"There's still space for there to be places where people can be good to each other and understand each other and not judge people by what they know of them in real life." — Bruce Ableson
On Function, our focus is about how technology has influenced culture and communications, and nothing encompasses the intersection of these concepts more than social media. It's allowed us to express our innermost feelings, meet people that share our interests, and find community with others from all over the world.
This week, we're doing something a little different. Anil sits down with some of the pioneers of the social web — Bruce Ableson (founder of Open Diary), Lisa Phillips (former senior system administrator at LiveJournal), and Andrew Smales (founder of Diaryland) — for an oral history about social media 20 years ago. What was the Web like in 1999? How did these websites begin, and what did the media think about them? How have the features of these networks influenced the Web that we know today, and can we get that old feeling back of the early social web?
- Brad Pitt parody site on Diaryland (archive.org)
- Who is the Real JT LeRoy? (New York Magazine)
- George R.R. Martin's LiveJournal page
Big thanks to Microsoft Azure for supporting the first season of Function.
Anil Dash: Hello and welcome to Function. I'm your host Anil Dash, and in this episode of Function we are going to change things up a little bit and have a round table. This time around, we're gonna get into observing the 20th anniversary of the birth of the modern era of social media. We're talking to some of the folks who helped create social media from its earliest days.
Lisa Phillips: You know, we were so young. So some of these issues which now we look back and think, "Well, of course we had a hard time with that, of course we made mistakes. What are you gonna expect? You are 20 years old." But at the time just seemed so big and daunting.
Andrew Smales: That was really striking to me, just that people were doing these major things like publishing books and they had done a lot of writing on Diaryland as well. It's easy to look at Twitter and look at Facebook and look at the things that are happening and how awful people are to each other and say, "The world will be better off without the Internet." And I don't believe that, I think there is still space for there to be places where people can be good to each other.
AD: Think about sites like LiveJournal, Blogger and Diaryland. If you were around on the Internet back then you'll remember them, but for newer folks, most of us, they are the ones that defined the behaviors that all of us do every day. Sharing little bits of texts or little photos with your friends or maybe with strangers and having a way to connect with each other. That was something that had to be invented, created and we're gonna talk to some of the people who did exactly that.
I talked to Bruce Ableson.
Bruce Ableson: I'm currently working a digital strategy in community and social software. In 1998, I built and launched Open Diary, which was a original kind of blogging community.
AD: And we talked with Lisa Phillips.
LP: Today I'm working on data privacy for Fastly, an infrastructure and edge cloud company. In 1999, I started working as a Unix systems administrator for a newspaper, and a couple of years later joined livejournal.com as their first systems administrator and worked there for many years scaling that site.
AS: I'm a freelance software consultant. In 1999, I created Pitas.com and Diaryland.com which were early blogging platforms.
AD: Now I talked to these creators about the early days of blogging and social media and journals online, and about how what they did shaped the world of social media and then of course how that invention of social media shaped the world we live in today.
"You had to build it yourself." — Lisa Phillips
AD: If we go all the way back to 20 years or 21 years ago and we look at the landscape of the web, how were people sharing their ideas, their thoughts, their feelings with strangers or with their friends and family as compared to today?
BA: So if we go back to 1998, it was a little hard how they were able to share things and that was kind of what led me to do what I did. I was working as a contract programmer doing financial software and HR software, which was not exciting. And I ended up with some extra time during the work day, and I started kind of just browsing around the web. Google had just, I think, launched at the beginning of that year; gone public at the beginning of that year.
So, [I was] kind of playing with search engines and found some people who were writing what were really web journals and got sucked into a couple of them that were just really interesting. Because they were sharing their personal stories. But...
AD: And sort of a personal diary of their day, that kind of like what they had for lunch or?
BA: Yeah. Like, the first one that really sucked me in was a guy who had lived in Alabama. He was a young man and he had skipped town. Now this you know, you never knew what was true and what wasn't, but it seemed legit. He had skipped town on, I think, a drunk driving charge or something and was living on a ranch in [the] Western U.S. somewhere under an assumed name and just writing about like, "Here is my daily ranch life and what I'm gonna do."
And it was really a fascinating story, but to get back to the question of sharing, there was no real easy way to discover that content then. You could start using search engines and say, "You know, show me your journal or a daily diary," and you might get one of these things but wouldn't get a bunch of them and there was no kind of interaction between them.
They were all kind of islands of people who knew how to write HTML and put up a web page, which was kind of a challenge.
AD: So, you have this person that's sharing his personal diary of being on the run.
AD: And what was the process like? I'll sort of ask each of you this. What was the process like before these tools popped up, if I wanted to tell my story of like, you know, either my criminal escapades or what I had for lunch or whatever it was?
BA: Yeah, I mean, you had to be able to set up a web page. You had to know how to get server space and how to write HTML enough to put a page together and know a little bit about putting graphics in a page and that kind of stuff. And that was one of the reasons I started doing what I was doing 'cause I felt like there was something there for a larger audience of people, if we could only make it easy and easy to find and easy to do.
AD: Right. Andrew, what about you? What was your experience of what the tools were like to try and create a web page or to create a diary?
AS: I was writing some stuff in probably 1997 or 1998 from a text board job I had where I worked overnight and I would write very long pieces of writing every night 'cause there was nothing to do. And it struck me how annoying it was to just keep uploading stuff, doing these text files.
