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“Tell me your secrets”: Subcultural Identity on LiveJournal.com

The internet is rapidly changing the way we think about communication and the flow of information, which in turn is challenging the way we think of folklore and relationships.  One of the many ways this has been manifested is through the rise of “blogging” websites.  A “blog” (contracted from “web log”) is a journal of sorts that can be displayed publicly as a means of staying in touch with loved ones far away, or meeting new people.  Many websites offer free web space to individuals through which their blog can be posted.  One such website is LiveJournal.com, which also provides web space for users to create group blogs in which many people can post and comment called “communities.”  One of the most popular LiveJournal communities is Brutal_Honesty, which was developed for members to post confessions or statements of “honesty” that might be inappropriate elsewhere.

Now in its tenth year, LiveJournal hosts over 16 million journals.  Brutal_Honesty alone has roughly 4770 members that have made a total of 11, 204 posts (and counting), and another 3600 users “watch” the community (subscribe to public posts but do not have posting capability in the community).  Brutal_Honesty also has two main sister communities, Brutal_Drama, which is meant for off-topic posts or “meta-posts” (a post about another post, which is frowned upon in most communities.  In Brutal_Honesty, this means that each post should be a separate statement or confession), and Mods_bh, which is used by the moderators of Brutal_Honesty to communicate about deleted posts, or banned members.  There are also several other related communities such as lame_honesty, brutal_stories (meant for intense nonfiction stories that are not necessarily confessions), and yoder_honesty, which was created in response to user njyoder being banned from Brutal_Honesty.

The website EncyclopediaDramatica.com (a site modeled after Wikipedia that provides sarcastic, “snarky,” and often wildly incorrect information about generally non-academic topics) describes Brutal_Honesty as “a community on LiveJournal dedicated to the cause of allowing rape survivors, chronic masturbators, and attention whores an outlet for their deep, dark secrets and scathing confessions.”  This is more or less accurate, although while the content of many posts is similar, in general the posts are quite varied.  Some consist of only a few sentences, while others are several paragraphs, and most posts receive well over 80 comments.  A typical post begins with some background about the story, such as one’s living situation, drug history, age, or any other relevant factor.  If it’s a confession style post, the confession will usually follow the background.  For longer posts, however, it’s common to see the entire story told as a single narrative with the confession or “brutal part” reiterated in a sentence or two at the very end.

Brutal_Honesty is a site of contestation in multiple ways.  For example, the definition of “brutal” and what constitutes a good post are hot topics of debate.  It’s common to see numerous comments on the same post stating both “A+ post, this is awesome,” and “ultimate fail, this was boring.”  So many posts have been criticized for not being “brutal” enough that people will now occasionally comment with things like “omg not brutal!” on good posts as a joke.  In some ways, the group values experiences of trauma and negativity more than positive experiences, so part of the way the value of a post is determined is by how traumatic or immoral the person’s experience was.  A post about accidentally smashing a vase and lying about it would be attacked, but a post about accidentally smashing a vase containing your best friend’s childhood dog’s ashes in it and lying about it would be more acceptable.  That said, if a post is very creative or well written, it probably won’t be criticized regardless of how “brutal” the story is.  For example, user weezel365 has made a number of posts which are accompanied by his personal illustrations.  Those posts are popular and he is usually asked to do more like it, even if the story that accompanies the illustrations is decidedly tamer than is usually accepted.

Brutal_Honesty “etiquette” is enforced by the moderators, who are assisted by community members who usually alert them if a rule is broken.  Some rules are meant to enforce conduct between members, such as rule two, “Don’t be an asshole.  Troll on your own time.  We see far too often people who appeal to being ‘brutally honest’ as a way to duck responsibility.  Don’t.”  However, rule eleven states “This is a public forum, a safe haven for discussion of any/all things taboo—if you can’t handle it, leave.  Along these lines, sarcasm is a daily currency so if you can’t take a ‘joke’—leave.”  The ambiguity about the difference between “being an asshole” and “sarcasm” has led to a number of arguments between members and the moderators, and at one point, led to the banning of long time member and moderator, avatar.

