She’s the web industry’s darling. As pretty, charming and funny as approachable, the fast-talking 29-year-old usually has the audience wrapped around her little finger in no time. Not so at Les Blogs 2005, when Mena Trott, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based blogging company Six Apart, called Brit blogger Ben Metcalfe an “asshole” because he harshly voiced his disagreement with her thoughts on online civility (“this is bullshit”). This heated exchange may not be appropriate for a discussion on civility, but it illustrates how Mena’s frankness and unpretentiousness brings a fresh wind to a world that’s usually dominated by geeks, who, at times, can take themselves a tad too seriously. Mrs Trott is genuinely passionate about online civility and Six Apart’s latest blogging platform, Vox, is a direct result.
“Vox really came out of a need that we all felt personally as bloggers: to have something that felt more secure in the sense that we wanted something that could limit who could see our posts in blogging,” Mena explains. “All of our products are focused on receiving large amounts of traffic – if you’re going to be a blogger, you’re going to want to reach tens of thousands of people. Along the way, we realised that some of the best blogging is just communicating to small groups of people.”
Vox is incredibly easy to use, focuses on privacy settings and integrates a lot of popular web services such as YouTube, Flickr and iFilm. Launched at the end of October, it’s grown faster than any of the other Six Apart services, Movable Type, TypePad and LiveJournal. Vox attracts new bloggers and old bloggers alike, says Mena, even her mum who used to be intimidated by blogging. “In terms of passion, we’ve never seen people so into one of our products so early on. But what we were very surprised at was [attracting] those people who are tech savvy, who have professional blogs – that they have room in their lives for another method. They still want something that they could communicate with smaller groups with and still feel comfortable. What amazes me sometimes is when I see the people that I know personally, who have careers in this industry, use their Vox blog. It shows that people aren’t so burned out. They just wanted something different.”
Civility and privacy
And that’s where Mena Trott's thoughts on online civility, accountability and the need for privacy come in: “The fun’s definitely been lost for personal bloggers. If you’re a blogger and you just want to write about things that are happening in your life, there’s so many people online who are reading blogs that you tend to attract the kind of people you don’t find that desirable into reading your stuff. And if you think about it, search engines, for one thing, have made finding a blog incredibly easy. So, if you’re writing a post about what you did with your family, or your hobby, then someone looks up a term in Google, for example, and finds your blog and may criticise your post and attack you for something that you didn’t ever intend to be public in the first place.”
Mena says that many people who objected to her speech in 2005 have since changed their perception, and have experienced the negative sides of blogging. “All it takes is for you to have a child in the past two years, a parent that’s ill or something that’s happened to you that you don’t feel like sharing with the world, but you still want to communicate.
“Unless we have an environment where people feel that they can be secure and comfortable without having to have to fight trolls, people aren’t going to want to come to blogging. And our goal is to bring as many people to blogging as possible. A lot of existing bloggers right now are worried about the idea of the mainstream masses coming to blogging because it will ruin their pure medium. I think it’s actually really exciting that new people are coming to the table because they have more interesting things to say other than some of the more ‘circular’ conversations that seem to happen.”
From blogs to riches
Mena Trott, a freelance designer at the time, started using Blogger.com in 2001, and when her husband Ben wrote a program to help her update her blog, they realised that there was a great interest on the web for the tool that was later to become Movable Type. It led to the foundation of Six Apart (thus named because the couple’s birthdays are six days apart), today the largest independent blogging company, with offices in the US, Europe and Japan. More than 15 million people around the world use Six Apart’s services – a pronounced difference to 2001, when Mena still had to explain what blogging was and why people would want to do it. It wasn’t easy. As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Mena often found herself marginalised by business partners. “My husband and I founded the company,” she explains, “so it was a man and woman team. That’s the same case with Flickr and Stewart [Butterfield] and Caterina [Fake]. It’s interesting ... I wonder if having the husband component or the co-founder who’s a man helps because it allows for more legitimacy? We overcompensated at the beginning by making myself spokesperson, and it worked well because Ben doesn’t like talking at all. I do wish there were more women around. You can count on one hand how many women are prominent in this field.”
The thing Mena personally loves most about blogging is the life-recording aspect. She’s always been into the idea of a community online and says she reads about 50 blogs a day, most of which are personal family or friends’ blogs on Vox (“If there’s something that’s broken on a blog that’s really good, I’ll find it because someone will link to it”). Her own blog is mostly filled with fluffy content (the latest on her dog Maddy, for instance) and she’s started uploading a picture of herself every day just for herself. “It’s not necessarily communicating with the whole world,” enthuses Mena, “but being able to capture these moments and then being able to share them ultimately. That’s what gives me the most promise, to know that one day I might have a record of my life of the past 20 years on my blog.”
This is why the perception of blogging needs to change. It’s turned into something you can do to record your life. “The biggest challenge now is to get people over the idea that all bloggers are exhibitionists,” says Mena. “When you tell somebody about blogging, they know the big picture. And the big picture tends to be ‘these are the people who spend all their time talking about blogging, writing about blogging, spending their time just sitting by the computer’. What we’re trying to say is blogging is just a method, like email. We want to get blogging to the point of email in terms of acceptance and understanding, that it’s just one way that helps improve our life.”
Mena believes that blogging’s peak has yet to come, and there will be a more distinct split between professional and consumer blogging (hence Six Apart’s restructuring into two divisions). If she’s right, we will integrate our lives into blogging and use our cameras and phones to blog when we’re out and about. Mobile is a huge component to having an online presence. Our preferred choice for this hub, incorporating features from Amazon, Flickr and YouTube, will be Vox, making it “the best of both worlds”. It looks like Vox could be Six Apart’s “break-out hit” (there’s already an impressive Vox Mobile app), and Mena is on the way to realising her goal: to turn the company into the “best blogging provider in cyberspace”.