Before Facebook, before Myspace, before the term “social network” had even been coined, the Internet hadLivejournal. The site is a cross between a content management system, allowing users to create and post to their own journals or blogs, and a social network, allowing uses to find, follow and interact with friends. For a long while, I’d say until Myspace began to take over the Internet, I remember Livejournal being a hub of social activity on the web. A couple friends and I got our hands on invite codes in May 2002, and a number of our friends and classmates followed us onto the site. My best girlfriend and I even started a successful, active community for our high school compatriots and alumni.
Having been a member of the site for such a long time, I’ve seen it through one of its two major redesign and through dozens of site changes. In fact, Livejournal’s 2003 redesign was the first site renovation that I remember really affecting me.
The first screenshot the Wayback Machine has on record for Livejournal is from Nov. 1999, and this early version of the site is pretty representative of 20th century web design: plain links, plain fonts, minimal graphics. It’s not particularly attractive, but it’s functional, with clear informational hierarchy and an obvious sign-up link, two things that are just as important in good design today as they were in 1999.
Livejournal’s first major redesign took place in June 2000. Suddenly, the site had a menu built into a left-hand sidebar, and it made use of significantly more color. The appearance of the site changed a bit over the next few weeks as Livejournal seemed to experiment with different backgrounds, and they finally settled on the aesthetics by July.
This is the version of Livejournal that I first encountered, the version I came to know and love and the version that many Livejournal knock-offs—Deadjournal, Greatestjournal, Insanejournal, etc.—would later duplicate. The header and sidebar became permanent features throughout the site, whether you were logged in or logged out, and they became the primary navigation tool for maneuvering to different tools or areas within the site. Sidebar menus became a very popular site navigation tool all over the Internet around this time, and they remain a feature of many sites even now. The login boxes in the header are also still popular, because sites figured out that users don’t like to click through to another page just to login. Even Facebook makes use of header login boxes for users who aren’t logged in when they visit a Facebook page.
The site underwent a massive redesign in 2003, when—most noticeably—the sidebar went away, replaced by drop-down menus in the header. Livejournal users reacted very poorly to the changes, in large part because the navigation methods had been so dramatically altered. The modernized menus were certainly sleeker and less cluttered than the sidebar, but Livejournal had reorganized them a bit in the process of moving them into the header, and users initially couldn’t find the tools and pages they had long since figured out how best to access.
After a bit of adjustment, though, users learned their way around the new site and grew to appreciate the cleaner page design. By removing the sidebar, Livejournal had given the content—users’ posts and profiles—more room to shine. Ultimately, I think it was a good design decision, but I think the users should have been introduced to the changes over time, perhaps with changes in the sidebar first that would more closely resemble the header navigation options, or with some kind of guide that would help users find things more easily in those first days and weeks after the change.
Since the change from sidebar-based design to header-based design in 2003, Livejournal hasn’t changed much. The layout remains very much the same, with gradual additions and changes to the front page to promote on-site content and to encourage community participation from visitors.
I actually feel like the current main page is too cluttered. I almost never look at it; I log in and navigate directly to my own journal or to my friends page. The advertisements and the promotions for random Livejournal communities are almost never relevant to me, and the many graphics on the page appear almost to run together, giving the appearance of clutter despite the light blue strips meant to act as headers for the individual sections. I’d love to see a happy medium between the current main page and the more bare 2003 version. But Livejournal hasn’t asked me, and, at the end of the day, I can skip the front page and go directly to the content I care about. Overall, I think Livejournal’s made some pretty good design decisions in the past.