I guess a little later in 1998, I started working for DreamHost, a big hosting company or not as big at the time. They ran a guest book service DreamBook, and I guess that sort of gave me the little bit of inspiration of, "Oh, I could actually do this kind of thing." I was talking to the founders of that company all the time 'cause there was only a couple of employees and I realized I could automate what I was doing if I just learned something programming.
At some point, I started doing what was more of...I guess you would call a link blog now, and I wrote a script to just make it much easier for me to add 10 or 20 links a day. I would literally...just putting in every single link that I...or every single web page that I went to any day, and it was just kind of to be stupid of whatever. And then I realized that would scale, I could easily just add a function so other people could do the same thing.
AD: So it seems like one of the catalysts was the guestbooks that were on DreamHost and other sites had them too. And they were something like maybe a very early version of a Facebook wall or something like that that people might know today, right?
AS: Yeah, that's exactly right. It was just essentially a message board or something or like you said a Facebook wall with no...but there was no real discussion going on. It wasn't threaded. We just sort of [said], "Hey, I visited your page."
AD: It's like if everybody's Facebook wall post were like, "Hey, I went to your Facebook profile. I was here." So that's interesting 'cause you you'd done this interaction with the company that was hosting web pages, but they were sort of proving raw materials but not the tools to go all the way into publishing something.
And Lisa, you were sort of having a similar background, where you were working with a web hosting company and these companies that were providing the ability for people to put pages online, providing infrastructure, but there was no way to just click and start typing, right?
LP: No. You had to build it yourself. I definitely had to do the same thing, but I actually wanted to mention for a moment some of the non-web tools that I used for connection and for community. Primarily, back then, IRC and then some of the other chat services later. But with IRC, which I think of today more like how we use Slack, I could go and find a channel that was a topic that I was really interested and I could make connections that way.
And then I could also go online and read static HTML sites and write my own posts, but what was missing was that sense of building a community through it. It was like I was just talking out there into the world, hoping someone would be able to find it, but not really getting that sort of satisfaction of a like or a fave or a comment or anything like that that I really loved out of using the early chat programs.
AD: So, there was an immediacy and a sort of a human sense there, and even this IRC which is...you said it was sort maybe a proto-Slack style chat. There were Usenet news groups, which are sort of discussion groups, and people today might have a similar experience in a Facebook group or the group chat or something like that. So, there were tools that had a sense of community, but the web wasn't one of them.
AD: And what led you to finding LiveJournal? So, in 1999, Brad Fitzpatrick had created LiveJournal and I know from talking to him, he had seen things like Pitas and Open Diary, but felt journaling was slightly different. You know, so, everybody sort of has their own lens on that. Lisa, how did you come to find LiveJournal?
LP: The funny thing is I had a Diaryland first; that was my first online diary.
AD: You're true loyalty!
LP: And I was working at an ISP and separately kind of keeping this online diary. And as LiveJournal was created, and it was started in Seattle which is where I was working at the time, there were just these pockets of communities there using it from college. And I was working at this ISP called Speakeasy back then and wanted to make more friends, wanted to meet more people and found out everybody was using LiveJournal there. And so, I got to learn more about my co-workers, and sort of start participating with LiveJournal by having one sort of...we were all at work sitting at our open office not talking to each other. And yet online, we were all constantly on LiveJournal all day.
AD: And that sort of pre-dates the Slack model as weLl, right?
LP: Totally. But that's how we all...people who are not on LiveJournal would ask me kind of like, "How do you know what's going on; how do you know the gossip?" "Oh, you gotta read LiveJournal; everybody's on there." In our private communities though...that was another big deal is that you could choose on LiveJournal to have it be only your small community of friends. It wasn't all public, which I think a lot of the things before then were pretty public.
AD: Let's talk a little bit about timeline. When did Open Diary launch to the public?
BA: October 20th, 1998. Roughly, was when it went online. About 7:00 PM EST.
AD: Right. Andrew — DiaryLand and Pitas...well Pitas was first; [Diaryland] was not too much later in '99, right?
AS: Yeah. Pitas was first. I think DiaryLand was probably five months later or something like that.
AD: Yeah. To my recollection I think Pitas was in the spring time of 1999. And then...
BA: Diaryland was like August, September, October, or something around there.
AD: Right, yeah. I think it was August or so. And then blogger.com launched in September of 1999. So what we have is the span of a year — these three, four, five sites come online. And there were maybe one or two others, but these were certainly the dominant ones across I guess...I don't know what would later, maybe becomes the blogosphere, or whatever it was. But part of it was blogs and diaries and journals, were all seen as very different things.
Bruce, what was your perception of a blog, initially called it a weblog?
BA: Yeah. Exactly. So in 1998 when we first launched, a web blog was kind of very similar to what Andrew was describing, like it would be somebody who was maybe posting links or posting information about like what were doing at their job or things like that.
The idea of actual journalist blogs was still a long ways off then. So you can't really compare them to blogs today to whereas when [I] thought about a diary or a journal, that was a regular person talking about their regular life and what are their everyday experiences. And then when you added in the interaction with what Lisa was pointing out, we saw the same thing. As people started to interact with each other, it become this whole huger [and] more amazing thing than just people posting their personal journals.
One of the key differences we saw between LiveJournal and Open Diary was what Lisa described with LiveJournal where groups of people who knew each other would use it. Sort of like how Facebook is now was much more prevalent on air than Open Diary. Open Diary tended to be more people who are posting their personal things that they didn't wanna put somewhere else. And didn't necessarily invite their friends and family to come in [crosstalk 00:12:54].
