Six Apart to buy LiveJournal?

Om Malik reports that he has learnt that Six Apart are to buy LiveJournal for ‘an undisclosed sum’.

The deal is a mix of stock and cash, and could be announced sometime later this month, according to those close to the two companies. If the deal goes through, then Six Apart will become one of the largest weblog companies in the world, with nearly 6.5 million users. It also gives the company a very fighting chance against Google’s Blogger and Microsoft’s MSN Spaces

Over on apophenia, danah boyd is deeply disquieted by the news.

My biggest concern is that a merger will stunt the cultural growth on LiveJournal that makes it so fascinating. My second concern is that Six Apart will not be prepared to deal with the userbase and will initiate practices that are more detrimental because of fear. […] My third concern is that LiveJournal will shift because of investor value. It’s already compared to blogging, but as its own entity, it doesn’t have to be evaluated on those terms. If bought by Six Apart, i’m concerned that SA’s investors will evaluate it on SA blogging’s terms instead of in terms of LJ. My fourth concern is that fear of control will limit the evolving identity production/consumption that makes LiveJournal so valuable for youth and marginalized populations. It’s already far too public for more people, but easy access to LJ from MT/Typepad could be a disaster for many LJers.

danah is right that there is a totally different culture at LiveJournal, compared to the blogosphere at large, and I agree that if Six Apart do acquire LiveJournal then they will have to tread very carefully in deciding what they are going to do with it. But I think danah’s a bit off the mark with her the characterisation of bloggers as largely uncaring and devoid of community spirit by LiveJournalers is a shame and a bit off the mark. (Changed due to danah clarifying her post on this – see comments.)

Bloggers care just as deeply about their online friends as LiveJournalers do, and cohesive communities do spring up within the blogosphere. The main difference is that communities on LiveJournal are explicit – they are created within LiveJournal and contain LiveJournals. They are easily located, easily joined and their borders are clearly and sharply defined. Communities in the blogosphere are fuzzier affairs with borders that shift as people come and go. They are harder to locate because there is no single place where they are listed and they are less explicit about who is in them and who is a friend of whom (as opposed to just being on a blogroll – even the ‘I’ve met’ markers used by some don’t actually indicate friendship per se).

The implication that LiveJournalers care, but bloggers don’t, is just plain wrong. I’ve seen innumerable examples of bloggers caring about what happens to other bloggers, from people supporting financially a blogger whose house burnt down to private support groups being formed to help a blogger through difficult times. I am sure that if you look, you will find all sorts of examples of bloggers supporting other bloggers, but perhaps they are less obvious than those on LiveJournal.

LiveJournal provides a toolset which is different to the average blogging platform, and it is the software, not the people, that allows for the high degree of social networking that happens in LiveJournal. From posting your mood and what music you are playing to the built-in aggregator of friends’ LiveJournals, to the potential for creating a semi-private walled garden through levels of permission, these tools are what creates such distinct and well defined communities.

Of course, blogs do not have all of these tools built in, and the communities that form within the blogosphere are of a different nature. Yet I do not believe that the blogosphere is all about the tool and LiveJournal is not. They are both about the tool, yet they are both also about the people. You choose the tool that works for you, and some of that decision might be influenced by the tools that your friends use, but it cuts both ways – some people choose LiveJournal because their friends use it, some people use blogs because their friends use them. It’s just that in LiveJournal, that trend is more visible because of the social networking that goes on within the tool.

For example, I just set up a friend with a MovableType blog which is hosted on her own server. I would never have set her up with a TypePad blog, or a Blogware blog, or LiveJournal, even though I have one of each myself and know how to use them. This is because MT is precisely the right tool for her – I know that she is going to want to start fiddling with the back end as soon as she feels comfortable with it. She will want to change the templates and the CSS and will probably do a bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t possibly predict.

Yet, in setting up my friend with her blog, the only connection between us will be a blogroll link with a little asterisk by it (or possibly two). The link between us remains largely invisible to the public, even though she is one of my closest friends. But, had we both been LiveJournalers, then our friendship would be made explicit because of the way one creates links between friends. It is the tool which is making communities visible, it is not down to the people.

