Why tracking is good - Livre d'Or

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Why tracking is good
Friday, 08 September 2006 at 04:52 pm

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In case you haven't seen it, LiveJournal is gradually rolling out the ability to track or subscribe to or get notifications for (the terminology is inconsistent, unfortunately) various events and conversations around the site. It's paid only at the moment but it's absolutely going to be site wide soon.

I think the tracking system will make it a lot more likely for discussions to stay alive past the couple of days posts stay on friends pages. It will make it much easier for people to participate in discussions that they happen to find by surfing or links, even if the discussions are happening outside their immediate circle. The new system plugs the gaping hole in the notification system where if I comment on user_example's journal, I only get emails of replies directly to my comment, but if exampleuser replies to the person who replies to me, I don't get an email. Similarly, it makes it possible to get notifications of replies to posts in communities that I didn't post myself, and so on. Being able to manage my notification messages onsite, rather than through my email, is also a bonus in my view.

I honestly think it could transform the way LJ works. Before subscription, LJ was frankly pretty hopeless as a discussion medium. Lots of people, especially in the sort of circles I move in, are trying to use it as such anyway, and getting really frustrated because several aspects are so completely wrong for that. This change, I think, will remove a lot of the worst obstacles. Yes, it's still a kludge added to something that was intended for journalling (remember, LJ was created before blogging as we now know it became trendy). But this tool, combined with the serious efforts of lots of users to force LJ into something that can be used for extended discussions, will convert LJ from hopeless to just about usable for this purpose. Since I like discussions, and since I treat LJ very much as a blog myself, I'm delighted about this.

Some people are upset about this development, though. To me, it looks very much like the kind of feature that if you don't like it, you just don't have to use it. But I'm finding myself tempted to behave like the kind of obnoxious twat who spends hours posting identical comments to everyone who has complained in the comments to announcement posts (hey, something else that tracking might make easier!) telling them why they have misunderstood the situation. So rather than being obnoxious, I'm going to post here and explain why I think people who are upset are misguided.

For a start, this is something that has been "in the pipeline" for about as long as LJ has existed, so it's not one of the new bells and whistles that 6Apart decided to develop because they thought it would be k3wl or to keep up with rival sites (MySpace, Facebook etc). Lots of people hate change, and seem to be complaining as a knee-jerk reaction because this is novel. Actually, it's something that should have been there from the start; the problem is that it wasn't introduced in 2002, not that it has been introduced now.

Yes, the push-pin icon doesn't fit into everybody's journal style. Most of that is going to be fixed from LJ's end fairly shortly, and the rest is fixable with a bit of style hacking. Anyone whose style is not going to be fixed by LJ's patches, is someone who has customized their layout pretty heavily already, so by definition they know how to do what's needed or at least are capable of following instructions.

The main concern, though, is not neophobia or aesthetics, but privacy. It's not enough just to say "anything on the internet is public, duh"; while that's true, it is still worthwhile for a site like LJ to protect its users' privacy within reason. The point is that the tracking feature is not harming anyone's privacy whatsoever, whether or not you believe there is any point in being concerned about privacy online.

You can't track anything that you can't already see. Not posts that you don't have access to, not screened comments, nothing. I'm pretty impressed with how careful the developers have been to make sure this is rigorously true. Even people who have grasped this are upset because getting email notifications makes it easier to track something, which is sort of the point, really! There are some circumstances in which it's true that having aggregated, convenient data has more potential for abuse than the fact that each individual piece of information is available separately, though. I just don't think this is one of them. Note that it is not possible to track every comment by a particular user, or every post in a community where a user is active. You can automatically subscribe to events that relate to you directly, but for events that relate to someone else, you have to choose to subscribe to each one manually.

Many people are worried about "stalking". I think what we have here is a problem of definition. Unfortunately, there are actual stalkers out there. They obsessively follow every detail of their victims' lives and may even use this information to harm someone directly, as well as the inconvenience and unhappiness of the stalking itself. Stalkers in the strict sense are not going to need this feature; they probably already use tools such as RSS readers, notifications of page changes, and just plain old manual bookmarking and repeatedly refreshing pages they are interested in. Marginal increases in convenience are not going to make this criminal behaviour any worse.

