Crazy Like a Vox

Vox.comFor 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.


A Tradition of Looking Great

Vox Logo

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.

Above: Red Vox; one of the smartest Web 2.0 logos I’ve seen yet. Below: Purple people eater; a user page from within the Vox universe.

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.

Vox

The Features I Want: Not Coming Soon

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.

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  1. Everyone thinks they can build a better MySpace — and they probably can, because MySpace sucks (and SixApart knows what they’re doing, too).

    But the however-many-millon-dollars-facebook-turned-down question is: will it matter? Does MySpace’s early lead mean it’s the final winner?

    I fear so. One of the interesting things about social software from a business perspective is the “accidental lock-in” that occurs with it (perhaps it’s not actually an accident anymore, but it certainly was at one time). What I mean is this: I’m locked into AIM, even though I don’t believe AIM tried to lock me in. They’re not keeping me from getting my data out, they’re not penalizing me for switching — they’re not holding me back at all. The reason I’m locked in is that all of my friends are on AIM. I could switch to Google Talk or Yahoo Messenger, but then I’d have no one to talk to. Same thing goes for Flickr. Is a better photo sharing site came along, I’d still have to stick with Flickr, because that’s where all my friend’s photos are. Social software becomes exponentially more valuable if you’re friends are on it, which makes switching away from what you’re on very hard.

    I wish Vox the best. I think it looks great, and I love Six Apart for all they’ve done. I also love Facebook. It’s a very slick site with a simple but elegant design and great features. But I really fear that we’re going to be stuck with MySpace the same way we’re stuck with Windows.

    On a separate note, your idea of an open social network is a brilliant one. Build it, and they will come. :)

  2. Thanks, Jeff. I was thinking I should have played up the idea of an open, de-centralized social network more, because I think it’s a bit buried in this blog post. Maybe it deserves one of its own.

    Regarding your comments on lock-in and the cost of switching: I think you’re absolutely right. I think one of the reasons that people switched from Friendster to My Space is that the latter offered much more in the way of being able to *offer more* to your friends; that mitigated the cost of switching.

    You can’t develop a social networking site today and hope that you can entice users to switch by simply building a parity offering. You need to give them a substantially different reason to switch, offer them something that My Space doesn’t.

    As it stands, I’m not sure Vox does that. Like I said, its feature set is a work in progress. But strategy-wise, if I were trying to build a My Space killer, I would probably roll out the My Space-killing feature first, to maximize the initial buzz. Anyway, I’ll wait and see.

  3. Regarding “lock-in” and switching difficulties: I wonder if it isn’t wrong of us to think that any ONE social network will ever be anyone’s permanent or only home.

    “Switching” isn’t even the name of the game any more than people who watch “Lost” will “switch” to “The Sopranos”. We live in a multi-branded world, and I think a lot of people are happy having their social networking life split up into a bunch of ephemeral chunks.

    So I thought more about how social networks are really just brand experiences, and blogged it, naturally.

  4. As for the request for decentralized networking: OpenID (openid.net) exists, works, and was created by the founder of LiveJournal, which was purchased by Six Apart a year or so ago. Rumor has it that bits of the LJ backend are used in Vox so, OpenID could be a forthcoming feature.

  5. A tangential question: Vox – the name. When I hear that name, I (and possibly many other musicians out there) think of the British amplifier company – Vox.

    I wonder if SixApart took this into account when naming the product?

  6. Christopher-

    You make a valid point. Still, from a business perspective, I think one social networking company will “win.” That doesn’t mean the others won’t have a market — it just means they’ll be in a niche.

    This is the question that someone must answer if they want to threan MySpace’s dominance:

    “If I switch from MySpace to your service and none of my friends do, what will I do there?”

  7. I’d have to agree with the general sentiment that Vox looks like a strong idea executed well, but it’s hard for me to really evaluate how successful it is since I’m not in it’s target audience at all.

    On the subject of “social network lock-in” I think the IM network lock-in is actually subtly but significantly different from the MySpace lock-in. IM network lock-in is largely innocuous. For the most part, IM protocols are a commodity. Which one I use depends on which one my friends are on; it doesn’t really have an effect on my actual experience. With GAIM, Adium, Trillian and the like, I can use pretty much any client I want, and talk to people on all the different networks.

    MySpace is different. With MySpace the network is the client, and the experience sucks. It sucks enough that I won’t go near it. Sure, I have an account and a friend list, but I don’t actually participate. I log into my IM account once a day, for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. I log into MySpace when somebody sends me a message – maybe once a month for less than 5 minutes a shot.

    That’s why I think this social network API idea of yours is so damn intriguing. It takes social networking beyond the 14-year-old flirtati. It makes social networking a commodity, like IM. If all your networks (including your address book, your phone, your LinkedIn, your Flickr, your blogroll) fed into and out of one one decentralized, open, always-accessible, always-up-to-date database of contacts, and you decide what information gets displayed where, who cares what network you’re on? Web 2.0 indeed!