There is no specific initiation associated with joining LiveJournal or Brutal_Honesty, although there are aspects of the Brutal_Honesty experience that are aligned with Van Gennep’s conception of rites of passage.  For example, Brutal_Honesty is absolutely liminal space.  Victor and Edith Turner classify liminality as “a ritual time and space that are betwixt and between those ordered by the categories of past and future mundane social existence” (Turner 202).  Since LiveJournal is a message board and not an instant messaging service, the discourse does seem oddly frozen in time.  Members can read five year old posts and five second old posts with equal ease, and posting a comment does not guarantee a response from anybody.  It is also a space in which members are encouraged to discuss topics that are usually not discussed openly.  Finally, the internet removes member’s ability to judge one another in ways that they typically would in their daily life, simply because users cannot see one another, so traditional societal hierarchies are not as prominent.

Within that liminal space, Van Gennep classified three characteristics of rites of passage that occur during the liminal period.  The Turners describe those characteristics as “the communication of sacra, […] the encouragement of ludic recombination, […] [and] the fostering of communitas” (Turner 202).  The first of these, “the communication of sacra,” is most closely represented in the exchange of secrets between members.  While most posts do not attempt to impart any great wisdom, the preoccupation with “truth” gives many posts an instructional element.  Additionally, Brutal_Honesty encourages members to act out the revealing of their own sacra in exploring themselves every time they post.

Ludic recombination is a key tenet of LiveJournal in general.  Icons are frequently spoofs on TV shows, political figures, or a particular user’s post.  For example, one popular icon for some time depicted an image of Samuel L. Jackson in Snakes on a Plane with the caption “Harry, I’m going to need your help.”  The following image was of Harry Potter and the caption “I’m just a boy, what can I do?”  Then Samuel L. Jackson appeared again, this time as his character in Pulp Fiction with the caption “Parseltongue, m*****f*****, do you speak it?”  This particular kind of ludic recombination can also be understood as expressing subcultural capital, but it also seems indicative of the idea of “fans” as nomadic (Jenkins 513).

Ludic recombination can be seen in Brutal_Honesty specifically in the way members are willing laugh and joke about topics that are offensive or grotesque to most people.  In fact, posts are generally better received the more shocking they are, and discussions of anything mundane are at best ignored.  There are also frequently posts by member’s whose secret life is wildly different than the way most people expect them to live.

Communitas is naturally developed in Brutal_Honesty, although unless a member actively posts and comments, they probably won’t be included in the sense of community.  Brutal_Honesty members end up knowing the most embarrassing, shocking, or shameful secrets from one another’s lives, which forces a group trust.  It is possible to make posts “friends only,” which means only community members can view the post, but this is the only real security measure protecting the content of Brutal_Honesty posts.  Sharing friends only posts with non-members can cause members to be banned from the community, but it’s nearly impossible for moderators to enforce this.  As a result, the security of the community relies on the loyalty of it’s members, and there have only been a handful of problems with leaked content.

It would be unfair to say that all members of Brutal_Honesty consider themselves active members of a subculture (especially since many users do not actively post and comment in the community), but there are strong connections between Paul Hodkinson’s Four Indicators of (Sub)Cultural Substance in his article Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture and Brutal­_Honesty culture.  He describes those four indicators as “identity, commitment, consistent distinctiveness and autonomy.”  While I think that Brutal_Honesty fits into that description, it’s important to note that he goes on to say “Rather than these four comprising a definitive blueprint, each of them should be regarded as a contributory feature which, taken cumulatively with the others, increases the appropriateness of the term subculture, in the relative degree to which each is applicable” (Hodkinson 29).

