Hands on with the Zeen beta: Creation trumps curation here

zeenEarly this Spring, YouTube co-founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen quietly introduced to their new project, Zeen. At the time, very little was known about the stealth startup, except that it would be a platform for Web publishing. And that was about it.

In June, Hurley and Chen spoke about Zeen at Le Web, telling us that “in essence [Zeen will] allow people to build online magazines in a more visually rich way to present information.” And as I said at the time, this eased some of my early skepticism concerning Zeen. Whenever I hear “Web” and “magazine,” I’m about 90 percent sure we’re looking at yet another Flipboard clone that’s just being repackaged in fancy language that skews the lines between creation and curation.

But after getting some hands-on time with the Zeen beta, there’s no mistaking that this is a total creation, publishing platform. After creating your account and connecting your social profiles, you’re launched into a dashboard that prompts you to make a magazine or an issue. These are essentially e-booklets that revolve around multiple types of content: You can import Instagram photos, Twitter status, or search for what you want to pull in. After grabbing the news, images, videos, or links, you can add your own words and opinion to your pages.

zeen home dashboardWhile you can pull data all day long, and directly enter your own words, you can’t upload anything to Zeen, be it text doc or photo. Why this is, I’m uncertain; it seems pretty misguided to give me almost all the tools to create my own online publication, but stop just short of allowing me to use entirely original content.  

My other issue with Zeen is that, as a reader, the zines don’t have the fully immersive look that real-life magazines do. The margins are a little crowded (albeit it with relevant content, like suggested issues and notes from the author), but it bounces you out of the template a bit. Which is frustrating because the templates are quite nice: There is an array of typefaces and color schemes to choose from, and the writer hubs are equally clean and easy on the eyes.

zeen title editThe capabilities are still fairly elementary on the writer side, but it’s a rather interesting way to approach Web publishing – and honestly, what might be most exciting about all this is that there is clearly a lot of interest in evolving online media. Obvious Corp. struck a chord this week with Medium, a Pinterest-meets-Tumblr-meets-Wordpress self-expression tool.

As beautiful and striking as Medium is, we’re reinventing the wheel here. A blog is a blog is a blog; they’re just getting more interesting, more visual, more interactive, more community-oriented than they used to be. What we’re experiencing with Web publishing right now is evolution, not invention. But the excitement this creates means we’re ready and willing to start playing with the model, outside of the pure curation system.

Don’t get me wrong, I totally appreciate what curation has done with the online community. Sites like Tumblr and Pinterest have given us plenty to be thankful for (including easy-to-use self publishing tools for non-coders who still want to be creative), and re-posting and re-blogging and re-pinning aren’t all bad. But it can’t go on that way forever, unless we want to live in an echo chamber where finding something is hugely rewarded and making something easily forgotten.

Check out a few more screenshots from the Zeen beta. You can request an invite for early access here

zeen choose a style
zeen add social
zeen adding instagram
zeen search and add
zeen adding pages
zeen page one
zeen sun snaps
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