The rise of Pinterest as a social platform and the growing number of similar web apps and services have turned “curation” into a buzzword and made reposting a popular and common practice. Another app is jumping on the bandwagon, albeit with a twist – Zeen brings back originality by letting its users create fresh content in an appealing and easy way.
Created by YouTube co-founders Steve Chen and Chad Hurley in 2012, Zeen attracted some media attention while it was in the invite-only phase of development. Though it's still labeled as beta, today anyone can register for a free account or log in with their existing Facebook and Twitter accounts.
What can you do with Zeen?
Here's a hint: Zeen is pronounced ['zi:n], which stands for “magazine”. If you've always wanted to publish a digital magazine, but never had access to or knowledge of advanced desktop publishing software, Zeen is perfect for you. You can make your own Zeens – digital magazines – quickly and effortlessly. Whether you want to collect and organize existing content or showcase your own work, Zeen is the most practical tool for this, because the only software you need is the browser.
Portability and sharing are the key features of Zeen; once you've created a magazine, you can embed it on your blog and share it on social networks (currently only Facebook, Twitter and Google+ are supported, but you can manually paste the link to your Zeen anywhere).
Another great feature is the support for different types of media – apart from text and images, you can add videos and links to external content to your Zeens. The developers suggest ideas like compiling a photo album or a cookbook, sharing videos and songs with your friends, or publishing a travel journal. I think Zeen can be used for many other, perhaps more serious purposes, such as a designer's, photographer's or writer's portfolio. You could even use it as a blogging platform; that is, publish your blog posts as Zeens.
How to use Zeen?
A Zeen account is required in order to create digital magazines. As mentioned previously, you can either log in with your Facebook/Twitter account, or create a new one. When doing the latter, you'll have to provide a first and last name, email address, password and a username. The username doesn't have to match your first name, but bear in mind that it will be a part of your profile URL (like this: zeen.com/yourusername), so choose wisely.
Your profile page is always visible to the public. You can share the link to it as you would share a link to your blog, for example. Sadly, the background image cannot be changed. Hopefully some future update will enable this feature. You can, however, add a profile picture and connect your Instagram, Flickr, Picasa, Facebook and Twitter accounts. Zeen can pull the content from those services so that you can use it in your magazines.
After you've set up your profile, you can click Discover and get inspired by other Zeens, or start working on your Zeen immediately by choosing Create.
A dialog box will appear, asking you to write the title and select a topic for your Zeen. If the default topics don't suit you, simply choose Blank and proceed.
The interface is very clean and bright, straightforward and without clutter. The layout is vertical, with a preview sidebar on the left and the editing area taking up the remaining screen space. You can add a cover image for your Zeen, which will function as a front page of the magazine. Zeen lets you choose images from its gallery, but if you're not happy with them you can always upload your own. They tend to load rather slowly compared to other content, so don't worry if you get an error – simply refreshing the page should fix the problem.
Customization options are presented in a vertical toolbar. You can choose one of the default templates and modify it by changing fonts (you can have different fonts for titles and links on the cover page, as well as for quotes, headings and text on content pages) and text color. The background image cannot be changed; it depends on the template and changes only if you pick a different one.
Your profile picture and the description that you've entered in your profile settings appear beneath the cover page. You can start adding content by clicking the icons in the horizontal toolbar.
Content in Zeen is represented by blocks. Clicking on any of the icons from the toolbar will add a content block to your Zeen; depending on the type, you will be able to upload, link to or enter your content. For instance, selecting Image will allow you to upload images from your computer, retrieve them from your connected accounts (Flickr, Instagram...) or perform a Google Image search directly from Zeen. The option to add video offers just a YouTube search box, which means you can't upload videos, only import those uploaded to YouTube.
Once you've uploaded the images, hovering over the content block will activate grey editing buttons on each side. Using the left ones you can either delete or move the content block. The ones on the right are different for each content type. For images, clicking on the upper one changes the layout (photoset, slideshow, landscape...). The lower button will let you caption the images and apply simple photo effects.
If you want to separate your content blocks, use the Section option. A section functions as a whitespace block, and you can stack several sections if you want more spacing between your content.
Publishing and sharing Zeens
Before you publish your Zeen, click Read to preview it. Reading mode offers selective preview in the sidebar dropdown menu.
If you wish, you can view just the images or only read the text. This option is also available when reading other people's Zeens. Other options include liking a Zeen, sharing it on supported social networks, and following an author. Depending on your profile settings, you can receive email notifications when someone you follow posts a new Zeen, or when someone follows you, and more.
Authors you follow and Zeens you liked are accesible from the menu next to My Zeens. Unfollowing authors feels a bit clumsy, because you either have to visit their profile or open one of their Zeens to unfollow them.
Creating a Zeen is simple, and publishing it even more so. Just select Publish and choose whether you want to share it publicly or privately. You can show your private Zeens to your readers, but they will need a private key to read them. Zeen will give you a special link with the key if you choose to publish a private Zeen. If it's a public Zeen, you can automatically post links to it on your social network profiles.
Congratulations, you are now a digital publisher! :) Your new Zeen is visible on your profile page. From there, you can choose the Embed Latest option, which will generate an HTML snippet. This code can be used as a preview of your publishing activity, or simply to promote your Zeen.
What about the competition?
Zeen is far from the only digital scrapbooking tool. There are at least a dozen very similar services, such as Convozine, Joomag, Calameo, Pressjack, or the more popular Paper.li and Issuu. Do we really need another one? (Not to mention the irony of an app that encourages originality and is at the same time built around a not-so-original concept.)
A quick look at the trends in consumer electronics and media consumption habits reveals the power of tablets and similar touchscreen devices. Since digital magazines are one of the most convenient types of media for these devices, it's safe to assume they will continue to be popular among users.
For now, Zeen has the advantage of being free – it doesn't force three different pricing plans on you. It doesn't have any hidden or exclusive features available only to premium users. It's not bloated with unnecessary menus and buttons. The interface is as simple as it gets, and so is the process of creating digital magazines. Some other services have the same functionality, but with a price tag. In that case, Zeen is a refreshing alternative; a one that's good to have. Even if there are some missing options or unpolished edges, Zeen is completely functional and very user-friendly. I recommend it to beginners and experienced users alike, since trying it won't cost you anything and you'll certainly have fun.
Ivana Isadora Devcic is a freelance writer, copyeditor and translator fluent in English, Swedish, Croatian and Norwegian. She's a Linux user and KDE fan interested in web design, productivity and personal branding. Ivana tweets about the world around her as @skadinna.