However, I think a lot of people are using "stalking" in a colloquial sense, to mean people they don't care for, or strangers, simply taking an interest in them. Yes, the tracking system might marginally encourage such people. I just can't find any reason to see that level of attention as a problem. If an action is so harmless that obscurity can prevent it, it is too harmless to be worth worrying if there is a little bit less obscurity. It's a bit like the way people get really, really worked up about being "friended" by people they didn't know or even people they had quarrelled with. The word "friend" is part of the problem here, and I think the word "track" may also have bad emotional resonances, because it does have connotations of being obsessively followed or even hunted down.

In the end, after years of arguing, LJ caved in and made a cosmetic change to the friending system: if you ban someone from commenting in your journal, and they decide to friend-list you anyway, their username doesn't appear on your info page in the "Friend Of" list. Of course, the banned person can still read your public posts and indeed they still get the convenience of seeing your public posts on their friends page. So in fact, nothing has changed at all, but this tweak made a lot of people happier. It might be that LJ will eventually make a similar concession with the tracking system, by allowing people to remove the push-pin icon from their journals. At the moment they're refusing to do it, because it's security by obscurity and thus completely ineffective; if the icon is hidden, one can form the tracking URL manually, or view the journal using a layout which does show the icon. But it would be trivially easy to do (given a couple of hours to hunt through the relevant code, yay Open Source, I could do it myself), and might make people feel better.

I guess the conclusion is that there is a fair userbase who use LJ as a means of communicating with a few select friends. For them, any feature which increases the networking and community abilities of the site can be a threat. I don't think they're right to feel threatened, though. Anything which really needs to be private can be kept private by using LJ's very good friends locking system. Hoping to keep prying strangers from reading public information is futile. It doesn't matter that it's futile, though, because most of the time, such prying strangers will find absolutely nothing of interest.

So, conclusion: yay tracking. Boo whiners.

Whereaboooots: LiveJournal
Moooood: calmcalm
Tuuuuune: The Levellers: Hope Street
Discussion: 36 contributions | Contribute something

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shreena: default
Date:September 8th, 2006 04:06 pm (UTC)
24 minutes after journal entry, 05:06 pm (shreena's time)
To add to your list of Good Things about this - if you mod a community, it makes it a lot easier to keep track of things that you think might descend into chaos/flamedom.
(Reply to this comment) (Thread)
livredor: likeness
Date:September 10th, 2006 09:07 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 10:07 pm (livredor's time)
Good point, yes. I'm not very active in communities, myself, I tend to observe from the sidelines. I really admire you for taking on that mod job; it's a really tough community to manage even relative to its large size.

But yeah, I think the tracking thing will be very useful for community mods. Up to this point, there was something of a gap with communities, because ideally both the community mods and the particular poster would want to keep an eye on things and there hasn't really been a system for more than one person to "own" content.
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ewx: default
Date:September 8th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)
41 minutes after journal entry, 05:23 pm (ewx's time)
The threading display is still hopeless for large discussions - the tracking may indeed make it easier to follow as it happens but if you come across an existing one, you wanted to be able to read it easily in-place.
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livredor: hands
Date:September 10th, 2006 09:19 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 10:19 pm (livredor's time)
In some ways, I'm prepared to live with the thread collapsing thing, for the sake of having threading at all, so you can easily see the structure of the conversation. I find it incredibly frustrating to read blogs with lively discussion going on over a couple of hundred comments, which are strictly chronological with no threading. Yes, they all appear on one page, but it's really difficult to skip over the mini flamewars or the regulars just having an in-joke between themselves, and even more difficult to follow who's replying to what.

I don't know if you know, but if you like purely chronological comments, you can add ?fallback=s2&view=flat to comment page URLs to see that on LJ. But they are spread over several pages. I find that useful for seeing only the new comments on a very large discussion, but it's definitely sub-ideal.

The thing is, when LJ was a small hobby project, it made sense to throttle bandwidth by preventing more than 50 comments from displaying at once. That excuse looks rather threadbare now that LJ is a real, commercial site with a 10-million strong userbase. They do plenty of other things which must be ridiculously bandwidth-hungry.

