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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

13 ways of looking at Medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and Obvious

The new startup from the creators of Blogger and Twitter says it’s “rethinking publishing and building a new platform from scratch.” It’s also raising some fundamental questions about how content on the web is structured.

[With apologies to Wallace Stevens, the finest poet to ever serve as vice president of the Hartford Livestock Insurance Company.]


Medium is a new online publishing platform from Obvious Corp. It launched yesterday. Obvious is the most recent iteration of the company that created Blogger, Odeo, and Twitter. Blogger was the outfit that, until it was bought up by Google, did the most to enable the early-2000s blogging boom. Odeo was a podcasting service that never really took off — 20 percent ahead of its time, 80 percent outflanked by Apple. Twitter — well, you’ve heard of Twitter.

Ev Williams, the key figure at every stage, tweeted about Medium yesterday in a way that slotted it right into the evolutionary personal-publishing chain he and his colleagues have enabled: Let’s try this again!


Medium has been described as “a cross between Tumblr and Pinterest.” There’s some truth to that, in terms of presentation. Like Tumblr, it relies on artfully constructed templates for its structural power; like Pinterest, it’s designed to be image-heavy. But those surface issues, while interesting, are less consequential than the underlying structure of Medium, which upends much of how we think about personal publishing online.


When the Internet first blossomed, its initial promise to media was the devolution of power from the institution to the individual. Before the web, reaching an audience meant owning a printing press or a broadcast tower. It was resource-intensive, and those resources tended to congeal around companies — organizations that had newsrooms, yes, but also human resource departments, advertising sales staffs, and people to man the phones when your paper was thrown into the bushes (we’re very sorry about that, Mrs. Johnson, we’ll be happy to credit your account).

The web, by reducing potential worldwide access to basic knowledge of [1996: Unix and <table> tags; 1999: how to input FTP credentials; 2005: how to come up with a unique login and password; 2010: how to stay under 140 characters], eliminated, at least in theory, the need for organizations. (Vide Shirky.)


In theory. In reality, organizations still had some enormous advantages. Organizations are sustainable; they outlive the vagaries of human attention. Some individuals flourished in the newly democratic blogosphere. But over time, people got bored, got new jobs, found new interests, or otherwise reached the limits of what people-driven, individual-driven publishing could accomplish for them. The political blogosphere — the cacophony of individual voices on both left and right circa, say, 2004 — evolved toward institutions, toward Politico and TPM and The Blaze and HuffPo and the like.

Personal publishing is like voting. In theory, it’s the very definition of empowerment. In reality, it’s an excellent way for your personal shout to be cancelled out by someone else’s shout.


That was when a few smart people realized that there was a balance to be found between the organization and the individual. The individual sought self-expression and an audience; the organization sought sustainability and cash money. Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So Facebook built a way for people to express themselves (by providing free content) to an audience (through their self-defined network of friends), while selling ads around it all. It’s a pretty good business.

So Twitter (Ev, Jack, and crew) build a way for people to express themselves, in a format that was genius in its limitations and in its old-media model of subscribe-and-follow — again, transformed from institutions to individuals. It’s not as good of a business as Facebook, probably, but it’s still a pretty good business.

So Tumblr, Path, Foursquare, and a gazillion others have tried to pull off the same trick: Serve users by helping them find an outlet for personal expression, then build a business around those users’ collective outputs. It’s publishing-as-platform, and it’s the business model du jour in this unbundled, rebundled world.


What’s most radical about Medium is that it denies authorship.

Okay, maybe not denies authorship — people’s names are right next to their work, after all. But it degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.

The shift to blogging created a wave of new individual media stars, but in a sense it just shifted traditional media brands to a new, personal level. Instead of reading The Miami Herald or Newsweek, you read Jason Kottke or John Gruber. So long, U.S. News; hello, Anil Dash. They were brands in the sense that your attraction to their work was tied to authorship — you wanted to see what Lance Arthur or Dean Allen or Josh Marshall or Ezra Klein was going to write next. The value was tied to the work’s origin, its creator.

