First Thoughts on Vox (nee Comet)

I love it. “It” here is Vox, Six Apart’s new blogging system that you might have read about back when it was codenamed Comet. It’s blogging with a social network, such that I can limit distribution of my posts to friends or family. They’ve also got some features that let you project your personality (books, movies, songs, etc.) I’m really impressed with Vox and I’ll tell you why below the fold.

First, the design is sexy. It looks good, uses a lot of subtle Javascript to make the experience smooth and easy. I was slow to cotton on that the pictures, audio, video, and books I upload (or find via Amazon) are part of my library: I can now include them in posts. It doesn’t sound much, but it’s a really powerful idea. Instead of uploading pictures just for one post, they’re now part of a palette that I can draw upon again and again.

The social stuff is easy, and reminds me of Flickr. Links aren’t two-way, but people are notified when you add them to your “neighbourhood” (aka social network/blog roll/buddy list). I’ve not yet got the hang of my neighbourhood page, and it doesn’t appear that it tracks which posts or pictures you’ve looked at but instead shows you the latest cross-section of content from your network. So if I go away for two weeks and come back, I might have a lot of digging to do to find all the stuff I missed).

Overall I think it’s the small touches that really make it stand out for me. I hate those meme-of-the-day things that fly around in email (“tell us about the first time you kissed a squirrel and then send this mail to five thousand of your closest friends!!!!”) but Vox has a meme of the day as part of your home page with a speechbubble underneath into which you just type your reply and hit submit to post. Very easy, very obvious, and so easy and obvious that, ahem, I’ve done a few. It’s the gentle human touches like this that give Vox, in parts, the same magnetic allure that Flickr has.

Their killer feature is the ability to limit the distribution of your content. Linda Stone said something very true when she said, “[w]e want protection, we want more filtering, we want a sense of meaning and belonging.” I’m not entirely comfortable telling the world when I’m not at home, where my children play, and how my wife feels about her mother. But blogging technology hasn’t given me that choice: either I post it and everyone can read it, or I don’t.

Sure, there’s Yahoo! 360, but Vox’s permissions system for deciding who gets to see which posts seems a whole lot more human-friendly. Y! 360 has never really sat well with me: I tried using it, some of my friends use it, but I just can’t go there regularly enough to make it worth my while. I think part of it was that it didn’t seem aimed at my family, but rather aimed at the intersection of Y! users and Internet megabloggers. 360 also doesn’t have a clearcut way to distinguish between the general public (“wow, a hot day in town!”), friends (“I’ll be going to the pool this afternoon if you want to come too”), and family (“here’s a picture of my girl in her swimsuit, isn’t she cute?”).

Vox has taken flak from some disgruntled LiveJournal, MovableType, and TypePad users, but unlike them I don’t see Vox competing with LJ. LJ feels very “OMG Kittens!!!!” (I say that even though my old talk.bizarre friends hang out there) and I would feel weird asking my family and non-nerd friends to be a part of LJ. And I ignore the bleating about feature and alleged stangation: if MT pisses you off, move to WordPress. Life’s too short to whine.

That’s not to say that this is an unreserve paean to the wonder of web that is Vox. There are still some design things that don’t ring true. I was a little weirded to find “Mena is not part of your neighbourhood (edit this)”–the “edit this” wording isn’t what I’d have chosen, but it may be part of some larger consistency that I haven’t cottoned on to. It still feels like there are too many choices on each page–I haven’t quickly genned to the layout and navigation structure (quick! is the list of all my friend son the Explore page or the Organize page?!). I wonder whether the alternatives are overwhelming for the genuine blogging newbies this hopes to attract. Will I ever be able to make a group (“baby group”, “banjo buddies”) that’s separate from friends and family? And there’s a huge unanswered (for me) question about how it integrates into the rest of my digital life (I don’t want to upload photos, movies, songs to yet another place, I want continuity in my existing blog, etc.). If I get integration, it’ll have to come without Vox-run ads, which means subscriptions or free love that I don’t see coming. It’s be interesting to see whether Vox acquires any of LiveJournal’s different revenue systems.

I don’t know whether I’ll be using it in six months time. I’m going to give it a try, though, and see. While it’s not a guaranteed home run for the Six Apart folks, it is a great step in the right direction. The challenge for them will be polishing the interface until it’s so elegant and obvious that people delight in using it, and then to reach the people who want to blog but not to all the world all the time. I give it 9/10 for what I’ve seen so far after a day using the preview release. Oh, my site by the way is