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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Future of the Blog

Six Apart's Mena Trott helped start the stampede by co-designing user-friendly software. But she thinks the blogging trend is only just beginning
It's hard to imagine the world without blogs. The publishing technology has become a cultural and political force. One of the reasons for the rapid growth of the blogosphere is the existence of user-friendly blogging software such as Moveable Type. The program was designed with simplicity in mind by Mena Trott, a former graphic designer and early blogger (she launched dollarshort.org in early 2001), and her husband, Ben Trott, a programmer. Mena and Ben went on to found Six Apart, the San Francisco-based company behind the blog-hosting service TypePad. In January, 2005, Six Apart acquired LiveJournal, an online community of personal blogs that today boasts 9.6 million accounts and more than 16,000 new posts per hour. In December, 2005, Six Apart and Yahoo! (YHOO ) announced a partnership to build Yahoo-hosted blogs with Moveable Type. Six Apart is currently working on a new product, codenamed Comet, that will start beta testing this quarter. "It's meant for the next generation of blogs," says Mena Trott, without revealing details. Just before setting off for Monterey, Calif., to speak at the annual TED conference -- that's technology, education, and design -- Trott spoke with BusinessWeek Online reporter Reena Jana about challenges in blog design -- which, she hints, Comet will attempt to address. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation: What do you see as the next big issue in blog design?We'll focus on the idea of more select and filtered readership, and how to allow people to read certain posts. That to me is interesting: how different people want different views of the blog. A big issue right now is how to take that idea in account when designing blogs. Another new challenge is the trend toward adding a lot of assets. People are adding photos, video, and music to supplement the text. How do you make it possible for bloggers to present as much as they want to present without creating blogs that are too cluttered or confusing? Do you think that blogging will supplant mainstream news Web sites and other established media?There will be similarities. But blogging and traditional journalism play by different rules and will remain distinct. They're meant to complement each other, play off of each other in terms of the readers' attention. What do I read when I wake up? I go to news sites. But I'm more excited right now about personal users. The 10 blogs I really care about are written by my friends. I'm interested in the community of a blog network. Even if you don't think that blogs will supplant traditional news media, don't you think they have had an impact?I think the biggest impact of blogs on mainstream journalism is the presence of a more personal voice. The popularity of the personal tone used by bloggers has caused traditional media to realize it's O.K. for some reporters to use "I." And now many mainstream news media outlets are now incorporating blogs on their Web sites. It makes sense. A reporter's or editor's blog provides a way to include details that might not make it into an official article or TV report -- and a strong sense of personality or identity associated with that journalist. What aspects of blog-software do you believe can be improved?I think blog tools can get easier to use. Putting together a blog should be as easy as sending an e-mail. I foresee the next versions of blog tools as focusing less on features that appeal to early adopters. They'll be easier for people to incorporate more media and maybe mobile capabilities. This will be important, because many more mainstream users will come to blogging. I believe the interest in blogging is just starting. And are there specific design challenges that you're focused on?The design of the blog really influences how and if people post comments. One big challenge today is that blog tools come with default templates. So we ask ourselves, what template design appeals to the largest number of people? What are they comfortable using? As a designer of templates, you have to keep in mind that people will see the template over and over again, but need to realize that it's not same person's blog. So it's important to design simple and bare-bones templates. Blogs need to be accessible-looking. It would be great to offer more decorative templates. But it's important to present blogs where you can focus on content and context. What blogs do you read regularly?I check out the LiveJournal blogs of about 30 friends. I like Nick Denton's Gawker and his other properties. But I tend to read fun gossip, the equivalent of an Us or a Star magazine. Gofugyourself is one that I find entertaining -- it features celebrities wearing ugly outfits. Are there any common misperceptions about blogs that you would like to debunk?Most people think of blogs as being primarily political or tech-focused. To most people, the important things they want to learn about have to do with people they know. So I think personal blogs are really the future, and with that comes a challenge for blogs to be more friendly and welcoming. Also, blogs are all about capturing and preserving information about our lives. And that makes me think of what might be the biggest future blog-design challenge: How do we design blogs that will archive and present 20 years worth of content?

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