AD: Back then your friends and family weren't necessarily online?
BA: They didn't have modems.
AD: Right. And Lisa I'm curious for you whether that sort of mirrors your experience.
BA: Yeah. I was actually just thinking as I was remembering my Diaryland account. I maintained that account even as I started using LiveJournal and became part of that whole community. Because my Diaryland was actually sort of more like a diary like literally talking about my inner feelings and desires and sort of how I interacted with the world in a certain way not how I projected or what I talked about on LiveJournal.
BA: Because I still was talking to my community and my friends. And so Diaryland, I actually kept as a sort of private diary. Now if somebody happened to read it, I was totally anonymous on there, that would be fine. But I maintained that for quite a while. I had both, because I did see the distinction there.
AD: Andrew, Pitas was almost pointedly not about web blogs. Pitas' about diaries, right?
AS: I would say the main thing with Pitas that differentiated it from Diaryland was just that Pitas was multiple posts on one page, that I would say was more like the web blog format. Whereas Diaryland was just ... to begin with anyway, was just one post per page. Which I mean at the time there were a lot of people doing online diaries, and I was sort of aware of those people doing with HMO and everything.
AS: But Pitas was something I just sort of threw up in the mean time while I was kind of working on Diaryland just to do that web blog format. So yeah, I would say it was more actually of the web blog format.
AD: Oh, that's interesting because it feels like...well maybe this is more of a Diaryland thing. There was almost a tension between these communities. Like diaries are one thing and blogs were another. And you sort of picked one camp that you're in or different sides of your persona were expressed through different tools, right?
AS: Oh, yeah absolutely. There was quite a division back them. I mean that was the whole reason I started two different sites. And then I guess when Blogger started getting big, to me always it seemed like they kind of made the conscious decision of, "Let's call it a blog and kind of get everybody onto our thing and kind of meld it." I mean I don't know if they actually were the ones that caused everything to kind of meld or whether it was going that way anyway. But I felt like people who used Blogger and Blogspot were more...there wasn't that division.
LP: For me, when I think about that and how I used those platforms and then I saw Blogger and what I saw as a distinction with weblogs was that because of the sort of private nature of diaries or journals, you know, a lot of people didn't use their real identities. They didn't use their real names and their usernames. I mean in general, in the Internet back then, you weren't necessarily coming forth with your real name. You weren't presenting as the person that you were in real life. You were presenting as the persona that you had in your diary, or in your journal.
LP: You know that was as well. But in my mind, that's when I think of starting to see blogs associated more with real writers, real journalists, real people who are representing themselves online as the way that they've moved through the real world. And to me that was a big change from the sort of diary and journals to blogs and to what we see today.
AD: So the standard might have been you're either anonymous or you used your online hacker handle or your AOL screen name or whatever it was. You were Neo from The Matrix. Like you has a very different persona. Was that the convention on Open Diary?
BA: We actually required users to be anonymous in the beginning. Our rules were very specific that you could not post your personal information. And we considered that important for safety because of what people were writing about. So that lasted for a few years; obviously it's not like that anymore. You can post under your real name if you want to, but Lisa makes a really good distinction like the distinction to me between blogs then and today are blogs are usually people who are writing for an audience or to get their opinion out about something.
BA: It's what happens on Medium. It's what happens on a lot of different tools now versus somebody who is writing for themselves, maybe to get interaction with a community that they don't necessarily wanna share their absolute identity with.
AD: So if you were writing that thinkpiece that we have today, and you're going to put your name on it and I wanna be the thoughtleader on this idea and you were to do that on one of these platforms back around the turn of the century, what would the reaction be? What would the response be?
BA: That's a good question. It wasn't a distribution mechanism for thinkpieces, that was the thing.
AD: You couldn't make a name for yourself.
BA: No, you couldn't make a name for yourself, because you weren't using your real name. And I posted things and I still do; I will write things that I think of as thinkpieces, but I'm doing it more to say, "Here is what I actually believe in, and here is my manifesto that I'm putting out." And if somebody figures out that it's my writing, that's fine, but I'm not doing it to promote myself. If I wanted to promote myself, I'd go on Medium or on Twitter, on somewhere else.
AD: Other channels.
BA: Hooked to my real name.
AD: Andrew, when you had people that had diaries [that] had started to get popular on Pitas, what did that look like? How did people respond to it, or how did you know something was catching on?
AS: You would just see the interaction between people on the site. And you know...you go to one diary, they'd be talking to other people. Mentioning them. There are a few cases early on that were really big. One of the biggest or most popular users on the site, he started a second account called "bradpitt" and it was sort of just satirical.
He was pretending to be Brad Pitt in a very over-the-top way; it was very odd. And then it became the top Google result for...if you search for Brad Pitt. And then that seemed like a big thing that was getting a lot of people. And then Brad Pitt's lawyer and Jennifer Aniston at the time's lawyers made them shut it down. But it was just stuff like that — there'd be the odd thing where suddenly some page was getting 5,000 people a day or something as all the coverage of blogs grew, in maybe I guess 2000, 2001, something like that. There was a very obvious traffic boost, I had to get more powerful servers, stuff like that.
AD: And these days, somebody like that would probably just make like a fake Brad Pitt Twitter account.
