The Community Memory of a Neighborhood: Davis Square’s LiveJournal

davis square livejournalDavis Square LiveJournal moderator Ron Newman and his trusty MacBook at iYo Café. Photo by Emily Hopkins.

For many who grew up on social media, the blogging platform LiveJournal is little more than a blip in an awkward past, more a coming-of-age symbol than a legitimate medium. If they survived adolescence, LiveJournal URLs are safeguarded like diary keys, preserving the embarrassing fits and starts of teenage angst that are often cringeworthy in retrospect.

But in Davis Square, that’s not quite the case. Since the early 2000s, there’s been a square within the square—a forum where people discuss politics, culture, art, news, the socioeconomics of the neighborhood, the development—and it’s all on LiveJournal.

The Davis Square LiveJournal Community is about as local as an Internet forum can get, a digital space tailored to a specific place. Their slogan is “Think Globally, Whine Locally.” Somehow, as the neighborhood and city around it have grown and changed, this online collective has endured.

“To me, this is not just a bulletin board, it’s a community memory system,” says Ron Newman, one of four moderators who watches over the forum.

Newman is a spry 58-year-old man who rattles through Somerville history with a quick, youthful cadence. Sitting in iYo Café behind a weathered MacBook, he shows his colors with a t-shirt featuring Mr. Davis, the personified silhouette of the messy Davis Square intersection. As he explains the online community’s history, he clicks through the LiveJournal’s archive to check his facts.

Newman originally moved to Davis Square in the early ’90s. He’s a living testiment to the changes of the area, having watched it evolve over the last three decades. He’s seen the Rosebud as a bar, then a Mexican restaurant, then a bar again, back to a diner and onto the restaurant it is today.

Since joining the Davis Square LiveJournal in 2005, he and fellow posters have documented those changes. In Newman’s moderating, he said he tries to replicate the original community memory system, a computerized bulletin board system from 1970s Silicon Valley. It served as a pre-Internet digital bulletin board and was the brainchild of four friends rooted in the burgeoning net counterculture. It lived on a hulking desktop machine on the second floor of a record store, and it quickly became a hub for local artists.

“Even though that’s a system I never saw, just reading about it inspires the way I try to co-run this community,” says Newman.

LiveJournal operates like a simple, open-source blog. The posts are sorted chronologically, and they’re filed by a thoughtfully curated tagging system. Users can follow the posts in real time or search by any of the hundreds of tags on the page’s right side banner: weddings, shoe repair, burritos, yoga, history, crime and more. A click on each tag offers a chronological list of the posts in every subject. Users can even search by year, giving a sense of historical context Newman says he finds lacking on sites like Reddit and Facebook lack.

A look through recent activity shows two or three posts a day, some netting a few comments, others davis square livejournalamassing 20 to 30. People use the forum to chat about everything from upcoming events to the minutia of Davis Square living, such as last-minute sublets and musings about why there have been so many rabbits in the square lately.

In just one example of the community’s connecting power, a user posted that he’ll be between homes for three weeks in October. In a comment, another user offered up the third floor of her place, something she typically rents as an AirBNB.

The page also has its thumb on local politics. Before the November elections, all candidates in the Ward 6 aldermanic race had at least posted an introduction. On September 10, the community held an open forum where residents asked questions and the politicians answered, much like a Reddit.com “Ask Me Anything” thread.

And it’s always been that way, says Newman. The community fosters a political consciousness, so much so that at one point, Tom Champion, the city’s then-communications director, had an account and would post regularly.

Despite the wealth of active LiveJournal users in Davis Square, elsewhere the site seems to have fallen out of style in favor of newer, flashier outfits.

“I’m not quite sure why, because I think it’s a better platform for what we do than any of the alternatives that may have come later,” says Newman.

In the early 2000s, the site was a popular medium for similar forums. Boston had a massive LiveJournal page, and it wasn’t the only city. Somerville’s was started in 2002 by a single moderator called neitherday. She turned the board over to another group of moderators in 2005, when Newman joined the community. In 2007, he became a moderator. That team of four has been moderating the site ever since. Now, in 2015, the Davis Square forum is one of—if not the last of—its kind.

Newman chalks up the group’s longevity to the people involved—an overlap of the artists, young professionals and otherwise transplant populations that began to flood the city in the ’80s and early ’90s. It’s a group of people Somerville lifers used to refer to as “Barneys”—a term Newman said he doesn’t hear much anymore—and a population that’s still blossoming. The term is a reference to academic hippie types who, to area natives, looked pretty rural. They come to Davis Square and don’t leave, and the activity on LiveJournal is a reflection of that.

As for Newman, he says he plans on keeping the community alive as long as he can.

“I’m hoping it just sort of stays the way it is,” he said. “It is true we’re all getting older and maybe we should find someone younger to replace us, but we have not talked about this in a very long time.”

Bill Shaner is a Scout contributor. Reach him at billshaner91@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Bshaner_MDN.

This story originally appeared in the November/December edition of Scout Somerville, which is available for free at more than 100 locations around the city.

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