One of the clearest examples of Hodkinson’s four indicators in Brutal_Honesty is commitment.  Many members have made significant commitment to the community, whether by moderating, investing time in posts, or investing emotionally by sharing secrets.  To be considered for membership, a LiveJournal user has to be over eighteen (due to both the content of the community and an attempt to keep the writing quality up), and have an established personal journal, which is usually determined by a certain number of posts, or the amount of time since the journal was created.    This means that not only do members have to invest time in their personal journals before they can invest time in the community, but that the Brutal_Honesty moderators have to go through each request to join and determine whether or not the account meets the membership criteria.  Moderators are not paid, so this demonstrates the degree of commitment many members have to the community.

Based on most poster’s response time to comments on their posts, it also seems that many people invest several hours checking Brutal_Honesty after posting to read response and reply.  If a particularly inflammatory post is made, it’s common to see comments about “grabbing some popcorn” to sit back and watch as the “flame war” begins.  The community also regularly holds “picture posts,” in which member comment with pictures of themselves.  Picture posts usually receive over 2,000 comments, most in the first few hours.  Because of the volume of the picture posts, the community moderators, Joybeans and Demure, will give notification of the date and time of an upcoming picture post.  Many users comment about setting aside time from their daily life to watch the picture post.  Before a recent picture post, user hidefrommyself posted in Brutal_Drama, “I’m supposed to go on a date tomorrow.  With a REAL BOY.  But I’m skipping to stay home for the picture post.”  This also suggests that a degree of commitment to LiveJournal, or blogging in general, is required to be a member of the community.

LiveJournal users also experience autonomy from dominant culture.  Most obviously, like any internet based group, they are frequently stereotyped as “computer geeks.”  Because many members never meet one another in person, their relationships are often criticized by mainstream culture.  Brutal_Honesty, as “a safe haven for discussion of any/all things taboo,” attracts individuals who might have ways of living, opinions, or practices that are oppositional to or subordinated by dominant culture, such as alternative sexualities, physical and mental disabilities, and non-mainstream political beliefs.  Finally, part of the reason these blogging communities exist is to create an escape from a culture that puts words in one’s mouth from birth.  The Brutal_Honesty discourse, by definition, is distinct from dominant culture in that it specifically welcomes the very things dominant culture restricts.

Some would argue that LiveJournal does not have autonomy because it is owned by a corporation and does have general restrictions that keep it from being overtly oppositional.  Hodkinson would argue that the point is “that the grouping concerned, while inevitably connected to the society and politico-economic system of which it is a part, retains a relatively high level of autonomy” (Hodkinson 32).  By definition, no subculture is completely unrestrained by dominant culture, but a certain degree of autonomy can be attained in relation to the restriction of dominant culture.  LiveJournal was originally started by a single, non-corporate internet user, Brad Fitzpatrick, as a recreational project. As it grew in popularity, Fitzpatrick sold the website to a larger company to manage it, but the user has always reigned supreme on LiveJournal.  The restrictions placed on journal content are simply that the user is entirely responsible for the content of their posts, and that while LiveJournal does not pre-screen posts, they can tell you to “protect” (limit the users that can see the content) the post or remove it if it contains illegal content or plagiarized material.  This means that the restrictions on a community, such as Brutal_Honesty, are much more the responsibility of the moderators, who are more or less regular users, than the corporation that manages the website.

While members of Brutal_Honesty might not identify in their daily life as Brutal_Honesty members, they are referred to as “BHers” by other LiveJournal members, who are in turn seen as a distinct group by users of other internet forums.  In Hodkinson’s work with the goth subculture, he noted “a sense of like-mindedness with other Goths—regardless of their geographical location—was often regarded by participants as the single most important part of their identity” (Hodkinson 31).  This is also true for LiveJournal. The common features that make Brutal_Honesty members a subculture are less concrete than the features of subcultures that have been documented in cities, bars, concerts, boats, or wherever most subcultures gather.  The features of the Brutal_Honesty subculture are a certain style of writing, an understanding of the history of the community, a commitment to honesty (although some people feel that every post made in Brutal_Honesty is false), and a tinge of voyeurism.  Finally, Brutal_Honesty users are word people.  Rambling or poorly written posts will be criticized, even if the story is a knockout.  I think it’s safe to say that dedication to good narrative is also a feature of the Brutal_Honesty subculture.

