Back in August of 2012, Medium — the new-publishing-platform-on-the-block — was launched with mixed reviews. 13 months later, it’s high time we cast an eye over what all the fuss was about.
There was justifiable excitement surrounding this fresh venture from Twitter founders, Evan Williams and Biz Stone. With a history like theirs, there was an understandable air of hope and confidence that Medium would bring something unique to the web (as we’ve demandingly come to expect from this duo).
But, when the reviews started coming in, there was a tinge of confusion and disappointment at what was presented.
Several critics complained (or unexcitedly commented) that Medium is, at least at first glance, little more than a dolled up mixture between the nice features of already existing platforms. Wired claimed it was a cross between Pinterest and Reddit. ReadWrite compared it to a ”categorized Tumblr.” There was nothing, really, to ignite any passion here. Nothing to sit back and say ”Why haven’t we done this before?!” Nor was there anything to prompt a “say Whaaat? This is ridiculous!“ as was the oft-heard view on Twitter soon after its launch. Medium just seemed a bit…non-descript — A bit lacking.
There was no denying that Medium was nice, for sure. But few people regarded it as being disruptive and even doubted whether it brought anything of value to the somewhat already crowded online publishing sphere.
But when we look at Medium now (taking into account its evolution since the launch) the answer of what Williams and Stone likely had in mind with this project has become somewhat clearer. And from an outsider’s perspective, they’re succeeding in this hypothesis (especially noting their current, very respectable Alexa rank of 6575), but this angle of success is not what some were expecting.
Recently, Williams published a short article on Medium which read:
“Not all products can be the hero. Some play supporting roles. Some have bit parts. People need to understand your character’s role. It can’t have too many dimensions. Choose wisely. Don’t confuse. Don’t be too greedy.”
Is this William’s response to people’s lack of clarity on Medium’s purpose? Perhaps. But it also shows the thought pattern that goes into Williams’ projects: the end product doesn’t need to be the king of the arena, but it needs to do something well. It needs to stand out in at least one respect. And why should Medium be any different?
Here’s my take.
Consider personal blogs: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Blogger, Instagram etc. Each and every one of these platforms has the spotlight shining firmly and strongly on the author. Each of these platforms is a soapbox for the protagonist of the story, for the individual involved at the heart of the operation.
From each of these pedestals, we can paint a picture of exactly who we want to be. We can fake our way to being interesting, thoughtful, intelligent and fun. We can flood our networks with proof of all we’ve done with our lives, and how wonderful (or miserable) our world is. Pure vanity or not, we are, each and every one of us, given the means, and power necessary to create celebrities of ourselves.
We can command sympathy, jealousy, awe and respect. With these personal, instant newsfeeds, it’s all possible. All that’s at stake is our online reputation. How ‘fixable’ that may be is another article entirely, but many never even consider this potential downside.
But Medium steps away from this in a refreshing, and, arguably, much needed way. For the first time (on a larger, more successful scale), we can see people from all forms of backgrounds with hugely diverse interests coming together to simply write (you can’t fault Medium’s ability to attract contributors who write exceptionally well, and it’s unlikely you’ll find a contributor who claims they write on Medium simply to ”build their influence”, or ”enhance their reputation.” It’s just not that kind of place.
Egos have little place here. Granted, your personal influence can have somewhat of an indirect impact on your popularity among the ranks of Medium’s invited contributors, but in general, given the way Medium is structured, with recommended posts, editors, picks etc, this is kept to a minimum. All writers are, pretty much, on an equal footing. This isn’t so much a meritocracy, or even democracy (even though Medium is cited as ”democratising publishing”) as it is communism (in a good way).
To get a more personal perspective here, I asked a couple of Medium’s contributors to tell me what they found so special about the platform, and the answers shine an interesting light on what’s going on here.
Financial Times contributor Ian Sanders, mentioned two aspects of Medium that made it stand out among other publishing options. “1. I love writing and editing on the platform. 2. It delivers an audience for my ideas”. Entrepreneur and Journalist Espree Devora explained that she chose to use Medium “When I want to express myself in a specific way,” and tellingly explained “I have taken chances sharing insights into my life I hadn’t shared before on other blogging platforms…Medium’s objective is for people to only write quality posts worth reading”.
The common thread here is the ability to express ideas more efficiently than other platforms. And this is the thread I believe Williams and Stone are taking with Medium. No other platform is quite as adept at getting across more contemplative ideas. Twitter is too short-form. Blogs are often more focused on the writer than the idea. Facebook networks just don’t seem to have the patience for ‘ideas’. News oriented websites are too fast moving. The list goes on. When Einstein said “We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive,” he unlikely had any of the above in mind.
But Medium is a platform centered not on people, nor on fame. It has little interest in publishing ”timely” content — in fact, it seems to discourage it. What Medium is interested in is the ideas that its contributors can offer.
For once, a platform is interested not just in the numbers of people visiting its pages (well, not openly), or on the number of users is has, but on the quality of ideas it’s releasing to the world: primarily ones which will stand the test of time, or in marketing terms, that will prove to be ”evergreen” ideas.
Medium has become a site where people who enjoy the more platonic ideals….the thoughtful and contemplative of us, can congregate, contribute, and find a disparate array of interests and ideas, all of which will tickle the cognitive taste-buds far more than you would expect from a traditional news site, most blogs, or any of the social networks.
And this is all thanks, I believe, to the curatorial approach taken to recruiting contributors (invite only). The weight behind the names of Williams and Stone mean that, when writers such as Ian Sanders are invited to contribute, they will take notice, providing a self-fulfilling prophecy of the publication of decent, well thought out ideas.
It’s this ”confidence” in the founders that’s responsible, I believe, to a large degree for the calibre of writers that have been recruited so swiftly that other entrepreneurs would more than likely have failed at.
And therein lies the irony of Medium; the platform that defies egotism, and personal celebrity, is succeeding largely because of the personal celebrity of its founders (not that this matters of course, but it’s an interesting footnote nonetheless).
So where can things go from here for Medium?
Granted, I’m in no position to second guess the motives or aspirations of Williams and Stone, but to be able to create a site with such high calibre contributors, and with such influential founders, seems to set the site on course to become, perhaps, a more philosophical version of the Guardian newspaper.
The same thoughtful, insightful content, but with a more permanent air to its relevance, which will demand a loyalty (as the Guardian has), of die-hard readers. Maybe even the same kind of thoughtfulness and ”ideas” that Martin Luther King, Jr. was appealing to when he said “Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.” Could Medium be a remedy to this symptom?
Either way, whether this can turn a profit remains to be seen. The guardian is openly struggling, but maybe Medium can pull something out of the bag here., But, right now, let’s just make the most of the fact that at least there is somewhere where we can retire to after a hard day’s toil, confident that we will find thoughtful, well written (or drawn, or photographed, or recorded) content that actually aims to give some real insight into our myriad situations, written by those who (largely) seem capable of writing something actually worth reading.
Long live ideas!