AS: Absolutely, yeah, absolutely. I think at that time that was something people weren't used to, that kind of parity and now it's, you know, commonplace.
AD: Right...because Wikipedia hadn't even really become a thing yet. I mean I think it existed, but it hadn't taken off. So the idea of you editing it yourself, or there could be information you're putting out there and you don't know if it's reliable or not was pretty new.
BA: Yeah, and there was a big period in 2000, 2001 and  where there was a lot of press coverage where people were like, "Blogging is this new thing. Hey, are these people crazy? Why are they writing about themselves online?" We've got really a lot of great press from that, and a lot of technology writers saying, "Here's something really interesting that's happening with technology that's being done with it that's giving people a voice." So that was cool. We got a lot of traffic off of that.
AD: Lisa, was some of that attention why you decided to start working on a platform like LiveJournal? When was the switch-over for you where you thought, "Okay, this is interesting enough that I want to be part of it?
LP: Well, I knew Brad Fitzpatrick, who started LiveJournal. When I met him, which I think was in '99 or 2000, he needed some server space because LiveJournal was growing bigger than his closet...or wherever he had [it] at the time in his dorm room. I said, "Hey, this is really cool. Yeah, go ahead you can come put it in our co-lo space," for this ISP is at. That's kind of how we started talking with each other. We all used it at this company so we thought, "We'll just host it for free. It'll be fine." That's kind of how I started getting involved with it.
He couldn't keep up with the growth, just like you guys are saying. All of a sudden, things started growing exponentially. More people were getting online and feeling comfortable sharing. LiveJournal actually had quite a few impersonation accounts, kind of what you're talking about, but there would be whole communities of it where you would just be online and a character interacting with each other and the fandom community as well.
AD: When did you know it was going to be huge? What was the thing where it just blew you and you're like, "Oh my gosh. This is going to be everywhere."
LP: He told me. I said, "How much bandwidth do you need?" And he gave me the numbers in terms of the total amount of traffic transferred in a month, and didn't really know much about throughput at the time on the idea of bandwidth, where if you exceed a certain amount in your pipe at any given second you're going to be over capacity. The second he moved in and we gave him what he thought he needed, he was over it. I think that sounds silly, but even he wasn't able to sort of comprehend how large it was at the time in terms of sort of the machine power and the bandwidth needs. I feel like that was a story for a little while, which was...we had a really hard time keeping up with the growth.
Watching that with Brad, eventually I said, "You know, I do this for this other company. It's not that interesting anymore. Can I come and do this for you? Can I come and scale LiveJournal because I think it is big?" I think for me, when I knew that it mattered, was when I started talking with people that weren't in my day to day life telling me how important the service was, how it was their lifeline, how it was something that kept them going if they were dealing with depression or they were dealing with having a hard time developing a community wherever they were. When I started to get a sense that this matters more than as a play thing, as like a pastime, this matters in your day to day to life.
It's connecting you on a deeper level. Therefore, my job, which was to make sure this thing was available all the time online, started to matter on a deeper level for me. I think that's sort of my realization of it being really powerful and important to people.
AD: Bruce, what were the stories that people told you?
BA: Yeah, well I think probably all of us had similar experiences to that, where you found out that people were using the site as a community because they couldn't find support elsewhere. We would get emails. Every day we would have emails from people who were saying, "Thank you so much because I've been looking for a place where people would listen to me." We would get emails from people who had been considering suicide, or considering other terrible things and saying, "Yeah, I found people to interact with here, and that I could talk to and they understood me. We built a community there."
That really...out of all of it, that was the one thing that looking back you can say feel like we made a difference. We did something that people hadn't seen before, and we built a place where people could interact and get support. We had a lot of people who were dealing with any number of challenges in their lives. It's 20 years ago. It's hard to think about how long ago 20 years ago is, but people who were in communities that were minimized by society — so people who were LGBTQ then or people who were living below the poverty line — there were any number of kinds of communities that didn't have a voice then. They found places like this, and found that they could have a voice and that people would interact with them.
I think one of the main powers of sites like this was that you would come on and you would interact and read these people's stories without knowing anything about them. I don't know what your race is, or your religion is, or what your beliefs are. I start reading your journal or your diary and realize that you're a person. You're a person just like me. That's one of the things I think is missing in today's social. That's why I think there's space still for things like Open Diary, because people don't have that experience elsewhere.
AD: Andrew, what was the first time somebody thanked you for making Diaryland, or making Pitas?
AS: Oh gosh, I don't know. I've got a terrible memory for stuff like that.
AD: What about blame? What was the first time somebody blamed you and said, "Your site ruined my day."
AS: People would not email me, but every once in a while somebody would ask me to...say, they lost their password to their site or something and they changed their email. I go to their site to check it was them or whatever, and then their last entry would be from six months earlier and they'd be like, "Andrew sucks. I hope he dies. This guy's terrible." And so I have to reply to them. I just reply to them like, "Okay, I've sent you a password reset email. Go ahead. Go ahead."
AD: Not the really horrible stuff, but I'm curious for you Bruce, sort of the same thing. What were the things where somebody was like, "You did this to me by giving me this great site for free."
