Tue 06 Jun
For the past few days I’ve been playing around with a beta account of Six Apart’s Vox.com, a somewhat late entry into social networking for the pioneering company behind Movable Type and Typepad. (My account came courtesy of Anil Dash, who, magnanimously, bears no apparent grudges from my earlier, less than kind remarks about Movable Type, circa 2006.)
Vox follows the by now familiar interaction model for social software: buddy lists, comments, photo sharing, blogging, etc. If you’ve used Friendster, Flickr, MySpace or any of their competitors, you probably already understand how Vox works sufficiently well to get up and running with little learning curve. Apparently, one of the site’s intended key differentiators is its tiered approach to functionality. ‘Starter’ users can do more or less what you can at, say, Friendster: create a profile, build a buddy list and participate in comment threads and discussions. So-called ‘standard’ — and presumably paying — customers will also be able to blog, manage media (photos, audio, video) and choose from various built-in themes to skin their presentation in the Vox universe — those features haven’t yet been released to everyone, but Six Apart promises them in the near future.
I would have liked to have been able to re-skin my Vox page entirely from customized CSS, but apparently that’s not in the cards. Though to b fair, such customizability may not be quite as necessary as it is at, say, My Space; Vox is easily among the most attractively designed of the Web 2.0 sites I’ve yet seen. To begin with, its logo is subtle and unexpectedly smart: a cloud like compound object made up of individual circles framing a simple, sans-serif, uppercase “VOX.” It manages to denote community and friendliness without resorting to speech balloons, smiley faces or generic ISO-style figures.
For that alone, Vox’s designers deserve a round of applause, but the rest of the site is impressively orderly and comforting in appearance, too. One thing Six Apart have done consistently well is use design with great care and precision throughout all of their products. I still look back at early versions of Movable Type — which was designed by one of the company’s two founders, Mena Trott — as among the best examples of graphic design in the early part of this decade. Apparently, Mena has had significant, hands-on involvement with Vox, too, and she hasn’t lost her touch (or she’s really come into her own as a leader of a talented design team) because Vox possesses a sharp, deft design sensibility that’s both of its Web 2.0 contemporaries and a step beyond them. Let’s hope this team brings something similar to a future redesign of Movable Type.
Design aside, there’s not a whole heck of a lot about Vox that sets it apart from its competition, at least not yet. Six Apart allude to some coming, yet-to-be-announced features that will further distinguish it from the rest of the pack, and for now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and consider Vox to be a work in progress.
One thing that I’m pretty sure that Vox won’t provide, though, is de-centralized social networking, which is something that I’m willing to bet that many of us who run our own weblogs and Web sites would like to see: an open API that allows users to include the apparatuses of social networks such as buddy lists, photo sharing, comment threads, etc. into our own sites. As I experienced with Newsvine, it’s a significant hurdle for me to integrate Vox into my day-to-day online authoring process when I’m already maintaining Subtraction.com on my own server. It would be a sea change for moderately advanced users like myself to be able to integrate right into Vox — or any social network — and enjoy full or nearly-full ‘citizenship’ without having to pass through its gates first.
Granted, the market for such technically daunting features is a much smaller one than the market that Vox clearly has its sights set on: the vast public who have no desire to get their hands dirty with code or advanced customization, but who do have a growing interest in participating in networked communities. Which is a shame; part of what made Movable Type such a revelation five years ago was its exceedingly pliant user experience: relative to its ease of use, it was unparalleled in its willingness to conform to the imaginations of the first generation of bloggers. Vox is an aesthetic triumph — and it may yet be a commercial and popular success — but it’s unlikely to be the cause of a similar sea change in what creative hands can accomplish on the World Wide Web.