The distinctive identity of LiveJournal is partially enforced by the number of acronyms and terms used by members.  Some, such as “lol” for “laugh out loud” are obviously used anywhere the internet is found, but there are also variations specific to LiveJournal, such as “I did it for the lulz”, a comment a troll might make to explain the reason for making an inflammatory post.  If a post is particularly long, the poster themselves, or other users, might declare it “tl;dr”, which stands for “too long; didn’t read.”  A poster with a lot of subcultural capital might type “teel dear” instead of “tl;dr” to further confuse things for outsiders.  Other terms common on LiveJournal include SFW or NSFW (“safe for work,” “not safe for work”), ONTD (“oh no they didn’t”, also the name of a popular LiveJournal community), and the ever popular “pics or GTFO” (which, in polite company, can be translated as “please show us photographic evidence of your claim or immediately leave this community”).

These acronyms are obviously practical in that they provide a more succinct method of communicating those ideas to other users.  However, in Michael Owen Jones’s study of the function of argot at the Jayhawk Café, he found that “The clarity, brevity, and distinctiveness of each call, then, facilitated ordering, while the exclusive language[…]provided the habitués with a sense of identity and group solidarity” (Jones 114). Similarly, when Livejournal users use acronyms or argot, they are also making a connection as individuals who understand those acronyms.  Additionally, part of what makes LiveJournal what it is is the style in which users post and comment.  Otherwise, users could have the same experience writing in a traditional diary.

LiveJournal is also a highly expressive culture.  In communities like Brutal_Honesty that value quality writing, many users post crafted stories and confessions that are engaging solely because of the style in which they are written.  There are a multitude of other communities in which people post artwork, pictures of make-up and nails, clothing, poetry, videos, and music.  Personal journals reflect the same diversity of expression.  LiveJournal posts are accompanied by the member’s user name and an “icon” or “avatar,” which is a small image that the member can specify.  Icons range from an actual picture of the user, to cartoon or live action moving images.  Many users have several icons, and in some communities, trading or making icons for another user can be a kind of currency.  The set-up and color scheme of journals can also be personalized.

In Stephen Duncombe’s comparison of bohemia and the “zine scene,” he refutes the idea that bohemia is dead because it lacks any geographical centers.  “If the latter condition of place no longer holds, the former characteristics—those of bohemian ideas, practice, and creativity—live on through nonspatial networks.  Webs of communication can offer the community support, and feelings of connection that are so important for dissent and creativity” (Duncombe 430).  LiveJournal could be characterized in a similar way.  While it is not the only website to do so, LiveJournal provides a space for creativity and expression that does not exist in the physical world, or at least not in a way that members from so many different places in the world could participate.

Works Cited

Duncombe, Stephen.  1997.  Let’s All Be Alienated Together: Zines and the Making of Underground Community.  In Notes From the Underground : Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, pp. 1-12.  London: Verso.

Hodkinson, Paul.  2002.  Reworking Subculture.  In Goth: Identity, Style, and Subculture,

pp. 19-33.  Oxford: Berg.

Jenkins, Henry.  1995.  Television Fans, Poachers, Nomads.

Jones, Michael Owen.  1987.  Creating and Using Argot at the Jayhawk Café: Communication, Ambience, and Identity.  In Exploring Folk Art: Twenty Years of Thought on Craft, Work, and Aesthetics, pp. 109-117.  Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research

Press

Turner, Victor and Edith.  1982.  Religious Celebrations.  In Celebration: Studies in Festivity and Ritual, ed. Victor Turner,  pp. 201-206.  Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

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