Six Apart's Booming Blogosphere
By Catherine Holahan
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When Mena Trott turned 23, she says she was forced to face an unfortunate truth: she wasn't destined for the kind of stardom that lands young women on the cover of entertainment and fashion magazines. The truly famous actresses and pop starlets were tabloid cover girls by their mid-20s, she reasoned. But Mena was anonymously toiling away at a small Web design studio. Who gets famous for Web design?
It was the spring of 2001 and Trott needed to vent. She logged on to Blogger.com, then a small site where Internet users published online journals known as Web logs, or "blogs," and began typing up humorous anecdotes of her life—the movies and TV shows she was watching, how her husband didn't want her to buy a banjo—the mundane but mildly interesting episodes that would nevertheless be picked over by US Weekly were she a star.
"I felt I had reached a turning point," Trott says. "I said, 'I've missed my chance to be famous.' And if I couldn't be really famous, then I could at least be famous online."
MILLIONS AND MILLIONS.
Those musings, compiled in a blog she called Dollarshort, would eventually lead to Six Apart, a package of tools that gives computer users a virtual soapbox from which to share opinions and stories with the Internet's vast audience. The largest independent Web log service, Six Apart is aiming to bring blogging further into the mainstream. Its history mirrors the development of blogging as a phenomenon—and its struggles reflect the challenges facing blogging's future.
More than 75,000 blogs are created every day, according to Technorati. By some estimates there are more than 100 million blogs in the world today. Six Apart hosts or supplies the technology for more than 15 million of them. It owns four services, starting with Movable Type, a publishing tool primarily for developers and businesses that have their own servers and want help designing sites. TypePad is a paid subscription tool for users who want to include pictures, videos, and other content but don't need multiple business accounts.
Two of Six Apart's tools are supported by ads. LiveJournal is a blogging and social-networking community primarily for the under-30 set, offering free, subscription, and advertiser-supported blog services. It alone boasts 11 million users. A recent addition, Vox, is similar to LiveJournal but has more privacy controls and is focused on a more mainstream audience. Since opening a test version in June, Vox has been completely advertiser-supported.
HOBBYIST TURNED PRO.
Six Apart has come a long way since the early days, when all Trott wanted was a way to include more comments, designs, and categories in her blog. At the time she was working at a design firm alongside her husband, programmer Ben Trott. When the firm closed, the couple decided to spend their newly found free time developing the needed application. "It was just a hobby," Trott says. "We figured we would do it for a couple months and then look for real jobs."
The pair launched Movable Type on Oct. 8, 2001. Within the first hour, 100 people had downloaded the service. Trott says part of the enthusiasm was a reaction to the terror attacks a few weeks earlier, on September 11. Many Americans were left with an intense desire to reach out to strangers and share their feelings, Trott says. "People wanted a voice."
Six Apart isn't alone in helping to provide one. The team at Blogger, begun in 1999, witnessed a similar reaction to the tragedy. The company, acquired by search giant Google (GOOG) in February, 2003, saw the largest number of new registrations in its history on Sept. 12. "People really just wanted to get their stories out there," says Jason Shellen, an early member of Blogger's team and now a manager of new business development at Google.
HOW IT BLOSSOMED.
As it turns out, Trott and her husband never did get around to finding "real" jobs. The number of users grew to the thousands, and Movable Type swiftly became a full-time occupation. Nine months after the release, Mena and Ben realized they had a viable company. They named it Six Apart after the number of days between their birthdays, and transformed the guest bedroom of their San Francisco apartment into a home office. Besides supporting existing clients, they began working on free upgrades, pay-to-license versions for corporate clients, and a brand-new application, TypePad, which would provide software and hosting.
The blogosphere was booming, and by 2002, several Silicon Valley startups were aggressively building better blog tools in hopes of eventually making money from subscription versions of the software or monetizing free subscribers. Blogger, the company developed by three friends in 1999, had narrowly survived the dot-com bust and was able to relaunch in 2000 with a new look and more capabilities. By 2002, it had lured hundreds of thousands of users, largely through word of mouth. "If you used Blogger you needed to include a little button on your site that said 'powered by Blogger' that lead back to Blogger," says Shellen.
LiveJournal, then an independent site, was doing even better, having gathered more than a million users since its launch in 1999 by Brad Fitzpatrick, then a university student. A recent entrant is WordPress, a free service that was downloaded almost a million times in 2005. WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg started blogging on Six Apart's Movable Type software. In the summer of 2002, before taking off for college, Mullenweg decided to design his own open-source, free-blogging platform and slowly began transforming the site into a hosted blog business. "We are definitely built on the shoulders of giants," says Mullenweg.
MONEY COMES KNOCKING.
