Friday interview: Mena Trott of Six Apart on the new frontiers of blogging

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Blogging’s taking over the world, right? Read a lot of media coverage, and you might think that every man, woman and stick insect in the Western world has a blog on the go, if not several. But that’s not true. Is your mum blogging? Your grandad? Your technophobe best mate? Quite possibly not.

Six Apart wants to change that. The company is already powering a good chunk of the blogosphere, seeing as it owns the LiveJournal, TypePad and Movable Type blogging platforms. And now it’s beta-launched Vox, a blogging platform that throws in MySpace-esque social networking elements.

You have a virtual ‘neighbourhood’ of friends and family, and can restrict your posts to be read by some or all of them, or the wider Vox community. It also ties in neatly with the likes of Flickr and YouTube so you can import your own or other people’s content.

Several of the Shiny Media team have been using Vox for the last few weeks, and we’re loving it. So we grabbed a chat with Six Apart president and co-founder Mena Trott to find out more.

"It’s one thing for a bunch of people in the Internet industry to say blogging is easy and fun, but when you try to convince your best friend or mum or sister, they tell you it isn’t," says Trott. "They see blogging as experts talking about politics or technology, or people being really extreme about all the things in their lives."

This in a nutshell is what Vox is all about. It’s clearly been designed for people who haven’t used other blogging tools, and wouldn’t know a line of HTML code if it ran up and bit them on the nose. This is mainstream, and as an experienced blogger using it for the first time, it feels restrictive.

But then you realise how your homepage is full of posts and comments from your friends, so you find yourself interacting more with them. And the simplicity is actually a bonus once you twig that this is personal blogging. And being able to just slap in Flickr photos and YouTube videos is marvellous. This reaction is apparently not uncommon.

"When we created this, we didn’t think bloggers would use it, because they’d want to have more control, and be able to change stuff," she says. "But after a couple of days on Vox, people realise they don’t necessarily need these things. So instead of bloggers just recommending Vox to their family and friends, we’ve actually got a product that can bridge both groups."

She does admit this creates development headaches though. For example, the number one demand from experienced bloggers is the ability to include HTML in posts, but Trott says that the mainstream users who Vox is targeted at won’t even want to see that as an option. Right now, Vox is still in beta, and thus full of early-adopters. It’ll be interesting to see if Six Apart’s development team resists this pressure.

If there’s a mission statement behind Vox, it’s flying the flag for personal blogging – something that’s become a dirty phrase judging by the regular media sneering about teenage whingeing on LiveJournal. Even pro-blogosphere articles tend to concentrate on the serious subject-focused blogs written by ‘experts’, rather than the personal diary type blogs.

"You see people saying that nobody cares about the cheese sandwich you had for lunch, but you can take that example and make it less mundane," says Trott. "I’d like to read about a friend who had a good dinner last night in a restaurant, for example, or if my mum’s got some new drapes. If you’re just writing for ten people, this stuff is interesting and relevant."

A key feature of Vox is prompting people to talk about other subjects though. For example, there’s a Question Of The Day, complete with a button to automatically launch a post to answer it. For example, yesterday’s asked users for their favourite made-up words. There’s also a Vox Hunt, which gets users to post photos of a particular subject (yesterday: what’s out of your rear-view mirror?)

"People think they have nothing to say, so it’s just about the idea of comparing stories about your favourite muppet, or what music you’re currently listening to," says Trott. "These things are conversation starters. I always read the Question Of The Day answers, it’s a really fun way to explore."

A potentially thorny issue for Vox is content sharing, given the ease with which you can upload music and videos. For example, yesterday I posted a Jeevas song on my Vox blog, to settle an argument with someone about whether a spin-off band from Kula Shaker could ever be any good. Can their record label sue my arse? In short, yes.

And while Six Apart will take down copyright content when requested by the rights-holders through the correct channels, Trott thinks services like Vox could nudge the entertainment industry forward in its attitude towards content sharing.

"I think blogs as well as other services are going to open up this idea of ‘what is fair use?’," says Trott. "If I put up a song that I know only 20 people in my network are going to listen to, I feel it’s a strong case for just showing someone a sample, especially if they can’t download it. But we’re working with music providers to work this out."

An example of how this could work is Vox’s deal with iStockphoto which allows free use of thumbnail images from the latter’s library, which Trott says aims to give a legal equivalent of nicking images off Google Images to illustrate a post.

So what does Vox mean for the rest of Six Apart’s product line? Trott says that TypePad will continue to be the company’s tool for pro bloggers, including a push towards authors and small businesses. People who are making money from their blogs. Meanwhile, Movable Type will continue to be more of a corporate tool for large companies, or those who want to install their own firewalls.

But what about LiveJournal? Although Trott says Vox was very influenced by it, she says the two are distinct. "LiveJournal tends to skew younger, and with people who are more interested in tweaking things and having that power," she says. "We find the distinction between the two to be pretty clear. Vox is the tool for mainstream audiences, as well as our entry into the community blogging space."

It will be interesting to see how this affects Six Apart’s marketing of Vox though, as you’d think it would be tempting to try and target Vox to LiveJournal bloggers. Meanwhile, Trott is enthusiastic about continuing Six Apart’s work with larger corporations.

"Blogging will enter every sort of business, but it doesn’t have to be this huge thing where every single person in the company has a blog," she says. "It’s not just about creating blogs either. It’s about reading blogs, making sure people know what other people are talking about, and using blogs internally to communicate. Every business is different."

Lastly, what about mobile? Earlier this year, Six Apart bought mobile blogging firm SplashBlog, with the first results being the recently-released Typepad Mobile, an application for smartphones which allows you to post from your handset, rather than the fiddly previous method of sending an MMS or email from your phone. Mobile will be an important part of Vox, and in Japan it’s already integrated into the system.

"We’ll be doing a Vox Mobile beta relatively soon elsewhere in the world, but in Japan mobile is moving faster than mobile over here," says Trott. "Mobile blogging is how most people are really going to get into blogging, because they’re comfortable posting a picture that way. But it’s just an aspect of blogging. I feel strongly that the services that are just moblogging aren’t how it should be. The walled garden approach just doesn’t work for this."

Stuart Dredge
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  • I can’t wait for the vox mobile program to be launched, back when I was on Typepad I would send an email from my mobile to Typepad, but as you say, it was incredibly fiddly. Now I’ve changed to Vox, I really can’t wait for this new mobile program, it means I can update on the train when I have nothing to do except read the Metro (ugh).

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