And while social networks allowed that value to be spread, algorithmically, much wider, the proposition was much the same. You were interested in your Facebook news feed because it was produced by your friends. You were interested in your Twitter stream because you’d clicked “Follow” next to every single person appearing in it.


Degrading authorship is something the web already does spectacularly well. Work gets chopped and sliced and repurposed. That last animated GIF you saw — do you know who made it? Probably not. That infonugget you saw on Gawker or The Atlantic — did it start there? Probably not. Sites like Buzzfeed are built largely on reshuffling the Internet, rearranging work into streams and slideshows.

It’s been a while since auteur theory made sense as an explanation of the web. And you know what? We’re better for it. In a world of functionally infinite content, relying on authorship doesn’t scale. We need people to mash things up, to point things out, to sample, to remix.


Where Medium zags is in structuring its content around what it calls “collections.” Here’s Ev:

Posting on Medium (not yet open to everyone) is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. All posts are organized into “collections,” which are defined by a theme and a template.

The burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. That’s a real issue, right? I’ve talked to lots of journalists who want to have some outlet for their work that doesn’t flow through an assigning editor. But when I suggest starting a blog, The Resistance begins. I don’t know how to start a blog. If I did, it’d be ugly. Or: I’d have to post all the time to keep readers coming back. I don’t want to do that. Starting a blog means, for most, committing to something — to building a media brand, to the caring and feeding of an audience, to doing lots of stuff you don’t want to do. That’s why ease of use — the promise of Facebook, the promise of Twitter, the promise of Tumblr — has been such a wonderful selling point to people who want to create media without hassle. Every single-serving Tumblr, every Twitter account updated sporadically, every Facebook account closed to only a few friends speaks the same message: You can do this, it’s simple, don’t stress, you’ll be fine.


So Medium is built around collections, not authors. When you click on an author’s byline on a Medium post, it goes to their Twitter feed (Ev synergy!), not to their author archive — which is what you’d expect on just about any other content management system on the Internet. (The fact we call them content management systems alone tells you the structural weight that comes from even the lightest personal publishing systems.) The author is there as a reference point to an identity layer — Twitter — not as an organizing principle.

As Dave Winer noted, Medium does content categorization upside down: “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” He means collection in Medium-speak, but you get the idea: Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.

(This just happens to be promising from a business-model perspective. Who needs silly content contributors asserting authorial privilege when the money starts to flow? Demoting the author privileges the platform, which is nice if you own the platform.)


At one level, Medium is just another publishing platform (join the crowd): You type in a title, some text, maybe a photo if you want, hit “Publish” and out comes a “post,” whatever that means these days, on a unique URL that you can share with your friends. (And let me just say, as a Blogger O.G. from the Class of ’99, that Medium’s posting interface brought back super-pleasant memories of Blogger’s old two-pane interface. Felt like the Clinton years again.)


Ev writes that a prime objective of Medium is increased quality: “Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced.” That’s probably true: There are orders of magnitude more content published every day than was the case in 1999, when Blogger launched as a Pyra side project. The mass of quality content is much higher too, of course, but it’s surrounded by an even-faster-growing mass of not-so-great (or at least not-so-great-to-you) content.

Medium takes a significant step in that direction by violating perhaps the oldest blogging norm: that content appears in reverse-chronological order, newest stuff up top, flowing forever downward into the archives. Reverse chron has been key to blogging since Peter Merholz made up the word. (Older than that, actually — back to the original “What’s New” page at NCSA in 1993.) For the pleasure centers in the brain that respond to “New!,” reverse chron was a godsend — even if traditional news organizations were never quite comfortable with it, preferring to curate their own homepages through old-fashioned ideas like, you know, editorial judgment.

Medium believes in editorial judgment — but everyone’s an editor. Like the great social aggregators (Digg is dead, long live Digg), Medium relies on user voting to determine what floats to the top of a collection and what gets dugg down the bottom. (A reverse chron view is available, but not the default.) It’ll be interesting to see how that works once Medium is really a working site: Will a high-rated story stick to the top of a collection for weeks, months, or years, forever pushing new stuff down? The tension between what’s good and what’s new is a long-standing one for online media, and privileging either comes with drawbacks — new material never reaching an audience, or good stuff being buried beneath something inconsequential posted 20 minutes later.