There is a cultural gulf between Six Apart and LiveJournal, which is as much to do with people’s perceptions and prejudices as with reality, and Six Apart are going to need to tread lightly if this acquisition goes ahead. They have, however had practice.

In July last year, Loïc le Meur sold U-Blog to Six Apart, provoking fury amongst a small section of the U-Blog community. As Stephanie Booth explains, U-Blog had a very strong community that had grown up around it, but when Loïc sold it to Six Apart and offered U-Bloggers a discount on a new TypePad account, there was a small core of people who were deeply unimpressed. The protestations lead to arguments and the situation got a bit messy. Eventually, the furore subsided, but that experience should have provided Six Apart with a good insight into the way in which people feel loyalty to a given tool (even in the blogosphere) and how easily it is to anger people both accidentally and through negligent communications. (Indeed, Six Apart’s own licencing fiasco should have taught them that lesson.)

I therefore feel hopeful that if this rumour is true, Six Apart will have the wherewithal to act with sensitivity and empathy, and not ignore the cultural ramifications of what they are doing, both in terms of the LiveJournalers and the MovableTypers/TypePadders.

Of course, all that cultural stuff is important, but so are the business reasons why LiveJournal might be selling to Six Apart. If one were going to look only at the cultural aspects of the two companies, one might wonder what there is to be gained by this acquisition, but if one makes a few assumptions one can start to see a few possibilities for growth.

I do need to make a disclaimer here: all this is speculation. I have no inside sources and no information. I’m just thinking a few thoughts and wondering if they have any validity at all. We will have to see what reality is, as and when it happens.

LiveJournal is funded by donations and a paid upgrade plan that provides it with enough cash to support its core of employees. But rumour has it that Brad Fitzpatrick has no real interest in running LiveJournal as a business and whilst that is fine for smaller companies, eventually some enterprises reach a size where they need business plans and strategic thinking. It may well make a lot of sense for LiveJournal to be bought by Six Apart, providing them not only with extra resources for product development and maintenance, but also the business acumen to keep LiveJournal going.

The benefit to Six Apart may have a bit more to do with the way that they are perceived at the moment. Ben and Mena created MovableType themselves and I suspect that they have/had an emotional attachment to it which would have made it unpleasant for them to have to impose a licensing structure to it. Equally, the perception of Six Apart within the blogosphere was badly damaged by that whole licensing snafu – suddenly Ben and Mena were seen as sell-outs who betrayed their open source roots. But in buying LiveJournal, Six Apart have the chance to earn back some geek cred by pledging to support the open source community that surrounds the software itself.

There must also be sound business reasons for wanting to buy LiveJournal that I’m not even touching upon. Joi Ito, who is Chairman of Six Apart Japan and whose company, Neoteny, invested in Six Apart, is such an astute businessman that I cannot imagine he would back an acquisition like this if it didn’t make sense. And that is, I think, good. Businesses need to be strong in order to survive, and if Six Apart can provide LiveJournal with the right sort of support, then there is no reason at all why LiveJournal can’t continue to flourish.

I don’t share danah boyd’s pessimism at all, instead I am optimistic that this acquisition will prove to be good for both Six Apart and LiveJournal, providing cross-pollination amongst developers and a healthy future for both platforms.

Of course there is no need – and nor would it make any sense – for Six Apart to try to move LiveJournal users over onto TypePad, which appears to be the main fear of those commenting on MetaFilter. This is unlike their acquisition of U-Blog, where there was a small blogging platform created and maintained by one person. In that situation it made sense to shift users to TypePad where there were more resources for support and development, but there is no sense in Six Apart trying to impose a complete tool change on LiveJournal users. It would be a disaster from every perspective.

But there are undoubtedly areas where both platforms could benefit from seeing how the other works and even if they don’t share code, they could certainly share concepts. TypePad could become more sociable and community oriented with the built-in aggregators offered by the LiveJournal friends pages and the centralised groups page. LiveJournal could benefit from TypeKey, allowing more flexibility in how users configure their comments preferences and TypeLists providing the ability to share what books and music the user is interested in.

In fact, the more I think about this, the more I hope that this rumour turns out to have substance because it would provide an opportunity to both bridge a gap in the blogging/LiveJournaling world (which to me currently seems more damaging than useful) and create a spectrum of tools suitable for a wide variety of people.

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