Dreamwidth Studios: Bringing the Corner Store to Open Source Publishing


Dreamwidth Studios‘ co-founder Denise Paolucci remembers growing up in a family-owned corner deli, some of whose customers had been eating there daily for decades. “They’d become part of the family, instead of faceless customers,” she says. “That’s stayed with me for my whole life. It’s a business concept that you don’t see much in today’s world” — and one that Paolucci and co-founder Mark Smith decided would be part of Dreamwidth Studios’ open source publishing platform from the start.

At a time when lack of privacy on social networking sites is making mainstream headlines, Dreamwidth Studios stands out as an exception. In contrast to the shifting policies on Facebook, Dreamwidth promises its artistically-inclined users control of their data and transparency, all build upon free and open source software (FOSS) and transparent business models.

So far, after two years of business, Dreamwidth is finding its corner deli approach an advantage in both business and code development. It also has the unexpected consequence of attracting an unusually high percentage of women to the project.

Starting with a Fork

Paolucci, who manages business and non-programming volunteers, says that FOSS has “resonated” for her since she first encountered it in the early 1990s. However, her first direct experience came when she was hired in 2001 as community manager for LiveJournal.

“That was my first real immersion in open source culture and the power of what it can accomplish,” says Paolucci. “It made me even more of a fervent free software believer. The idea that you could build something relying on the talents and abilities of people around the world with little overhead and lightweight process was an incredible paradigm shift for me.”

In 2008, Paolucci and Smith forked LiveJournal to create Dreamwidth. “A lot of people immediately saw us as ‘that site for disgruntled LJ users,'” Paolucci notes, so the first priority was to create a positive identity for Dreamwidth. In contrast to LiveJournal’s more generalized approach, Paolucci and Smith chose to make Dreamwidth “an online home for people who create things… Fiction, essays, blogging about your life, or photography or painting or artwork or resource lists of links or information — it’s all creation to us.”

Paolucci was clear from the start that she wanted to create the same kind of community online. “We’ve seen (over the past few months especially, with the controversy over the Facebook privacy options) that people feel connected with their online social communities in a way that goes beyond simply using them to keep up with their friends’ lives: People identify with their preferred sites, build identifies around them, and vest a great deal of time and effort into using them and interacting with them.

“When a site cares about its users, treats them with respect as humans instead of as advertising revenue-generators or unpaid content creators, you wind up with this incredible collaboration between the builders of the site and the users. When people feel safe and secure in their online hangouts, they’re able to be free in a way that shows the Internet at its absolute best: As a vehicle for real, authentic voices, and as a tool that changes lives.”

Planning the Feature Set

Dreamwidth started with the advantage of being able to use LiveJournal’s mature code. However, according to Paolucci, although LiveJournal pioneered many standard features in blogging platforms, such as privacy and security levels and community accounts, it rarely receives credit for these efforts because it neglected the “last 10% — usability and work flow” in favor of constantly creating new features.

As part of the effort to differentiate Dreamwidth from LiveJournal, Paolucci and Smith have chosen to concentrate on that “last 10%,” including making the site friendlier to those who use assistive technologies such as screen readers.

“We’ve also added a number of feature that people have asked for over the years: Better entry management options, [and] full-text search of your own journal and the site as a whole,” Paolucci says.

In addition, Dreamwidth has split LiveJournal’s concept of a friend so that users can read somebody else’s account without granting them automatic access to their own locked content. Although the change takes some getting used to, “our users mention it frequently as a major draw,” Paolucci says. “To the best of my knowledge, we’re the only site doing it quite this way.

Dreamwidth is also working on interoperability between social networking sites. “We want social media sites to work as a federated network, because we hate the walled-garden effect that so many of them perpetuate. We’ve already done a lot of work in this direction — improving OpenID support, allowing people to crosspost their entries to other platforms natively from within Dreamwidth — but we know there’s always a lot more to do.”

Open Business Models and Social Networking

“We knew from the very beginning that we wanted to run the business end of things in a drastically different manner than what’s considered standard in the Web 2.0 world,” Paolucci says. “We didn’t want to accept any venture capital or outside investors, and both Mark [Smith] and I hate the way that Web 2.0 runs on advertising: the advertising model on any user-generated content site is a horribly exploitative system that is actively harmful t other end user, in addition to being an unreliable form of income for a new (or even an established) website.”