Considering Obvious Corp.’s heritage in Blogger and Twitter — both of which privilege reverse chron, Twitter existentially so — it’s interesting to see Ev & Co. thinking that a push for quality might entail a retreat from the valorization of newness.


There’s been a lot of movement in the past few months toward alternative, “quality” platforms for content on the web. Branch is based on the idea that web comments are shit and that you have to create a separate universe where smart people can have smart conversations., the just-funded paid Twitter alternative, is attractive to at least some folks because it promises a reboot of the social web without the “cockroaches” — you know, stupid people. Svbtle, an invite-only blogging platform, is aimed only at those who “strive to produce great content. We focus on the writing, the news, and the ideas. Everything else is a distraction.”

This new class of publishing platforms, like Medium, is uniformly beautiful. Its members share a stripped-down aesthetic that evokes the best of the early web (post-<blink> tag, pre-MySpace), modernized with nice typography, lovely textures, and generous white space. (Medium, in particular, seems to be luxuriate in giant FF Tisa, evocative of Jeffrey Zeldman’s huge-type redesign back in May.)

This new class has also been criticized with variations on the white flight argument — the idea that the privileged flee common spaces and platforms once they stop being solely the realm of an elite and become too popular. (Vide danah boyd. Also vide your favorite indie band, the first time you heard them on the radio.)

For (just) a moment, strip away the political implications of that critique: What each of these sites argues, implicitly, is that the web norms that we’ve evolved over the past decade err toward crassness and ugliness. That advertising — which all these sites lack, and which is proving to be less-than-sufficiently-remunerative for lots of “quality” online media — is an uninvited guest in our reading experiences. That the free-for-all of a comments thread creates broken-windows-style chaos. That the madness of the web might be tamed through better tools and better platforms. That the web’s pressure to Always Keep Posting New Stuff leads to a lot of dumb stuff being posted. It’s a critique of pageview chasing, a critique of linkbait, a critique of content farms, a critique of SEO’d headlines — a yearning for something more authentic, whatever the hell that means.

I think we’d all like to know what that means. And how to get there.


Is Medium the route there? I’m skeptical.

I’m unclear who, beyond an initial crowd of try-anything-once types, will want to publish via Medium, as lovely as it is. Or at least I’m unclear on how many of them there are. The space Medium occupies stands between two poles. On one side, you’ve got people who want to hang out a shingle online and own their work in every possible sense. On the other, you’ve got people who are happy in the friendly confines of Facebook and Twitter, places where they can reach their friends effortlessly and not worry about writing elegant prose. Is there an audience between those two poles that’s big enough to build something lasting? Is this Blogger or Twitter, or is it Odeo?

But even if Medium isn’t a hit, however that gets defined these days, I think Ev & Co. are onto something here. There are seeds of a backlash against the beautiful chaos the web hath wrought, the desire for a flight to quality. There will be new ways beyond ease of use to harness the creative powers of the audience. And there will be new ways to structure content discovery that go beyond branding authorship and recommendation engines. Those trends are real, and whatever happens to Medium, they’ll impact everyone who publishes online.

Blackbird photo by Duncan Brown used under a Creative Commons license.

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  • Ric Camacho

    Great discussion on the move away from the fetish of newness and reverse chron. However, I think it is a huge leap to assume that popularity equates to quality. This is the age old debate on the internet and the leap from one to the other by the author here is a staggeringly huge one.

  • James Chan

    I think the concept of “quality” is subjective.  An article which is acceptable to normal folks might not be of the high quality demanded by a journalism professor, for example. 

  • Joshua Benton

    Agreed. Although I’d note that, at least from what I can tell, collections aren’t sorted by popularity (that is, how many people read something, e.g. pageviews). They’re sorted by the average rating of quality from the audience, which is based on the frequency with which people said “This is good” with a click.

    Now, I’m sure the math’s more complicated than that, because a story that’s read once and rated highly by that one visitor shouldn’t be ranked higher than one that’s been read a gazillion times and rated highly (0.95)*(gazillion) times. But it’s not just a straight “most read” formula.