I agree with you, the tracking mitigates this a bit, but it doesn't solve the underlying problem.
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(no subject) - ewx (9/10/06 10:03 pm)
(no subject) - pw201 (9/10/06 11:51 pm)
(no subject) - kyuuketsukirui (9/16/06 07:23 am)
(no subject) - angiepen (9/16/06 08:34 am)
syllopsium: default
Date:September 8th, 2006 04:25 pm (UTC)
44 minutes after journal entry
It's one of the things about LJ that's been sorely lacking for sure - something I miss from CIX

The 'stalking' problem is down to a basic misunderstanding of how LJ works. If it's public, everyone can see it and comment on it unless you say otherwise. People should get off their arses and use the different settings if they don't like the defaults.
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livredor: likeness
Date:September 10th, 2006 09:29 pm (UTC)
2 days after journal entry, 10:29 pm (livredor's time)
I don't think it's so much a misunderstanding of how LJ works, as a misunderstanding of how security works in general. People don't understand the fact that negative security is just fundamentally, logically impossible. Therefore, they yell at LJ for not providing the cosmetic appearance of something that no system can ever provide: the ability to have a conversation visible to everyone except their parents or the class dork with cooties. So it's not that people can't be bothered to set Friends Only, it's that the feature doesn't do what they want.
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ewx: default
Date:September 8th, 2006 04:39 pm (UTC)
58 minutes after journal entry, 05:39 pm (ewx's time)

In addition while I basically agree that most of the 'stalking' fuss is misguided, I think there is a real difference between a push system that automatically sends mail out to watchers, and a pull system that requires the watcher to poll for changes (which is what RSS is, despite the misleading use of terms like 'feed').

For instance, a push system gives you much less of a chance to correct mistakes than a pull system.

Someone did say that the notification system has a delay built in to address this. I've not personally spotted a statement of this in LJ's own descriptions but if that's true then I think it goes a long way to making it more like pull systems in its privacy properties, and the people who are worried about that should have less cause for complaint.

Technologicaly speaking I'm in favour of decentralized, push-based systems, more like usenet than the current web model. In such systems it becomes easy to choose the trade-off between speed of push and grace period to correct mistakes, with granularity down to the level of individual posts.

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pw201: default
Date:September 8th, 2006 11:31 pm (UTC)
7 hours after journal entry, September 9th, 2006 12:31 am (pw201's time)
I've not seen mention of a delay, but I think it's a good idea. Users have developed a method of private messaging by making and deleting a comment (in the knowledge that the journal owner gets emails with comments in). That's not something LJ designed in, but it is a way the site's apparently being used, so I think those people who are complaining that tracking breaks this have a legitimate complaint. A delay would also be good for making a digest of the events, so you could get them once a day, say, or once an hour.

I've very little sympathy for the people who think this is aiding stalking, for reasons which livredor has articulated more clearly than I did. Encyclopedia Dramatica's article on stalking (warning: ED is very NSFW in places, but not that particular page as I write) is a good send up of the "OMG! someone looked at my public postings, I am being stalked!" attitude.
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(no subject) - ewx (9/9/06 11:08 am)
(no subject) - pw201 (9/9/06 12:25 pm)
(no subject) - redbird (9/9/06 10:10 pm)
(no subject) - pw201 (9/10/06 05:25 pm)
(no subject) - redbird (9/10/06 05:48 pm)
(no subject) - ewx (9/10/06 10:07 pm)
(no subject) - vvalkyri (9/14/06 08:14 pm)
(no subject) - livredor (9/14/06 08:25 pm)
(no subject) - dzurlady (9/16/06 07:13 am)
(no subject) - meredith44 (9/16/06 02:24 pm)
(no subject) - bexone (9/16/06 04:24 pm)
(no subject) - meredith44 (9/16/06 02:22 pm)
(here via metafandom) - bexone (9/16/06 04:20 pm)
(no subject) - kyuuketsukirui (9/16/06 07:33 am)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) (9/16/06 07:04 pm)
(no subject) - kyuuketsukirui (9/16/06 08:28 pm)
(no subject) - angiepen (9/18/06 11:41 pm)
angiepen: Library -- BunnyMcFoo
Date:September 16th, 2006 08:25 am (UTC)
7 days after journal entry, 01:25 am (angiepen's time)
I agree 100% I seriously don't understand all the flailing and whining about the new tracking system. To me, it plugs the one major hole I've been griping about for years -- the practical impossibility of more than two people carrying on an extended conversation on LJ. I'm an old GEnie person and I "grew up" on the net with a non-threaded bulletin board system. Everyone who followed a topic read or at least skimmed every post, everyone who wanted to participate could do so easily, and all the conversation in a single topic was in one line, so you didn't have twenty little sub-conversations branching off of an original post, with the same thing being said over and over because each tiny sub-group is having their own conversation. I've missed the truly group discussions very much and I'm looking forward to LJ users getting used to the tracking system so I can have them again.