BA: Yeah. There were a lot of challenges. We were facing a lot of things that hadn't really been litigated in the online world before. There were free speech questions, and we dealt with "is it okay for somebody to post a picture of them breastfeeding their baby? What's the line? Where do you draw that?" I was just navigating that without any...there was no previous experience anywhere that anybody had had with that. The free speech one was huge. We have very specific rules that you can't attack other members. You can't call them names. You can't say they're stupid because of their political or religious beliefs. Whatever. There was a lot, especially back then, of "Oh, you're infringing on my free speech." And people posting about the First Amendment, and shouting, and shouting, and shouting and then saying, "No, you are in my space..." not MySpace...
AD: Our space.
BA: "You're in my space now so you have to follow my rules." There was a lot of that, like people are, "Oh, you gave me this free tool and you connected me to all those people and now you've taken my free speech away."
LP: There's always this moment where I have to remember we were so young. So some of these issues, which now we look back and think, "Well of course we had a hard time with that. Of course we made mistakes." What are you going to expect? You're 20 years old. But at that time, it just seemed so big and daunting. We experimented with ads. People were pretty vocal about that experience.
AD: Vocally supportive, right? They were like, "Yay, great. Ads."
LP: Yeah, we definitely...
BA: Love those popups.
LP: Again, I have a different perspective just because I was so involved with the performance and availability side of this service. When I think...going back to the question of knowing how big it was and the "a-ha" moment, the faster we can make the site, the larger the community grew. Not just in terms of traffic, but the number of users. We figured out pretty early on if we can keep this thing clicky fast, that's what we would say, "you click, you get the thing." Which back then was not necessarily guaranteed at all for sites online. It wasn't easy. We were like, "Wow, this is insane." It was visceral. Like I made this piece of the site faster and it grew to fill that space immediately. And then the community grew.
So, figuring out that there was this connection, that people wanted this so much, that as much as we can make available they would take and they would grow. Anything that we did, decisions, the ads were one of them, if we ever had regressions after deploys, if we made decisions around our network or machine changes that caused the site to get slower for any reason, caused this great horde of complainers because they're like, "You showed me that this site was awesome and fast, and you just took that away from me." That's one that I will never forget, which is as fast as I could work, people were still probably complaining that it wasn't fast enough.
AD: So we've talked a little bit about sort of all these challenges of growing and scaling and success problems really. Andrew, I'll start with you, I'm curious about people may not understand what was considered "big" back then. As the site started to grow, how many people were you talking about? How many diaries or different sites were you hosting that that was considered a big scale back then?
AS: I mean probably at the peak I remember getting about — and this was all due to sort of media attention — like you'd get a few more. But probably at the peak, I was getting maybe 2,000, 2,500 new users a day. These days that's not really considered too much for a start up with a bunch of funding or whatever, but that was really exciting back then. I think I probably had a few hundred thousand active users really posting all the time.
AD: Well, and nobody had been growing at that level of signing up 2,000 people, and you were doing, I assume, zero advertising of any kind.
AS: Oh yeah, that's correct. Yes.
AD: What did scaling look like on Open Diary? How fast was it growing when it first started to boom?
BA: When it first started, it actually started booming really fast. We didn't have a marketing budget either. I put the site online and I think two or three days in, like the second or third day it was featured as a Netscape.com — because Netscape had a portal then — it was a "Cool Site of the Day."
BA: Oh yeah, I know.
AD: That was a very...that was a badge of honor. Yeah, yeah.
BA: But that one, suddenly there was a bunch of traffic from that, and then we got picked up as a "Yahoo! Cool Site of the Week" like six weeks later.
AD: That's like the Oscars!
BA: That was like exponential from Netscape.com Cool Site of the Day. We very quickly, by '99, we were registering between 10,000 - 20,000 people a day.
AD: Wow. In that era, that was unbelievable.
BA: Yeah, and...on high days when there was a lot of publicity.
AD: Right, but still.
BA: You know, by the time we got to 2004, we had registered about 2.5 million accounts. Now, that's not to say they were all unique users — I don't know — but they were all individual accounts. We had all the same problems, like scaling. We were learning as we went. There weren't things that were that size. I launched the site, funny story, originally on a shared Microsoft Access database because I was like, "I'm doing this as basically a proof of concept to see if it will work." I put it online...
AS: We're all physically cringing.
BA: Yes, I know.
BA: It's the worst story ever. I think I was about 36 hours in when I was like, "Okay, there is enough" and there were a few dozen people, and it was like, "Okay, we're moving to SQL Server, because obviously this is never going to last." So that just became a constant sort of how do you add more capacity? How do you build better technology or whatever. But a lot of it was, and I think we all had the same thing, it was like things that hadn't happened before. It was scaling before scale was a thing.
AD: We're going to take a quick break, and we'll come back with more of our conversation with Lisa, Bruce and Andrew.
"I wrote the code for what we call 'notes,' that in which were comments, and it was the first time comments had been put at the bottom of a page of content. And I'm sorry about that." — Bruce Ableson
AD: Welcome back to Function. I'm Anil Dash. We are in the midst of an amazing roundtable with some of the folks that created the earliest forms of social media back in 1999. We're going to jump right back into it now.
So there's this Wild West where you're all building these large sites, and thousands of people are signing up every day, which is extraordinary. There was no marketing infrastructure back then. There was no Google Ad Words, so you can't just slap ads on it. You didn't have enough people to be selling as on your own. Also, everything was much more expensive. You couldn't just go to Amazon and say, "Give me some web services. I'd like to run a big site." What do you do when that bill comes due for this server that you're suddenly paying for, or this database that you're suddenly paying for?