  • Joshua Benton

    Very true, which is one of the biggest challenges to trad media online — they had a monopoly on defining quality for a long time. Different people value different kinds of quality.

  • ranjanxroy

    This is the single most though-provoking piece on the recent deluge of future of news/content products, and even on the general history of content on the web, that I’ve read in a long, long time. Think I’m gonna have to sit back and read this again and again.  

    Only initial reaction in relation to the white flight argument: is this “beautiful”, stripped-down aesthetic an uniquely Western/elitist one? The “Chinese Internet” is already defined with near chaos symbolizing professionalism, and for me, elegance is only a virtue if it focuses enhances core functionality rather than leaving ‘cool features out’.

    Other note though is I see it in the startup world around me (working out of a coworking space in NYC). I feel a few years ago it was all around creating tools to enable broadcasting. Now everyone I talk to is focused on enabling content discovery, or more humanly, just making sense of what’s out there. 

    Thanks again. You just summarized the internet.

  • Joshua Benton


    Re: white flight, I don’t know anywhere near enough about the Chinese Internet to comment intelligently, other than to perhaps note that it’s not uncommon for non-Western elites to valorize Western luxury goods as a social differentiator (e.g., the nouveau riche from Asia/Middle East who account for so much of the revenue of luxury good makers).

    If I were thinking about a frame for sites like the ones we’re talking about, I think thinking of them as luxury goods isn’t a bad one. Both are about a mixture of (a) legitimate pursuit of quality and (b) differentiation from mass consumption patterns. 

  • digidave

    There is certainly an element of Medium that is absolutely beautiful. As a concept – I am not convinced it is MIND BLOWING. It reminds me of other publishing platforms I have seen. The difference between say this and Jonathan Harris’ CowBird are somewhat minimal except that Jonathan Harris custom built his and hosts “themes” and Medium will be open so that anyone can host their own “cowbird” type theme. Maybe I’m being dense though. 

    Still: There is potential in creating a beautiful and functional tool that accomplishes what Medium hopes to set out for. I just don’t feel like it’s as mind-blowing as Twitter was when I first saw it.

  • TangaBooo

    Never really thought about it like that before, It makes a lot of sene dude. 

  • Morgan Warstler

    So it is a publishing platform for Twitter Cards…

    Which are specifically built to be ads.

  • pjbrunet

    Why no mention of WordPress?

  • Abdallah Al-Hakim

    I am liking the idea of a place to find quality articles, however, I am big fan of comments and I think they bring a lot of value to an article. Also, If I was a contributor to an article then I would want something beyond a voting system that limits the the engagement between author and the audience. I find it difficult to see the value of writing an article and not wanting to get any feedback. Still, I will be interested in their progress and how they integrate with twitter

  • CS Clark

    Very interesting, and I can now spend the next hour curating this by liking it, digging it, tweeting it, updating a wikipedia entry with reference to it, starting a thread on a forum based on it and if I have time writing my own Google+ post. (I’m joking, I don’t have a Google+ account (as far as I know).) Oh, and emailing people a link. For here, four things that I’ve thought as a result of reading this.

    1. Twitter (and Facebook) brought something that Blogger didn’t – the power of the pre-existing celebrity. In some ways they replaced the organisation as a source of power. There isn’t/wasn’t many personal blogs of actors, musicians or politicians that were cited as primary sources the way that Twitter is. With things like Digg, you can get site celebrities, but that’s it. If that exists in Medium, are we going to get the top pieces on any topic being liked/upvoted/whatever because they’re from Bieber, Pattinson or – best case scenario – Stephen Fry?

    2. Is what this is reinventing… Wikipedia? Wikipedia is curated topic-organised content, mashed together and rewritten a bit. It doesn’t have chronology, unless you want to specifically look at it, but it does promise a gradual refinement towards quality.

    3. Kudos to the guys for not using yet another fake word, but for the life of me I can’t think how Medium can be transformed into a verb, or what an individual Medium post would be, or what a collection of posts would be (Medes?). This is so good, I’m gonna Medium it? Urgh.