I went to a couple of LJ BOFs at a science fiction convention I attend every year, but found I had nothing in common with the other people there, despite us all being SF fans. I have LJ friends all over -- to me this is a major feature of the system. The people attending the BOF, though, use LJ to communicate with the friends they already have in realspace, and, as you said, see the wider cyberworld as a threat. I asked, "Why would anyone cut themselves off from the possibility of meeting people and making friends from all over the world?" This one young woman gave me the evil eye and said, "Some of us have exes who'd just love to find us!" and a bunch of others all nodded agreement. Umm, OK. Pardon me while I back away slowly. :/ I mean, jeez, lady, ever heard of friendslocking? [blinkblink] No one's forcing you to put your current address or phone number in an open post on your journal.

It's just a completely different mindset and I don't think the two groups, the open and the paranoid, are ever going to find common ground. They just base all their assumptions on a world view that's completely different from mine. [shrug] So far, though, I find it hopeful that LJ has resisted backing down in the face of the rather shrill and agressively defensive demands of the paranoiacally secretive. [wry smile]

Angie, who didn't bother going to the LJ BOF this year
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tamerterra: default
Date:September 18th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC)
10 days after journal entry, 09:56 pm (tamerterra's time)
I've missed the truly group discussions very much and I'm looking forward to LJ users getting used to the tracking system so I can have them again.

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embroiderama: Dean & Sam - silly
Date:September 16th, 2006 12:10 pm (UTC)
7 days after journal entry, 08:10 am (embroiderama's time)
Here via metafandom. Another great use for tracking is whn you have to reply to something anonymously--for example, a ficathon in which you claim prompts on an anonymous basis. Without tracking, you just have to go back and check to see if anybody's replied. With tracking, you can still get replies mailed to you.
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helsmeta: default
Date:September 16th, 2006 02:23 pm (UTC)
7 days after journal entry, 07:23 am (helsmeta's time)
Yep, or when a conversation's hand-moderated (you send your posts to somebody central who posts 'em for you). I just used this feature this week in workshoppers and it was heaven on earth -- although I kept forgetting that I could only track with the one account I have that's permanent, and replying with the wrong username.
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(no subject) - kyuuketsukirui (9/16/06 08:30 pm)
cathexys: default
Date:September 16th, 2006 01:04 pm (UTC)
7 days after journal entry
What a wonderfully comprehensive and concise defense of tracking.

I think the underlying issue (beyond the private message thing for unpaid users, for example) is that LJ may in actuality be a public forum but due to its particular nature, it is often used and appears to be a limited private space. We've had this issue again and again with the newsletters when people complain about public posts getting linked, and while my initial kneejerk response is always, It's public, b!#$%, I also realize that it's not that simple on an emotional level.

I know I'll be changing my commenting behavior, b/c I often am more revelatory in a subthread of an older post, counting on the fact that only the journal owner will ever see the comment and thus in fact using it almost like a quick IM or mail. But that's my problem!!!

Otoh, I've already experienced that I'm more willing to jump into a debate if the comment appears in my inbox...even if I know it's someone else commenting in another's journal...maybe I've conditioned myself to think of these comments as "mine" if they end up in my LJ?

And it's wonderful in monitoring communities, both when new updates are made as well as keeping track of the comments in a post in the community.

...I do wonder if posting behavior is going to change with discussions carrying on longer...
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grapefruitzzz: r_bunnywho
Date:September 17th, 2006 01:25 am (UTC)
8 days after journal entry, 02:25 am (grapefruitzzz's time)
It's transformed anon memes, which can be great fun.

I'm not bothered at all about privacy, because I got a blog in order to broadcast My Amazing Thorts to the world. If I want to write a private diary, I can use a pen and keep it under my bed. LJ already offers plenty of discrection (gah, now I sound like an advert. YMMV, of course). The reason I like this format as opposed to the standard 'professional' blog is the interactivity of comments and the ease of finding them. It cracks me up when two people on my flist go off on a tangent together when replying to a post.

On the other hand, I hear that the pin has destroyed the practice of posting a home address to someone as a reply and then deleting it minutes larter.
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coalescent: default
Date:September 17th, 2006 11:11 am (UTC)
8 days after journal entry, 12:11 pm (coalescent's time)
I have in fact been using tracking to follow this thread. Therefore, tracking is awesome. QED.

When I first heard about it, I wondered if there would be a way to see who was tracking your posts. Then I thought about it for thirty seconds and realised what a stupendously drama-generating move that could be, so on balance I'm quite glad you can't do it.
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