Accordingly, Dreamwidth run on a subscription basis. With an invitation from an existing user, accounts are free. However, users can also subscribe to higher levels of service that give more access to features such as the number of recent comments that display in a thread, and the number of tags that users can have in their journal. Initial funds were raised by the sale of 600 so-called seed accounts, permanent accounts that never expire.

“I’ve called Dreamwidth ‘an experiment in radical business transparency’,” Paolucci says, citing both The Cluetrain Manifesto and The Cathedral and the Bazaar as major influences in how Dreamwidth is run.

“We are committed to being as open as possible about the state of the business and about our business decisions,” Paolucci explains. “We let people know what our rough expenditures and income are, we solicit their feedback at every step of the way, and we’re always willing to take the time to explain our methods and reasoning.” In fact, Dreamwidth devotes an entire page to describing its business actions.

For Paolucci, this approach is what differentiates Dreamwidth from LiveJournal and other services such as Blogger, WordPress, TypePad, and Movable type. “Without having taken venture capital or outside investment, we can be 100% user focused. A lot of people seem to be really drawn to that way of operating, especially as more and more instances of companies trashing user privacy in order to make a buck keep surfacing.”

FOSS Consequences

Paolucci admits that a dedication to FOSS culture can have problems. In particular, she cites what she calls “bikeshed arguments” — arguments about inconsequentials when the fundamentals need to be completed. However, these problems are relative few, according to Paolucci.

“We literally could not do any of what we’re doing without FOSS,” Paolucci says. “It’s part of our entire identity.”

Paolucci is not just talking about the familiar LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, Perl) that Dreamwith runs on. Among the advantages she cites are a quicker ramp-up time, a larger, more diverse set of contributors than a traditional business model could provide, and “a culture that contributes to the notion of home that we’ve tried so hard to build.” Volunteers help to run a free hosted developer environment , a technical support community, and a collaborative a suggestions community for project management and feature design.

One unexpected consequence of Dreamwidth’s FOSS policies is an unusually high concentration of women involved in the project. Part of the reason may be Dreamwidth’s user demographics, which include 49% women and 40% who either do not specify a gender or else identify as other than male or female.

However, Paolucci suggests other reasons for the 70% of women involved in the Dreamwidth project.

“Because of the subtle social pressures that guide women away from the technology field as a whole, any project that makes it a priority to attract and train newcomers, as we have, will likely wind up with a disproportionate amount of women. Many of our female contributors specifically mention that they’e always wanted to learn how to program, but never felt like they had the support of the resources to start.”

Paolucci continues, “Our project culture also has a lot to do with it. Many of the experienced women who wind up hacking with us have tried other open source software projects and found that the atmosphere was unwelcoming or off-putting — they left because it wasn’t a pleasant place to be, or because they felt unsafe or threatened. We are actively committed to fostering an environment of respect and inclusion — which isn’t a women’s issue specifically, but disproportionately affects women.”

Another possibility is that the effort that Dreamwidth makes to focus on collaboration rather than competition. “Because of how women are socialized in most cultures, the collaboration model is much more likely to appeal to them and seem more natural,” Paolucci suggests.

But, whatever the reasons, the high number of women in the project encourages more women to join. Not only does Dreamwidth offer female role models, Paolucci notes, but women who have found the project a comfortable place to work are starting to recommend it to their friends. “It’s really been an amazing thing to watch,” Paolucci says.

Next Steps

Only two years old, Dreamwidth is still in rapid development. For the rest of 2010, the goal is to improve the tools for posting and searching for content. Paolucci herself is also focusing on a survey of other blogging platforms to ensure that Dreamwidth’s features are competitive, and on adding media hostings “for people whose creativity lies in areas other than text. Other goals include improving usability and accessibility.

But, most of all, Paolucci hopes that Dreamwidth can preserve its spirit of openness as it matures. “When we started Dreamwidth, we went into it with the idea that we never wanted to be Wal-Mart; we always wanted to be the Mom and Pop corner grocery story, where everyone knows who we are and knows that we’re doing this out of love,” Paolucci says. “That spirit has served us incredibly well so far, and I hope we never lose it.”

(Slideshow image courtesy of Kirrily Robert on Flickr.)