If you read sites like ours, you might be forgiven for thinking that this IT business is all about money and technology. You might also think that social networking – blogging, Facebook, and so on – is part of the IT business, and thus similarly constructed.
If only. There is one underlying problem with the business of social networking that transcends infrastructure and cash flow. The people. Ornery, awkward customers, they never read the business plan and refuse point blank to behave themselves. Either they don't do that which they ought to have done, or do that which they ought not have done: either way, there is no health in the Q3 revenue forecasts.
Let me give you a very recent example. LiveJournal has long been the home of various thriving, creative communities – many of which take advantage of the Internet's noted freedoms concerning anonymity, freedom of speech and ability to bring like-minded types together from around the world. Some of those groups happily share hobbies that rarely make Blue Peter, such as the creation and consumption of fantasies of peculiar mien.
In particular, LJ hosts a large and garrulous group of self-proclaimed fan girls who like nothing better than to re-imagine notable fictional figures (male. powerful) getting it on with each other. They do it with style, panache and immense dedication, they do it in great and lubricious detail, and they darn well don't care what anyone thinks.
This is not to everyone's taste. One particular pressure group complained that all this sort of thing was tantamount to paedophilia (the details are extremely silly, involve wizards, and need not concern us), and the LJ owners promptly suspended the accounts of lots of people. There was a huge fuss. The girls felt slighted, so went looking and found other, rather more obviously unpleasant LJ content. If you're going to be imposing moral standards, they asked, how about this?
LJ hummed and hawed, and said it wasn't in the business of censoring its users. After a while, feathers were smoothed, people were reinstated and things returned to a semblance of normal – although many issues remained unaddressed. But why, wondered the fan girls, was LJ suddenly so sensitive to indelicacies of an adult nature?
The answer soon materialised – sponsorship from Pepsi, a brand extremely aware of the importance of wholesome image. In particular, there were Diet Pepsi Max blog themes all over the place, and annoying things called v-gifts which let LJ users send hypercaffeinated fizzy drink themed widgets to each other. Thing is, LJ has always had a multi-tiered membership scheme – if you're free, you see adverts, if you subscribe, you don't, that sort of thing. But now the subscribers, who had paid to not see adverts, were getting all this Pepsi in their faces. It did not go down well.
In the words of the lolcat: not want.
So, as is their (not) wont, the fan girls made their displeasure felt through strong and forthright messages. Your average fan girl, despite the implication of the name, is a grown up. Literate, intelligent, well-connected, imaginative and determined - you do not taunt the fan girls.
Alas, the trolls decided otherwise, and sent loads of v-gifts to everyone who said they didn't appreciate such things.
OK, said the grrrrrlz, if that's how you want to play it. Dear Mr Pepsi, they said. Are you aware of some of the more interesting things that LJ hosts? And they directed the attention of the sponsors to certain content which LJ had refused to pull: videos from Russia of a uniquely disturbing nature, pro-anorexia communities, and others along those lines.
The subsequent conversation between Mr Pepsi and the LJ bosses is not recorded. The Diet Pepsi Max stuff, however, has vanished.
As I said. Users. The bane of social networking.