BA: It's scary. I mean it is scary. It was way more expensive then. We were lucky. We ended up co-locating in Atlanta, and there was a bunch of bandwidth available and server space available in Atlanta that had been built for the Olympics and was left over because Atlanta had assumed that they were going to have this tech mecca and all these companies were going to come and they were going to be the hub of the Internet after the Olympics. Suddenly, there was all this empty capacity. For a couple of years, we got pretty good discounts on that, but that didn't last. Then it's like the AWS bills today.
AD: AWS is Amazon Web Services.
BA: Yeah, sorry. Amazon Web Services' bills today are fractions of what we were paying then for way less capacity. It's a lot easier, I think, to do this kind of thing now for a lot of reasons, but that's a big one.
AD: Lisa, what about you? Was there a moment where you all were looking...on the Live Journal team, looking around and saying, "Oh my gosh, how are we going to pay for all of this?"
LP: That was every day. I mean, I was the Cloud personally. I worked 24 hours a day, and I was at the data center constantly. We tried to utilize different things like CDN. Akamai was started back then, and load balancers and stuff like that. The cost of equipment, the cost of hardware, and it always came with these big support contracts that you didn't really want to use, and you didn't really want to talk to the sales people. It was a totally different time with this assumption that you had money. We only had the money that our users would pay us. For us, that's where some of the open source technologies like memcached came out of. Literally, memcached was "we cannot afford to scale database performance with the money that we have in front of us. We have to figure out another way to do it."
AD: Tell me a little bit about that, which is that you needed a database to be able to handle all the users that you had.
AD: The solutions that were out there were what, like millions of dollars?
LP: They were so...yeah, millions of dollars, and it was only with the big vendors.
AD: And then so you say, "We're going to cobble together our own system to run a really big database," that's basically it?
LP: Yeah. Yeah, basically, or something that doesn't require us to scale, like keep throwing money at storage because it's way too expensive. The hardware is too expensive, and then just the whole infrastructure around it was too expensive. We definitely went through some trials of weird stuff, using...I don't remember what they are called now, but there was there like the Apple external storage devices back then. We were like, "What if we chained a bunch of those together in the data center? They're not even rack-mounted or anything."
AD: They were probably very stylish. You know Apple makes hard drives that look beautiful and you can't use.
BA: Just FireWire them together. They'll be fine.
LP: Totally. Yeah, we just knew...and again, going back to that, we knew that the community grew if we were fast. Any time we were slow, people would go away. Or people would be very mad, to be honest. Yeah, that's kind of where memcached grew as we thought, "We've got to be able to figure out a way to utilize what do pay for," and we knew that we paid for memory that goes in machines and it was sitting there mostly unused. We thought, "Well, we've got all this memory all over the data center that we're not really using. We've got to get everything we can out of everything we're paying for right now," because anything that's sitting there unused — CPU, memory, storage — is a waste for us that we can't afford.
AD: Right. So memcached, at least we're talking about, is this open source technology you and Brad and others created together, that was letting you grow a big social network and grow its big database of users and be able to do it on really cheap hardware and pretty much free software, and that's still something that underpins a lot of the social networks today, right?
LP: That's my understanding, yes.
AD: You don't want to take any blame for it.
AD: Good for you! Andrew, I'm curious for you. You're at that point where it's starting to grow and starting to boom. You don't have millions of dollars in your pockets. What were you duct taping together to make this thing still keep working?
AS: One of the lucky things for me was that because I worked at DreamHost and they were running their DreamBook guestbooks, I knew from that and being in really close contact with the people making that and running it, that the database was sort of the pain point. When I wrote my sites, I went out of my way while coding them so that there was as little database as possible. 90% of the traffic maybe was hitting static pages when people were actually loading the web logs and diaries and stuff. That didn't eliminate all the problems, but it made it so I could run it pretty reasonably with the money that was coming in from paid memberships. It was never a huge problem. I mean, it was a little silly that I was leasing all these co-located servers. I'm just a guy who lives in a basement apartment, and all this money is coming in and out, and doing all this stuff. But, it was never a real hassle for me.
LP: The other thing I'd say on the topic of not having a lot of money is we didn't get funding from outside. We weren't sort of building consumer services assuming the money would come later, which I think is a really different experience than some of the sites later on which is we knew everything we built somebody had to sort of agree to donate us. That's how we started; [it] was just donations. And then later on be willing to pay for the account, because we weren't really getting supplemental income from anywhere else. So every feature we built, everything we invested in, had to have some value to a person that was a dollar that they would give us. I think that was a very different experience than what you saw later with other sites.
AD: Yeah, you couldn't just put Google Ads on it, and there wasn't some sort of easy Apple Pay or something like that. Also at that time, people weren't doing startups that way with these things either, right? Because nobody would invest in a bunch of people publishing their diaries online, right?
BA: Yeah. It was a different world. That was crazy, and there were ad networks, but they were not easy, and they didn't work well, and they mailed you a check once a month. And so it was a whole different thing. We ran on ad revenue for a couple of years before we added a subscription model, and it was crazy because CPMs went up and up and up, up until 2000...
AD: CPM is the measure of how many dollars per each...
BA: Yeah, the measure of how much you get per every 1000 ads viewed, and those numbers went up and up and up for about a year and a half. And then 2000 and 2001 came, and it suddenly went to about three or four percent of what it was before the bubble burst.
AD: So you lost like 97% of your revenue.
