

Background: LJ Strikethrough '07

LiveJournal (LJ) is a SixApart-owned site that provides an individual and communal blogging environment. Of interest here are 1) the communities and 2) the "interests" section of users' profiles. Over a several day span, LiveJournal staff swept through the communities and profiles and suspended any community or individual accounts that seemed (to them) to promote pedophilia or other unsavory activities. From CNET News:

[Berkowitz] had defended the deletion as not required by law but part of an effort to set standards based on "what we think is appropriate."

Unfortunately, a number of journals were deleted unfairly. One was a literary community discussing Lolita. Another was a Harry Potter fanfic community in which some people had written stories centering around sexual relationships between teens and adults.

But the worst deletions of all were ironic in nature: Communities for survivors of rape and pedophilia, and individuals whose profiles mentioned pedophilia. Of particular interest here is the "Interests" component of the user profile page, in which a user may enter a comma-delimited list of topics. LJ insists that a given topic X in the list should be interpreted as "I like X" or "I support X", but that shows a poor understanding of how users were actually using the fields. Each topic is automatically turned into a link by means of which a user can search for others who have also listed that topic. As a result, a pedophilia victim might list "pedophilia", hoping to connect to other victims.

Not an isolated case

Much to the annoyance of programmers and administrators, users will always "misuse" the tools given them. I've sent an email to myself as a reminder, used a draft post on my blog as a scratchpad, and used a wiki to quickly make a website, even though I am the only editor. I've used the social bookmarking system to send private messages to other users, because had no explicit private messaging system.

In all of these cases, I am reappropriating a tool to do a task for which it was not designed — yet it is still the most efficient tool for the job. (If you don't have a screwdriver, a knife blade does a mighty fine job.) Regardless of the programmer's intent, users will find new and interesting things to do with applications.

How to respond

If chimps use twigs to pull ants out of the ground, do you scold the chimps for "misusing" the twigs? No, you marvel at their ability to use tools in a manner similar to our own behavior. We like them because they are tricksy and smart, and they can "hack" their environment to make it do new and interesting things. Yet so often, web community managers get upset and try to punish the behaviors that make their users human. If LJ wants to survive, they must read their users' needs and adapt. The users have a need which must not be ignored. However, any change of form to match function must proceed carefully, since a new form will breed new user-made functions.

LiveJournal has some diverse options:

  • Changing the name of the field from "Interests" to "Topics of interest" would fit the intended function to the programmed form without requiring users to change any of their data.
  • Splitting the fields out into "Activities", "Books", "Fandoms", etc. would be a partial solution that would change the form to fit the function, but not enough to prevent the problem from reoccurring.
  • Removing the "Interests" field entirely, appending the old contents to the profile, and providing a profile search might be the best option in terms of what users want, but more disruptive to their experience.

So when you add a component to your webapp, ask yourself what users might use it for. (You won't be able to answer this fully -- they're waaay too unpredictable.) Take a stroll through your online community and see what your users are doing with the tools your provide. Conduct polls to find out what features they want. And most of all — listen to their needs.

Responses: 3 so far

  1. Terras says:

    No one uses LJ anyway. Still stupid, though.

  2. Tim McCormack says:

    No one uses LJ anyway.

    Not anymore. :-P

  3. chris says:

    Wow, that's really lame. I maintain my own blog on my own server so I'm not subject to overzealous web admins, but that means I miss out on a lot of the communal features that places like LJ offer (although the rise of aggregation services might render that moot).

    There was a small controversy at Flickr a few weeks ago -- the admins there deleted the post and follow-up thread of a photographer who discovered a company had stolen her images and sold them for profit. There was a lot of outpouring of support from the Flickr community, but the admins soon deleted the thread, claiming some posts were too aggresive and that the topic didn't mesh with the atmosphere the Flickrazzi try to promote.

    Ultimately, the co-founder of Flickr apologized about the incident, saying the admins were simply following rules and just misapplied them to this case. But it still stands as a reminder that while these online services allow us to upload our thoughts, works of art, etc., there are precious little guarantees of honorable service.