    4. I think beautiful chaos pretty much died a long time ago, and what we have now is mostly responsible for its death. (Facebook, in the conservatory, with the rope.) People are uneasy because at each step of the way, as more chaos was killed, they were promised that perfection would be here soon, and that they would become completely happy and fulfilled because of it. Medium just continues the trend. People would be happier if they realised that no, it’s not actually important to cut out the cruft and just read the ‘best’ ten Mediums (see?) on any given topic. It’s not important to get a breaking piece of news five minutes quicker than you would if you had CNN turned on all the time. There’s a world of fantastic, amazing things out there, and you’re missing them and spending much of your time experiencing meh, *and that’s ok*.

  • Chris Brogan

    Holy cats. This was a well considered article. It gave me a lot to think about for sure. Thanks for opening the discussion. I don’t have a lot to add at this point because I think I’m still digesting, but I wanted to tip my hat. 

  • Anon User

    This post could just as easily be talking about Quora, yet it doesn’t get a mention. I’m curious to hear why.

  • Jeff Blaine

    Of course it is. Nobody’s going to develop a Perfect answer to matching every reader’s standard of quality. That’s not the goal, as it’s unattainable. The goal is “much more signal than noise, overall, as determined by readers voting”. You are surely going to read a small (ideally) percentage of supposedly quality items that you consider sub-par.

  • rone

    “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” Wow! Like when you post to a newsgroup in Usenet! Remember Usenet? Boy, Usenet was awesome. Let’s continue to reïnvent it poorly and in pieces!

  • jayasimhan

    One of the obstacles that Medium would face is incentives. Like the author of this post eloquently puts it, Medium degrades authorship. People blog for a living. They want credit for their production and rightly so. Pushing the author to the background is great for the consumers, not the readers.
    Medium needs to find ways to provide incentives to these professional bloggers, who are also some of the best creators.

    A late thought: Creators could use the creation itself to increase their credibility.

  • daaain

    Reminds me of Cowbird, a lot:

    That said, Cowbird doesn’t want to be mainstream on purpose, while Medium seems to have higher ambitions.

  • &epagenyc

    Here’s my problem with all this. Once again we’re forgetting the fact that writers need to make a living. And yes, we’d all like to get out from under the thrall of publishers/editors/producers but we still need to make a living. Which is why enticing us w/ a competition – the best stuff gets voted to the top – isn’t enough. Who gets paid? The “medium.”. Nice for the “medium” – not so nice for the ink- stained wretch. Which is why youtube’s model is so much more evolved. Yes you get voted to the top. But then you get paid.

  • Dbpubs

    I like how, at the end of the article, the buttons exist to ‘Like’ this in Facebook, et al. =]

  • Taylor Wray

    First, thanks for a superbly written post.  I found it clear, concise, and insightful.  Second, to answer your implied question toward the end, I’m one of the people to whom Medium sounds extremely appealing.  I’ve maintained a casual blog (on Blogger, coincidentally) for 4-5 years now, and I’ve tallied over 20,000 pageviews, which I don’t think is all that many but seems nice to think about in an abstract way.  Beyond getting excited when more than 20 people look at my blog on any given day, I haven’t seen a lot of long-term rewards, and I’ve received virtually zero comments or fruitful exchanges about my ideas or my writing, even though that’s one of the primary reasons I started a blog. 

    So I’m going to create a Medium account after I finish writing this comment because it seems like that interaction and evaluation of my writing and ideas by others will be a built-in facet of the platform.  No longer will I just be ranting into the ether – the ether will be required, on some level, to rant back.  Plus, I’ll still be personally credited so if one of my Medium posts does happen to blow up, I can use it as a much better “author showcase” or whatever than just a random, really intelligent blog post I wrote that nobody looked at.  Bonus!

  • JohnDoey

    On the Web, newest-at-top goes back to a list of links in the original pages put up by Tim Bereners-Lee, well before 1993.

  • JohnDoey

    Popularity does not show quality, but it does show usefulness. And reducing the amount of useless stuff you see DOES increase the quality of a reader’s Web experience.