BA: Well, it was funny because we had literally about a month and a half where we had signed a contract with the company that used to be About.com, and they were paying a fixed rate for advertising across sites that would sign up for their network. And it was this number that was exponentially larger than what we had been earning. But this was the way that it was then. People were signing for crazy amounts, and literally, the next month, their lawyers called, and they were like, "We're voiding this contract because the Internet economy's collapsing, and there's no way."
AD: This is so interesting because there's this sort of like...it's such a different environment economically. You have these networks that are, at that point, the largest thing anybody had seen, but by today's standards are almost a small site. It's sort of a different scale to it. But one of the things that's interesting is the evolution of the concepts we think of as a social network, to be able to follow somebody, or friend somebody, or even find somebody. Andrew, maybe I'll start with you. What kind of social features did you include in your sites, and which ones did you deliberately not build?
AS: I included buddy list features where you can keep track of what people were...essentially it's following people and it would tell you when they updated. I had features where you could sort of mark off, "Oh, these were my favorite diary posts that people added," and what not. I did steer somewhat clear of sort of location and stuff like that, which a lot of people were asking for. I did wind up adding a location search, but there's sort of a lot of warnings before you would be listed in it, so that nobody would sort of accidentally get listed or not understand what was involved. And it also wasn't the most granular. You couldn't actually search that small an area to find somebody. Because there's a lot more worries about sort of stalkers and some stuff like that in those days.
AD: Yeah, that was the concern then. What about privacy? Could you make your diary private?
AS: We had a couple levels of privacy with one being you could just lock the entire diary. So if it had been public, you could just at any moment, just set it to be locked. And then for each post you added, there's a little checkbox if you wanted that one just to be private. And if you did, you could set up different passwords for your friends and let them view it or you could just have it for yourself, which was what a lot of people did.
BA: When we started, those things all evolved very quickly at the beginning of the site because when we started, you posted and everything was public. And it took me one day from the first post going live to where I read something and I said "I really want to talk to that person." I want to say something and the only thing that you could do then was post email addresses, which nobody wanted to do on their private diary. So the second night the site was live, I wrote the code for what we call "notes," that in which were comments, and it was the first time comments had been put at the bottom of a page of content.
And I'm sorry about that.
AD: Thanks. That worked out great.
BA: You're welcome! But at the time, it was like, that was what made the site social. Because now suddenly you could talk back and forth to each other and conversations would evolve in the comment thread or the "note thread" that we were calling it then. Privacy evolved quickly after that. We eventually got to where we have private, semiprivate, friends only or public content, members only content or public content. And those were all things that users wanted. We were very similar with location too, to what Andrew was saying. We would let you do location by state and country in the U.S. or region and country in Canada, or just country outside. But nothing closer than that, because it was scary and there were stalkers like Andrew said.
AD: Right, that was the concern back then.
BA: You don't want people showing up at your door, yeah.
AD: That's really interesting. Lisa, what were the controls, like social controls in friending and following, on LiveJournal?
LP: The controls on LiveJournal were, you could create for any post that you made on a per-post basis, you could choose public/available to anyone. But what I loved about it is you could also choose [a] specific group; you could also be entirely private, you're the only person who could read it. LiveJournal had the concept that's sort of similar to Facebook now, where you have groups of friends who you allow in. You're friends with them, you're part of the social community together, and on a per-post basis, you could decide who to share that with. An individual, a group of people, so really similar to what you see on Facebook today. Unless they change it next week. And I think that was huge for community building and sharing, because you could still grow a community that way. It wasn't totally walled-off.
AD: One of the most remarkable things is all of these platforms as early as they were not only good to have millions of users, there were these stories that became part of culture, became part of the world. I'm sure each of you had experiences like that. Andrew, if I start with you, I'm curious about what's a time when you found this connection between your work and realizing it was gonna connect to what was happening in society overall?
AS: I guess the most interesting one that sort of made me realize that Diaryland wasn't just sort of a closed bubble, but also reached out to the world was, there was a literary hoax, an author named JT LeRoy.
Terry Gross: JT LeRoy is a 21-year-old writer with two books of fiction based on his experiences as the son of the truck stop prostitute.
JT LeRoy: Hi, I'm JT — Jeremiah "Terminator" LeRoy.
Terry Gross: He doesn't like to show his face to the press.
Winona Ryder: JT, I just thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Terry Gross: Some people think that JT LeRoy might not really exist.
Laura Albert: My name's Laura Albert, and I am the writer, JT LeRoy.
BA: [They] published I think three books, and then it turned out it was somebody just pretending to be this character and they had done a lot of writing on Diaryland as well as the username "terminator". And that was really striking to me, just that something like that...people were doing these major things like publishing books and doing a cool hoax. But also they went to...they were also sort of adding an online element to it and it wasn't just your average sort of diary of a 20-year-old in Utah, or whatever a lot of the other things were.
AD: So it really connected into what was happening in popular culture and that's interesting because I think, Lisa, for a little while you and I worked together on LiveJournal for a couple of years, and that was the first place I ever heard of an author named George R.R. Martin. Right?
AD: And he's still on LiveJournal, right?
AD: But he's never updated...
LP: Last I checked.
AD: Right. But I mean, he hasn't finished any of the books, so he's probably not updating his LiveJournal that much either, right?
LP: He better not be.
AD: And yet, I'm curious for you about like as these moments, and you got to work both across LiveJournal and Twitter and many other sites. What was something that jumped out to you, of you realizing, "Okay, this is gonna connect into the world at large and it's not just our little bunch of goth kids writing journals?"
