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Computer vision vs. the Internet vigilantes
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April 8, 2016, 2:57 p.m.
Business Models

No garbage fires here: Medium advances its quest to gentrify the world of Internet publishing

The search for a clean, well-lighted place on the Internet.

WordPress, to steal a phrase from Marie Kondo, does not spark joy. When I log in, I see a series of modules that I never use and 11 plugins that need updating.

Medium wants to free us from this unsightly digital mess. At an event Thursday in New York, CEO Ev Williams and other Medium executives repeatedly referred to the company as a city — a new one, built from the ground up. “It’s a simplistic view to say go where the people are,” Williams said. “You need to go where the right people are.”

So who are the right people? The language of real estate listings has always been veiled — certain phrases, including mentions of, say, a school district, can be considered discriminatory by law (though real estate startups like Redfin are going right ahead and letting you search by this info). The “right people,” in this instance, are not — of course — white people, or men, or representatives of the old publishing guard, though all of those groups are amply represented in Medium’s list of launch partners. Rather, this week’s announcements are laden with dog whistles for a certain kind of Internet elite, the kind that hates trolls and Trump and wants Twitter to do something about harassment and requires a certain level of thought from its bloggers. We are the ones who hated on the New York Times Gay Talese Twitter story and mocked Mashable’s LinkedIn firing announcement.

And, full disclosure, when I say “we” I include “me.” I started writing this post in a cafe in Flatiron that I sought out after seeing online that it served avocado toast and cold brew coffee. I am the one obsessing over those Redfin school district listings. I talked to Medium last year about launching a publication and would still like to do one on the side. I bitch about the drab wall-to-wall carpeting in our rental. I want to move into Medium’s city.

With the launch of new publisher tools this week, including those that allow for monetization — and the announcement that several existing web publishers, including The Awl, will move their sites over to Medium — “we’re really building a new commercial zone in our city,” Williams said. “What we’ve observed on the web, for the last 20 years, is an environment where feedback has driven quantity over quality. It’s not the smarter, wiser world that we wanted to see when we got started on the Internet a long time ago.”

It’s not surprising that Medium is thinking in terms of the real estate of the Internet. The company was founded in San Francisco and has an increasing number of staff in New York, two of the most expensive cities in the world, both crowded with residents and facing a housing crunch. The small publishers and independent writers Medium hopes to attract may be living in cramped, dark, overpriced apartments, but online, at least, Medium offers them ample white space, new rooms to explore. (Medium’s announcement came in the same week we saw reports that Google is looking at building a city from scratch.)

“Even 15 years after Blogger, it’s still hard to publish on the Internet,” said Edward Lichty, Medium’s director of corporate development and strategy. “CMSes aren’t that great. If you’ve built your house, you have to fix the leaky roof. And you’ve gotta make money. With what’s happening in the advertising business — with declining prices and ineffectiveness of banner ads and adblockers — that environment is very hard for a lot of people in the publishing world.”

Medium’s new tools and technology are that renter’s dream: The tacky everyday hassles have all been taken care of for you. “There’s no need to worry about that viral post that’s going to take the site down,” said engineer Jamie Talbot. “Medium is very good at building products of scale.” The White House, for example, decided to publish the State of the Union address on Medium “with basically zero advance notice.” The servers could handle the traffic. It’s like a shared coworking space — or a coliving space even.

Awl publication The Billfold worried about preserving its Google rank when it transferred its content over to Medium. The team took care of it: They’ve figured out a way to preserve SEO when migrating a site.

With any planned community come concerns of homogeneity: Even if posts on Medium aren’t all the same (though the idea is that they’ll be differentiated from, say, Facebook posts by quality and level of discourse), they’ll still all look similar. I saw some of these concerns expressed on Twitter this week — though part of the fear seemed to be that low-quality Internet publishers could use the platform to whitewash themselves, making them look slicker and more trustworthy than they actually are:

Medium executives sought to quell some of the concerns of sameness by stressing that publishers can customize their Medium presences, to an extent. (With The Awl in its new home on Medium, “you don’t notice the Medium brand front and center when you visit the site,” said designer Erich Nagler. “The Awl is the centerpiece here.”) Still, the choices come in colors, layout, logo: It’s a lot harder to make something that actually looks bad, like old-Internet bad. You can’t choose to screw up your margins, or change your font, or put too little space between an image and a line of text.

Furthermore, publishers who are still clinging to certain vestiges of the older, messier Internet — comments, say — are faced with a decision: You can move in, but you’ll have to get rid of a lot of your old furniture.

You can comment on Medium, but it’s in the margins of the post, or via highlights, or as separate “responses” or conversations. You cannot have a messy, troll-filled comments section at the bottom, even if you want one.

Medium has built a tool for bloggers who want to migrate their sites from WordPress. Not hosted by WordPress? “We have a migration team. Reach out to us and we’ll figure something out.” Medium received 200 applications to its beta publisher program in two days. This is a place where a lot of people want to live.

Photo of WeLive — a “coliving” space opening in New York, with rooms starting at $2,000 a month — via WeWork.

POSTED     April 8, 2016, 2:57 p.m.
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