Blogging's potential wasn't lost on venture capital firms and other would-be investors. By July, 2002, Six Apart began getting inquiries from Joi Ito, a Japanese entrepreneur who used the service and wanted to bring it to Japan. The Trotts were initially reluctant to accept investment fearing funders might take the company in an unwelcome direction.
The pair eventually changed their tune, after meeting Ito and Barak Berkowitz, then serving as the U.S. representative for Ito's company, Neoteny. In the next year and a half, Six Apart expanded to 50 employees, from two. It opened offices in Japan and Europe to help maintain and tap the quickly developing European market. In October, 2004, Six Apart sought additional investment. Venture Capital firm August Capital supplied about $10 million. Mena and Ben used some of the recent cash to acquire Danga Interactive, the parent company of LiveJournal. The acquisition added 5.5 million users to Six Apart's roughly million subscribers.
Big tech firms also were enamored of the prospect of bigger audiences and the associated ad revenue. Hence, Google's purchase of Blogger. Technorati estimates that more than 50,000 new posts are added to blogs each hour, reflecting a level of engagement advertisers can't resist.
In all, Six Apart has raised more than $23 million in funding, and the Internet is abuzz with rumors the company will go public before long. Executives say that's always been a possibility, though it's not imminent.
FREEDOM OF SPEECH.
For Six Apart, the LiveJournal acquisition provided not only new users and technology, but also a host of new challenges. The site's predominantly young user base had formed a vibrant community that wrote about a wide range of subjects, from music to misbehaving. Some blogs discussed drug and alcohol abuse, and in others, students gossiped about fellow classmates. There were even blogs advocating potentially deadly behavior, such as remaining anorexic and adopting an eating disorder as a way of life.
Some parents and health-care advocates said the blogs endangered the health and well-being of minors. Annie Hayashi, director of communications for the Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, says her group asked LiveJournal to take down its "pro-ed" and "pro-ana" blogs. Six Apart refused. "To a certain degree, they believe it's a First Amendment issue," says Hayashi, referencing letters she has received from Six Apart explaining LiveJournal's position. "It's an interesting philosophy, but from our standpoint it is very dangerous and destructive."
Trott sees it differently. Despite its public nature, blogging is essentially online journal writing, she says. People fill their journals with very personal experiences and opinions that others can find offensive. But that doesn't mean that they should be edited by strangers. "We don't police, we don't censor," Trott says, adding that people can choose not to read a blog or visit it. "We err on the side of our users. We err on the side of their privacy and protecting their identity."
That position has won Six Apart respect from bloggers. Identity and content protection has become increasingly important for bloggers as more corporations have awakened to blogging's widespread use and the damage that popular blogs can do to a brand. Google, Delta Airlines (DALRQ), and Microsoft (MSFT) have all let go of employees allegedly because of things written in blogs. In fact, getting fired for blog entries has become so common that it even has its own term—dooced (see BusinessWeek.com, 2/28/06, "Big Brother is Reading Your Blog").
CHOOSIER ABOUT AUDIENCES.
Protecting bloggers' privacy will only become more central. For starters, it's a way to block so-called comment spam, where people post multiple advertisements in the comment sections of blogs and other Web content. Private posts avoid unsolicited comments because search engines cannot crawl them.
As blogging becomes more mainstream, it's involving users who want to share stories, photos, and videos with family members and friends, not the public. "In 2001 or 1999, there were very few people consciously writing blogs," Trott says. "If I had 20 people visit my blog that was fun. Now with Google you have people who stumble on your post and comment, and sometimes they are nasty."
To that end, Six Apart's Vox marries social networking with blogging. The site lets bloggers specify which groups can see particular posts. Some posts can be marked as general, while others can be made available only to family members, friends, or other groups a user designates as in his neighborhood. A test version of Vox was released in June.
Social networking and blogging is not unprecedented. News Corp's (NWS) MySpace offers users blogs with limited privacy controls. Similarly, Microsoft's Windows Live Spaces has a social-networking component to its blogs. Trott says Six Apart's new offering is focused not on early-adopting college kids but people who may have aged out of MySpace or LiveJournal's target audience and don't wants blogs to include random comments from teenagers.
Blogs will also become increasingly wireless, says Andrew Anker, Six Apart's executive vice-president for corporate development. In March, Six Apart bought Splash Data, a maker of software that lets pictures and video captured with wireless devices be sent straight to blogs. Anker says he regularly updates his blog from on the road. He believes that such wireless updating will become the norm. In fact, Anker sees a future where people can share their lives with friends and family members in real time, sending pictures of the kids to grandma as the family is visiting the zoo, for example. "Yes, blogging will change your business," says Anker. "But it will also change the way you talk to your kids."
It even might change who gets to be famous.
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