    Jeez, thanks for getting me all worked up!

  8. An open API is something that I’ve been planning on rolling into the social networking site that I’ve been trying to write over the past year. Not being a programmer by nature, it’s taking me quite a bit longer than I think it should take me to write the software.

    I’ve always wanted to have an API so that I could include my recent comments on my profile onto my blog, or automatically cross-post between my blog and my social profile.

    Ultimately, as I’ve said many times, I know what the weaknesses of MySpace are, because I’ve been inside. Working for a company makes it very easy to find out where it lacks the ability to change, or move swiftly enough to challenge new competitors. This is internal knowledge is something that the other social networking sites are missing, and while it doesn’t keep them from being able to innovate, it does make it harder for them to know what is on the plate and what they need to develop first.

    Additionally, I think one of the roadblocks, in addition to the chance that none of your friends move with you, preventing people from really switching is that if they switch, they have to recreate their entire profile. They lose all their comments, all of their blog posts, all their images… they lose everything. If a new site, such as what I’m trying to do, were to create an importer that scraped the profile and copied the comments, pictures, blogs, and profile of the new user, it would also help with the adoption of the new site.

    Ultimately these are all things that I’m looking at when I get the chance to work on the project, I just have very little time to work on it, and a very limited programming skill set which slows things down even more.

  9. Dean–I assume that 6A was thinking of “vox” as the Latin word for “voice,” though having the name imply an amplifier certainly, er, amplifies the idea of the software “projecting one’s voice” to the internets.

  10. Wouldn’t a social networks open API be suicide for a business? The whole point of a social network site/business is to *control* where people go to connect with their friends so that they can be effectively tracked and marketed to.

    Isn’t FOAF already an open social network API?

    (On a philosophical level, isn’t the WWW already a kind of extremely open social network API?)

    I suppose the open API model would work if you charged people money to be added to the database. Maybe a potential business model would be to create an awesome client for the FOAF standard. Otherwise I can’t see where there is a business model in providing people an API that they can use anywhere they want.

  11. With a little imagination, I think you could easily make money from an open social network — just like we were able to make money when we left the walled garden confines of AOL and CompuServe for the Web.

    It wouldn’t be hard to come up with creative ways to monetize an open network; in fact, if a site like Vox or My Space opened up their network to allow contributions and networked relations from people outside of the network, you could argue that it would potentially compound the value of the original network. And if the API were truly open, you’d get new features and mash-ups beyond what we see today even with Flickr.

  12. There’s also the possibility for a marketable API. IE, if you are using the API for a commercial application, or are receiving over X number of hits a day, you have to buy a commercial API key, or face the consequences of not being able to access the data after you’ve maxed out your free bandwidth, or having your key suspended and not being able to use it at all.

    Look at Last.FM. They have an open API system that anybody can tie into, but if you’re using it for a commercial application you are required to purchase a separate license, and you’re limited to only 1 request a second to their API domain.

  13. Khoi, you seem to be talking about an API to import foreign information *into* the social network, but I was imagining a way to bring the social network’s information *outwards* to other venues, like the way RSS feeds pull information out of the context of a web site.

  14. It’s funny, just a couple days ago I remember expressing to my friend Steven Ametjan over an IM conversation a desire to be able to list my “Top 8″ or recent comments from my Myspace on my weblog (which is currently undergoing a live redesign).

    I don’t think the ability to do such would lose Myspace any money at all, in fact I can only see it as driving more traffic their way. People who otherwise wouldn’t visit Myspace might be interested to view the profile of someone in my top 8, or maybe someone left an interesting comment on my profile recently and you want to see more about them? I think an open API could in fact bring in more revenue to any social network, and might also be the feature that a competitor could use to kill Myspace.

    And another thing, why does everyone keep stereotyping Myspace users as being 14 year olds? From what I’ve seen… they’re mostly 16.

  15. Christopher and Jeff,

    I agree that one social network may play the dominant force for awhile longer and that we will probably see one or two more “changing of the guards” in relation to who is on top.

    But at some point with all of the niche social networks such as http://www.socialpicks.com, and http://www.fanlete.com that have unique features that one general SN can’t all incorporate, the SN scene will turn into how do we bring all of these niche social networks together so that people can easily have multiple memberships that cover all of their major interests.

  16. Thanks for taking the time to check Vox out. A couple things… “So-called Љstandard’ — 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”. Standard users will be free as well; The service is ad-supported.

    And yep, members of our team created OpenID. There are plugins already that let you (for example) use a Movable Type URL to comment on a LiveJournal, or a TypeKey account via OpenID to comment on the OpenID wiki. We’d love to see more people embracing the technology over time.

Thank you! Your remarks have been sent to Khoi.