LP: How do you know we were goth?
AD: Everybody was goth.
LP: For me, again, it's another personal note. I had been working for a while for LiveJournal as the only sysadmin and there were only a couple of us really keeping it upgoing. And I was burned out just physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted, working long hours. And I got to go home for a visit and my sister-in-law was there, and I was telling her how tired I was and, "Why am even doing this? What is this even worth? Does it even matter to people? I mean it's just a website, it's just tech, it doesn't have meaning in the real world." Because at that point it wasn't totally, you know, a given that the Internet would become as ubiquitous as it is. It still seemed like frivolous.
And it was having a real impact on my body. I was telling my sister-in-law the site's used by more than a million people and that doesn't mean anything to me. You can't visualize; you can't really feel a million people and to how they interact with a site. And she said to me through tears, "Lisa, do you realize what this site is for me? I am a new mom, I moved into a new community." She herself was bi and liberal, and she moved into a conservative community. And she didn't have any friends around her and she had postpartum depression. And she made a community, it was the community back then called Hip Mamas, which was a community of moms online who found each other no matter where they lived, and could talk with each other around things that were harder to do in their community where they lived.
And she said without them she didn't know where she would turn. She would just be depressed, and she had a more fulfilling life just because this site was available to her. And that actually kept me going for years after that and being open to those stories about individual people and what the Internet did for them is what kept me motivated. And then moving on to Twitter, a lot of similar stories like that. That was it for me, was sort of when I could feel on an individual level how a persons' life was made better or more full from this site. That was actually bigger to me than some of the new stories that happened later on.
AD: It sounds like that's still part of your motivation.
LP: Still today, definitely. A huge part of my motivation. Later on at Twitter, I've heard stories directly from women that were in the Mina region during Arab Spring, and what Twitter allowed them to do and how they could communicate with each other around things like whether, or not the street they were on was safe for them to go outside. And hearing those stories directly from these women was so powerful, it kept me going longer there. So as long as people are sharing those stories with me, it continues to motivate me to participate. And this thing that I still believed to be overall a positive influence on an individual level.
AD: Bruce, I'm curious for you, you were maybe one of the very first people to build a platform that gave millions of other people a voice. What was that early moment that comes to your mind?
BA: Yeah, I can define the moment easily, because we had a user; his name was blather. He was living in San Francisco and he was a gay man, an older gay man...I think middle-aged at the time. And again, this is 20 years ago, and he was somebody who felt disenfranchised by society and by the culture he lived in. The AIDS crisis had been huge in the late '80s and he had lost a lot of his friends who were his real family. He was somebody who had been separated from his family because of who and what he was and was alone. And he found Open Diary and started posting very soon after we launched, like about a month or two months in, he started posting. And he started with very tentative things; just kind of saying what life was like for him and not introducing all of the problems that he had had, and the places where culture or society had treated him poorly. And he met a lot of people and a lot of people fell in love with him because of his style of writing and the honesty that they could feel coming through.
And it really was an amazing thing to watch people who in real life maybe would've ignored that person or discounted that person or minimalized them because of who and what they were. Which today, I'd like to think culturally we're in a much better place than that, but in 1998 there was a lot of stigma. And he was one of the people who sent an email in to us more than once, and said, "I was having a really difficult time in my life. I had lost a lot of people, I didn't have a community and I found that here. And this site saved my life." And I had more than one email conversation with him where I said, "You know, I really appreciate that." Like what Lisa said, those are the things that still motivate me.
I think it's easy to forget the personal impact that the online world has on people today, good and bad, and that it can be good. It's easy to look at Twitter and look at Facebook and look at the things that are happening and how awful people are to each other and say, "The world will be better off without the Internet." And I don't believe that. I think there's still space for there to be places where people can be good to each other and understand each other and not judge people by what they know of them in real life. I think that's the real power of what we do and that's what keeps me going. It's knowing that there are still people out there who are disaffected for whatever reason and what we do can give them a voice.
AD: I think that is a beautiful sentiment to wrap things up with. Bruce, Andrew, Lisa, thank you all for joining us on Function. I appreciate you each taking the time. Thank you.
BA: Thank you.
LP: Thank you.
AS: Thank you.
"I think one of the main powers of sites like this was that you would come on and you would interact and read these people's stories without knowing anything about them." — Bruce Ableson
AD: You know these days it feels like we all live in a world that social media created for us. And so it's easy to forget that somebody had to build these tools in the first place. All of us check Facebook and Instagram and Twitter every single day, but those apps that we use were shaped by the work that was done 20 years ago. People made decisions about how we were gonna comment or respond to each other, how we were gonna share our ideas, and it really affects the way that we see the world.
And so I'm glad to give a voice to the people that made those choices and invented those tools, one because we should give credit to creators, we should give credit to inventors. But also people can realize that there were some really thoughtful choices that maybe we should revisit and start to think about again if we're gonna start to fix some of the problems that have happened in the social media created world that we have now.
Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong, our associate producers Maurice Cherry, Nishat Kurwa, the Executive Producer of Audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network. Our engineers are Srinivas Ramamurthy and Jarrett Floyd. Our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. And big thanks to the entire team at Glitch. You can follow me on Twitter at @anildash and of course you can always check out Function at glitch.com/function.
So please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you listen, and we'll be back next week with a brand new episode.