  • Jon Hadley

    Brilliantly insightful, well written article – which begs the question, unless it’s some poor stab at irony, what’s with the awful, link bait, title and layout?

  • Reuben

    What Ric Camacho said: “a huge leap to assume that popularity equates to quality”.

    That’s pure market-led thinking. It’s not applicable to all contexts.

    Popularity as a benchmark assumes that we all want the same things.

    Over and over again, the evolution of the web proves we don’t. People keep finding ways to do things independently, despite the efforts of the Facebooks and the Googles to monopolise.

    As our interest, specialisation or search becomes more unique, there’s less and less economic incentive to address it/cater to it. Hence, the visibility of popularity-driven strategies and algorithms inherently marginalises and silences, streamlines in that industrial-era wind-tunnel way, where different companies produce different (yet oddly similar) versions of the same car in different eras – use the same info/tools, get the same results.

    Competitive advantage lies in the tactical ability to seek out the singular, the unique, *that which the mainstream can’t already/easily access themselves* and present access to that as an advantage your product or service has over others.

    All this Pollyanna talk about how great killing the author/IP equals democratisation is bullsh*t, you don’t ‘empower’ consumers with ‘more choice’ (more choice isn’t always better) and really is a bunch of quasi-inspirational, New Age cant masking what IS streamlined and improved by that approach to content: the trackability, measurability, predictability and finally manageability of consumption behaviours to suit particular commercial ends. Sorry long rant. 

  • Pedro_Bluck

    This whole post could be a perfect description of what is doing since few months, a service described as “Between nothing and a blog”.

  • Jonah Keegan

    People self-curate on Twitter through #hashtags, and on Tumblr through reblogs, those two platforms support a greater diversity of behaviors than you acknowledge, and it seems (forgive me, I haven’t explored Medium) based on your review, Medium is hoping to attract folks at the top of the power-law curve for these types of behaviors… the tension for me is that it does not seem to reward those authors, and that’s the carrot from non-algorithmic aggregators like Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook, that seek to monetize other people’s content, you have to stroke the ego. If, like Pinterest, they can use “authorless/author-degraded” content to become a monster source of referral traffic to those degraded authors thru image links, that could drive adoption, but you present a false binary set of behaviors at the end and question if there is a userbase for the “middle way,” there is, because behaviors on these platforms (
    Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook ) are not binary, the real question is whether or not Medium offers sufficient value to the people engaged in those behaviors… and a key question there is when you click on an image in Medium, or the title of the odd post, or quote, or whatever else they throw up there, where do you go? If Medium controls that link I think they are more likely to fail, if the author controls that link, then they are a “Pinterest that encourages some textual content,” and can become another player in the Pinterest/SVPPLY premium affiliate, catalog disintermediation space.

  • lacewingedpoet

    Yes! to this idea. I’d quickly switch from isolating my blog posts to merging them with sympatico others.

    It has the format of a forum, and that’s my preferred platform for internet activity.

    Because it’s so much more attractive than other forum platforms I’ve seen, and because well-liked content gets attention, I anticipate contributors will make an effort.

    @Ric Camacho: What if more weight is given to rankings made by contributors who are themselves highly-ranked?

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  • personalized gifts

     The difference between say this and Jonathan Harris’ CowBird are
    somewhat minimal except that Jonathan Harris custom built his and hosts
    “themes” and Medium will be open so that anyone can host their own
    “cowbird” type theme.

  • im1048jack

    I have read the latest bns news and I find blade and soul interests me so much. The balde and soul artworks have a good taste.And if you want to have a better understanding, the Blade and soul video shouldn’t be ignored.

  • Joaquim l’Antonio

    I just came across a new one… “just”… well, I’ve been using it since may, here it is
    I use it because I do not know nothing about html and stuff and do not want to bother with text styling and since the site I am using is very simple, i use it.
    here a page I made in less than a minute :
    You see why I love it? I made it in less than a minute

    this one apparently is promoting his brand

  • Niccolò Brogi

    …can I spam my post on a list of popular Medium collections? I couldn’t find one anywhere, people might find it useful: