There's Still Room for More and Better Social Networking: An Interview with SixApart's Andrew Anker

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Last week social software company SixApart launched Vox, its newest social networking and blogging service. The launch was high profile, the site is beautiful and many people (myself included) thought Vox was bringing something important to market. Not everyone agreed.

In the following QandA I queried Andrew Anker, Executive VP of Corporate Development at SixApart, about some of the biggest criticisms of Vox at launch. Prior to working at SixApart, Anker was co-founder and CEO of Wired Digital and a general partner at August Capital. I think these questions and answers will be of general interest to startups and social social software practitioners in general.

Anker told me that he thinks the social networking market is far from saturated and that there is a market in protecting privacy even if people don’t use it. He says that software can be both feature rich and accessible to non-technical users; that the world of online advertising is just beginning to move beyond “punch the monkey” style ads and has lots more room to develop as well.

The following are Anker’s replies, I’ll let you judge for yourself whether they are convincing. Graphics below are from a few of the site’s more than 150 layout templates.

Some people have wondered whether Vox is Just Another Social Network – how close to saturated is the social networking market?

We don’t think it’s anywhere near close to saturated, which I think is mostly evidenced by the fact that all of the current services are growing quite nicely. We’re far away from the zero sum market share stage of social media where one company’s new customer is someone else’s loss. To make an analogy, we believe we’re in a similar stage as cable television was in the mid 1980’s. There have been a few breakout hits like MySpace and Facebook, but we’re a long way away from having a diverse set of properties covering all of the different market segments and customer use cases.

More importantly to Vox, we believe there is very little out there that is adequate serving the older, non “hooking-up” market. MySpace is great, but it’s not the best place to share pictures of your children with the friends and family you are closest to.

What evidence is there of strong demand for privacy-centric tools for personal expression?

The easiest example we have is our own Live Journal, which has 11 million registered users, but Flickr’s amazing growth in what was already a crowded photo sharing space has also done a great job of proving the need for privacy tools. And to be specific, we believe that more important than privacy itself is control… giving users the ability to decide who can see what. The fact is, the majority of posts and photos on Vox (like on Live Journal) are not private. But our customers need to know that they can make something private if appropriate. Create first, decide who can see if after.

The privacy issues that Facebook had a few months back were all about control. As has been much written about – see danah boyd for example. Facebook didn’t expose any new data when they made those changes. But they gave users less sense that they controlled their own data, which was the root cause of the user protests.

One of the founding principles of the Web 2.0 idea (per Tim O’Reilly) is that users control their own data. As far as we’re concerned, that applies both to the ability to move their data from service to service as well as the ability to be able to decide who can view it.

Why do readers have to be logged in to Vox to post comments?

That’s a temporary limitation that will be fixed over time. We are still in rapid iteration mode in developing the site and that was just one of those features that we didn’t get to before launch. In order to open comments to everyone, we need better spam moderation tools than we have currently. As soon as we have those in place, we will open the site to public comments. To be clear, much in the same way that Voxers can control within Vox who can comment (anyone, friends, family), this
will also be a user settable thing.

How has the Vox team strategized around offering something both feature rich and accessible to non-geeks? What could the future look like in regards to these issues?

Building good usability is about doing thousands of small things right and balancing out feature rich with accessible to non-geeks is part of that process. Very early on in Vox’s development, we created a two week rapid iteration cycle where we made sure to push code religiously every two weeks. By doing that, we made sure that we were building a design cycle that was always two weeks away from fixing any problem.

We have Hitbox instrumented all over the site, an internal usability lab, a great support team reading all site feedback and a passionate group of developers who are also big Vox users. We are constantly
listening to both the implicit and explicit data we’re seeing on the usability side and constantly tweaking the site to make it friendlier.

The advertising on Vox is remarkably subdued and that’s great for users. Some people felt burnt, though, when LiveJournal recently introduced sponsored communities and features. Do ads on admin pages, modest public facing ads and affiliate revenues from partner sites have the potential to convert sufficiently or will Vox crumble and add flashing banners after a few months?

We’re certainly working hard to balance the needs of Vox users with advertisers and don’t believe that the audience we’re going after responds well to flashing banners and “punch the monkey” type messaging. Obviously we’re a business and need to make money. But we don’t see making money and doing advertising right as two mutually exclusive concepts.

As was announced last week, we’re working closely with our advertising partners to make sure we do it right. As early as social media is, we believe advertising on social media is even earlier. We are very confident that we can help it develop as one of the most effective media out there.

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