12 July 2010

Blogging Live from the Future

Having clawed back a little free time, I'm getting back into the swing of writing, and while doing so I've been considering the choices of blogging platform available for Bad Influences.

I've chosen LiveJournal, despite the fact that the vast majority of successful blog fiction is based on Wordpress, Blogger or Typepad. While these tools are seen as quite respectable, and are designed primarily to be found on a search engine and read by the public, LJ seems to have a reputation as a frivolous place to blog, more of a social networking site, a platform for personal angst and collective drama rather than serious commentary. While I can see how this would put some writers off using it to showcase their work, it nevertheless gives the platform features that make it ideal for multiple character blog fiction.

For a start, comments on posts are set up for conversational threads (i.e. comments have a visual hierarchy to show which are direct answers to each other), while the other major blogging platforms have a more journalistic layout, with all comments being given equal weight and the writer replying to many at once. This is a more useful structure if there is one central author who is to answer all comments to the post, but thread-style arrangements are better for opening up multiple dialogues on the same post, and so lend themselves better to interactions between a group of characters.

However, it's the friends list aggregator that really makes LJ different to the journalistic blogs: it creates a sense of community, a true social network in which feed subscriptions are reciprocal and people don't just "follow" but "friend" each other's blogs. The bloggers in my story aren’t journalists or academics, posting for the respect and elucidation of strangers; they are friends, blogging to keep in touch. I especially want to make use of the customisable page that automatically aggregates the "friends list" feeds to set up a blog from which to read the whole story. This blog would be friended to all the others and I could link to its friends list for a full reverse-chronological story-so-far. There are probably other feed aggregator sites I could do this from with the other blogging tools, but personal icons and customisable colours make LJ friends feeds both more readable and a little more credible as an implied reader1. The reader who subscribes to each RSS feed and reads them on an aggregator somewhere else will read the same story, but the reader who uses the friends page will be subtly implied into the characters' community, despite their inability to comment on the blogs directly. I'm interested to see how many readers actually friend the characters on their own LiveJournals and read their blogs in amongst those of their present day, real life friends (which works, even when you change the year to 2026 - I tried it).

One feature of LJ that I'm concerned about using is the facility to make posts public, private, viewable by “friends only” or even restricted to a custom list or an individual friend. This could be very useful – allowing some characters to see posts that others can’t has obvious applications for plot - but this does bring up logistical problems. Readers may start to question why, if the post is supposed to be restricted, they are themselves able to view it. It will be interesting to see whether small inconsistencies like this will cause readers to question the format, or whether they will be taken in the same light as more obvious ones that are built into the premise: what's the inexplicable ability to read private posts next to the fact that you're reading a blog that won't be written for another 15 years? But this may well be the point - asking the reader to make explicit exceptions for the form may well show up devices that would otherwise remain implicit. It's tinkering with the fourth wall, and I'll have to think carefully about whether or not I can get away with it.

There are credibility issues to get around in content as well as format. Convincing explanations for narrative conveniences are often an important part of writing science fiction (which has to explain how the world came to be as the story portrays it) and epistolary fiction (which has to explain how the narrator came to produce the account of it that the reader is viewing). My explanation as to why the internet still works when the rest of society is collapsing will involve all phones and modems using satellite technology as standard, and so not even requiring a powered phone mast to boost the signal (this technology already exists, of course, though it is currently slower than mobile broadband). A greater problem, where feasibility is concerned, is explaining the continued existence and reliability of the internet's infrastructure, including the LJ servers. Mirror sites in Iceland on geothermal power can't account for everything, and unreliable connections and temporary outages will have to be built into the plot, but Cory Doctorow's 'When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth' has provided some enjoyable inspiration.

There is one very blatant inconsistency that I simply can't get around, though it applies to all blogging tools, not just LJ. While dates for each entry can be chosen and altered to display the year of the setting, comments posted to an entry have the date and time of posting, including the year, inalterably stamped on them. As above, I'm not sure whether to ignore the problem and trust the reader to suspend disbelief, or make it explicit and try to get around it with a little dialogue about a glitch in the system.

The only way around this particular glitch would be to not use a standard blogging platform at all but create my own website in which I design and control every element, made to look like a blog. I could possibly even use some of the LJ code for this, which is open source. The first thing that puts me off this idea is the amount of work that would be involved. The amount of time that I need for the actual writing - which is supposed to be the core of my study - may not leave me time for messing around with Dreamweaver and LJ source code. Even if I did have time and leisure, though, I wouldn't want to lose some of the advantages that come with the community aspect of being part of LJ itself. One of these is that each of the characters' journals would immediately go into searchable listings based on their interests, and I can include “Blog Fiction”, “Internet Fiction”, “Hypertext Fiction”, “Disaster Fiction” and “Science Fiction” in these and attract a large potential audience from LJ users.

So, a few decisions still to be made. Opinions welcome - what aspects of the LJ platform (or any others) would interest you as a reader? Which would put you off?

1 This feature, incidentally, not only adds an immediate distinguisher between the characters’ blogs, but provides a visual indicator of how the characters see themselves (or wish others to see them), adding a form-specific mode of exposition to the text.


  1. With WordPress themes, you can modify the comments template to not show dates with comments. I'm guessing other platforms are similar.

    I spent some time coming up with custom story navigation for my story here:


    And have been thinking about turning that into a WordPress plugin, but in any case -- if I was reading more web fiction, that's the kind of navigation I'd want to see.

  2. Looks like you can do that with Blogspot, too, so I went back to LJ to check through all the options. While you can change the format of the date in the comment stamps now (which is new since last time I checked), there is no option for a format without the year in it. This is very annoying - it looks like it is a problem specific to LJ, after all. But is it a big enough problem to make it worth considering another platform? I'll think on it...

    Enjoyed the tale of Fritsy, and the numbered chapters do make it easy to find your way around the story. I think I'd like my style of navigation to be more dictated by the blog format itself, though - I'd like to leave a few navigation options open to the reader in terms of whether to read the four blogs consecutively or concurrently, backwards or forwards, totally randomly or through tag-related posts.

  3. Thanks for reading, Emma! I'm turning away from writing fiction (for now, at least), but looking forward to seeing what you come up with.