[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. App.net, 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.