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remembering livejournal: a generation’s unlikely introduction to feminism

Before Tumblr, there was LiveJournal: the internet’s original haven for outsiders.

by Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
|
11 April 2016, 7:55am

Image by Ben Thomson

Feminism is no longer a dirty word for teenagers. From Beyoncé to Tavi Gevinson, young women have a wealth of fearless feminist celebrities to look up to. It's cool to be a feminist. It wasn't when I was growing up.

Attending a stuffy suburban private school in the early 2000s, I didn't know a single feminist. I called girls sluts, and regularly made homophobic, racist and ableist jokes. No one pulled me up on it; and even if they did, I'd have probably ignored them. That all changed when I discovered LiveJournal.

I was 14 when I signed up under the username alittlevicious—I was very punk. I'd kept a paper diary for years, documenting the minutiae of my life, but when I took that practice online I suddenly found an audience. It might sound obvious to kids raised on Tumblr, but for a teenager feeling increasingly alienated at school and at home, finding like-minded strangers who cared about my thoughts was revelatory. My IRL best friend to this day is a girl I met on LiveJournal in 2003.

These days, the site is more or less a digital graveyard, though the gossip LiveJournal Oh No They Didn't remains surprisingly popular (it will likely outlive all us mere mortals) and the platform curiously continues to dominate in Russia. In its heyday, LiveJournal received millions of registrations each year. On top of keeping my own diary, I discovered communities.

One of the most popular were 'rating communities', where hopefuls submitted photos and were accepted if they were deemed hot by enough members. In retrospect it was an awful concept, but when empires and tinyrockets were bursting with MySpace girls rocking snakebites, fashion mullets and jet-black eyeliner, it felt very important. I was a chubby, acne-ridden teen who shopped at Jay Jays—I wasn't cool enough to join in.

Through these worlds I found Marchland—also technically a rating community, but one which focused on personal growth, not looks. It was there, at 18, that I met Val:  the first girl my own age I'd ever come across who was a feminist. She talked about bands like Bikini Kill, didn't take any shit, and was happy to teach Marchland members about feminism, which they'd resisted for so long due to crude misunderstandings.

Almost a decade later, Val reflects, "LiveJournal gave me my first platform to connect with women as a woman." Today she compares Marchland to second-wave feminist revolutionary groups, in that they both gave women a space to discuss their experiences and then mobilise. LiveJournal gave her a place to grow beyond her rudimentary teenage feminism. Through its networks she connected with women from varied ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, exposing her to new perspectives and giving her food for feminist thought about how personal circumstances affect politics.

Speaking to Jennifer who originally started Marchland, she tells i-D it was created as a place for women to connect, she had no idea of the role it would play in shaping so many women's lives. As it grew, members learnt together. "We were able to have really intense intellectual debates without sacrificing respect for each other," she remembers. Despite the LiveJournal group folding long ago, Jennifer still hosts an annual camp for Marchland members to meet up. Today we stay in touch on Facebook, and have seen each other through breakups, gender transitions, career crises, marriages, births, deaths. We're a family that was born online.

LiveJournal also housed several less obvious spaces for adolescent feminist epiphanies. Whatiworetoday was a lookbook-style group where girls posted their outfits with details on each item. American Apparel and Forever 21 populated space, and it was in the subgroup off_wut that I discovered concepts such as slut-shaming, cultural appropriation, rape culture and intersectionality. It transformed how I saw my own world. A fellow Aussie member, Zoe, says that speaking to other biracial girls on off_wut was a trigger for her learning to embrace her own racial identity.

Georgia was a few years younger than most of the group members, and one of the only who lived in New Zealand. Now 24, she admits growing up in an "upper-middle class, very white environment", she never questioned anything until off_wut turned her world upside down. "I still remember the cataclysmic moment where one member called out another for her use of the word 'slut', and explained why this was demeaning to women—it blew my mind and set off a huge chain reaction in my head," she recalls. "I wouldn't be the feminist I am today without those conversations."

These groups did more than encourage conversation: they were also a space where you could educate yourself away from what your parents or school thought was appropriate. It was on one of the more traditional feminist LiveJournal communities, vaginapagina (which is still active), that I first learned about vaginismus. It was a condition I was later diagnosed with, but until then had never heard of. In vaginapagina I learned to talk about sex and my body without shame, and filled in the sex-ed gaps where my religious education failed me.

These conversations are still happening amongst teens today on platforms like Tumblr and closed Facebook groups, but LiveJournal was special because it was our best-kept secret. Thanks to the platform's highly customisable privacy settings, we didn't have to worry about anyone finding our accounts.

Additionally, the long-form nature and the lack of mobile technology meant it wasn't an idle bus-ride browse. By design, it fostered thoughtful, in-depth conversations through lengthy yet easy-to-follow comment threads. I'd spend hours scrolling through my friend's pages every night, reading every post word for word. It's no surprise so many other writers got their start here. In her book Unspeakable Things, feminist writer Laurie Penny says it's where she learned to write publicly. It was a personal, intimate place where we could be anything.

LiveJournal was a microcosm of passionate teens who felt displaced in real life. We came to find solace in a hidden community, where we could have our voices heard without judgment. But more than acceptance, it gifted the building blocks that led to our own feminist revelations and the international sisterhoods that have outlasted the platform itself.

Credits


Text Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen
Image by Ben Thomson