About 12 million Americans keep blogs, according to a survey released last July by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But even more people might become bloggers if blogs weren’t so, well, public. After all, who really wants to share a high-school-reunion video with stockbrokers in Istanbul or teenagers in Tokyo?
Privacy controls that let the author decide who can view each post are a major feature of several blogging platforms, including Vox, a free Web-based service launched by Six Apart in October. “Sometimes you only want your five best friends in the world to see a post, and you should be able to do that,” writes Six Apart cofounder and president Mena Trott in her own blog. While the most famous “A-list” blogs may be full of political commentary or technology gossip, many people blog simply to let people in their immediate social circle know how they’re doing, Trott believes.
In that, she’s backed up by the Pew survey. Only 27 percent of U.S. bloggers told researchers that they blog in order to change the way other people think. A larger group, 37 percent, cited staying in touch with family and friends as a major reason to blog.
If anyone knows what bloggers want, it should be the folks at Six Apart. The company is best known for creating Movable Type, a professional blog publishing system, as well as TypePad, which gives nongeek subscribers simpler Web-based tools for building Movable Type blogs. (I’m a longtime TypePad user.) In 2005, the San Francisco-based company also acquired LiveJournal, which has one of the fiercest followings in the blogosphere, thanks partly to the various privacy settings that users can assign to each post. Using the software behind LiveJournal, Six Apart programmers have developed a new publishing platform called Meteor, and Vox–Latin for “voice”–is the first product built entirely on that platform.
I’ve been using Vox for the last week, and I think it’s one of the most appealing authoring systems now available to bloggers–and not just because of the privacy settings. Vox blogs offer useful media-sharing and social-networking features, a wonderfully simple what-you-see-is-what-you-get editing interface, and a library of sleek, professional graphics that make it possible to customize a blog’s look without learning HTML. I expect that Vox will attract some people to blogging for the first time, and even win a few longtime bloggers away from other services.
Joining Vox is free. Of course, there is a tradeoff: Six Apart earns revenue by selling banner ads and Google text ads that appear at the top and bottom of each blog page, and sometimes between posts. But the ads are unobtrusive, especially compared with those on social-networking sites like MySpace (see “Fakesters,” November 14, 2006). Six Apart users who strongly prefer the advertising-free look should stick with LiveJournal (a limited version of which is both free and ad-free) or TypePad (which costs $4.95 to $14.95 per month).
Publishing a basic Vox blog requires no setup at all; you simply create your first “asset.” An asset can be a blog post, a book review, or a photo, video, or audio file that you have uploaded from your computer or copied from elsewhere on the Web. (One of the funnier assets I’ve stumbled across: a dyslexic cow that says “Oom.”) Vox displays all these items in the central column of your blog page as if they were traditional text entries, meaning that if you so desire, you can turn your blog into a parade of media clips.
Assets can also be mixed together. For example, you might want to embed a video of your boyfriend’s snowboarding crash in an item about your trip to Steamboat. On other blogging platforms, such as LiveJournal, you need some HTML coding skill to make this work. In Vox, you just click “insert,” choose the asset from your hard drive, decide where to place it, and you’re done.
The Meteor platform is based on open Web standards that make sharing media items across sites a breeze. For example, Vox users who have accounts at the photo-sharing sites Flickr or Photobucket can pull their photos directly into Vox blog entries. If another Vox user has blogged about a YouTube video or an Amazon product that you also like, you can “re-blog” it in one click.
Vox provides a couple of tricks for navigating all the assets piling up in users’ blogs. The programmers have done away with categories, a common but little-used feature of first-generation blogging platforms that allowed authors to break a stream of entries into manageable chunks. Instead, they’ve introduced collections–bins where users can group anything from music clips to their posts about movies–as well as a tagging function like those that let millions of other users of media-sharing sites label and retrieve their creations.
The privacy controls on Vox–which are identical to those on LiveJournal–let users build these creations at their leisure, then decide who, if anyone, should have the privilege of seeing them. The first choice, “you only,” is my favorite. It means that you can use your Vox blog as both a private and a public journal. When you log in, you’ll see all your posts, but when others visit your blog, they’ll see only the ones they’re permitted to view, depending on whether you’ve marked the items “family,” “friends,” “family and friends,” or “the world.” (To be designated as family or friends, visitors must sign up for their own Vox accounts. The world at large can view your blog at a custom URL along the lines of “myblog.vox.com.”) The “you only” setting is also useful for saving draft posts; since these drafts, too, appear in your personal view, you can track all your entries without the need for a separate administrative interface like the one at TypePad.
Six Apart clearly wants Vox to be a community rather than just a collection of blogs. Each user’s blog includes a page called VoxWatch, a personal news aggregator showing recent posts from people the user has designated as family, friends, or “neighbors.” It’s a way to follow what the people in your social network are doing without having to visit to each individual’s blog.
Vox’s community push is also evident from the corny but fun ways Vox’s editors prompt users to blog daily and interact with other users. A “Question of the Day” feature asks users to muse on subjects such as “What character in a book can you connect with or relate to the most?” (A member called artgeek provides one thoughtful answer.) Blog entries that many people have marked as favorites often earn a mention in the aptly named “This Is Good” section of Vox’s home page.
Vox blogs are so attractive and easy to operate that I’ve decided to relocate my personal blog from TypePad to Vox. (Unfortunately, Vox doesn’t yet provide an import function that would let me copy all my old posts to the new platform. But that’s okay–I doubt anyone is really interested in my musings from 2004 about spring cleaning or Spalding Gray’s suicide.) As a self-styled creative dude, I used to think I needed the extra control over layout, fonts, type size, and item placement that medium-difficulty blog platforms like TypePad allow. But in fact, fiddling with my TypePad blog’s appearance took time away from actually communicating. I’ve found it’s that back-to-basics philosophy that makes Vox refreshing.