What Medium Is

First, some disclaimers: I’m writing this as I sit a few feet away from Medium’s NYC team. (I even asked them for tech support while writing this!) Ev Williams, founder of Medium, is an old friend of mine, whom I became a fan of as I was the first public user of Blogger, which he cofounded. And Ev explained the idea of Medium to me before he’d even decided on the name. So, in addition to offering the falsely-humble way of bragging that such disclosures always provide, it should be pretty clear that I’m far from objective about Medium. I like it, because I like blogging, and I want it to succeed. This piece originally appeared on Medium.

Lately, there’s a bit of question about what in the hell Medium is, exactly. Alexis Madrigal neatly captures most of the common perspectives on this question in his piece today, aptly entitled “What Is Medium?” But Medium’s nature isn’t confusing by accident — it’s confusing by design.

I’m more circumspect about confusing lots of people (although Ev’s patience in trusting people to eventually figure out a new communications platform has been right with both Blogger and Twitter, see below) so I thought I’d explain what Medium is, for the benefit of the smart people who build it, the creative people who publish on it, and the larger audience of people who are starting to discover it.

Medium is blogging in form, but not in structure.

Ev explicitly evokes blogfather Dave Winer’s definition of blogging as the “unedited voice of a person”. With respect to two of the people who’ve done more to define blogging than almost anyone, I think that’s an adequate description of the content of blogging, but that the reverse-chronological structure that’s defined blogging and its descendants such as Twitter’s timeline and Facebook’s news feed is just as essential to the medium’s nature thus far.

Medium eschews reverse chronology, organizing instead by “collections” (which seem to be an aspect of the platform that is in significant, if largely behind-the-scenes, evolution). Collections can be fairly arbitrarily created, both by authors and by readers.

Tellingly, Winer’s new work on Fargo also steps away from focusing solely on reverse chronology to be based more fundamentally on the hierarchal outlines that are core to Winer’s work and philosophy.

In both cases, the abandonment of reverse chronology has the effect of undoing a core tenet of blogging: The social contract. Blogs have had prominent timestamps on each post since the turn of the century, and the newest content has always sat on top of a stream since the form was born. As a result, even casual readers understand an implicit promise from the blogger that more content will appear in the future, and the expectation changes the nature of reading what’s written.

The promise of updates to a blog has positive impacts, in that it assumes some literacy and persistence and an ongoing relationship on the part of a reader. But it’s also been the biggest cause of stress for bloggers; Having to keep updating is seen as an overwhelming obligation by many, and the requirement of newest-on-top has frustrated countless bloggers who want to assign some semblance of editorial judgment (or simply want to inflict their authorial authority) on behalf of readers. Trying to fight reverse chronology has been the impetus behind most of Gawker’s never-ending parade of reader-enraging redesigns, and is part of why Winer advocates his outline-based organization as superior.

Despite the good reasons for Williams, Winer, Denton and many others to resist the tyranny of reverse chronology has triumphed (see “Stop Publishing Web Pages”) and a billion people spend time reading a reverse-chronological stream almost every day. Even Winer, with his preference for outline-based organization on pages, is a relentless advocate for RSS, the syndication format he pioneered, which offers only a singleminded newest-on-top organization to feeds.

So what does Medium resemble more, with its organization-by-collection, diminished prominence of the creator’s identity, and easy flow between related pieces of content? It’s simple: YouTube. Though some subset of YouTube users subscribe to channels, most of us just graze through the site when someone sends us a funny video, only barely aware of who even posted a video. Medium is evolving to be the same; We get sent an article that someone wants us to read (or in the case of the recent spoiled-startup-boy essays mentioned in Madrigal’s piece, we get sent an article someone wants us to hate), and then hopefully we click around to check out a few more things.

Medium doesn’t (yet?) support the embedding of its content into other sites, which was essential to YouTube’s wide adoption, but in the core experience by which content is created and discovered, Medium is much closer to “YouTube for Longform” than it is “Blogger Revisited”.

Medium is a better magazine.

When Chris Hughes picked up The New Republic, I found it a charming throwback to the days when tycoons would pour their money into publishing. This of course presaged Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post, but the core idea was the same—rich guys buy “credible” publications in order to have big platforms for their ideas.

But, even though I like what Hughes seems to represent, and he’s seemed to have a thoughtful touch in how he’s running TNR, I’m pretty sure I’d forgotten the magazine existed by the time he bought it. I have no doubt there is a small but significant audience to whom the brand is really important, but cultural credibility is no longer based entirely on having an august old name atop of some writing.

By contrast, Medium is a free-for-all, with the most perversely obtuse branding for a platform since Google named its nearly-chromeless browser Chrome. There’s some amount of crap on the site, for which it’s justifiably earning criticism, but there are also paid pieces which will undoubtedly start to meet or exceed the quality of the average TNR article.

And then it occurred to me that the contrast between Hughes’ and Williams’ approaches to making modern media mirrors a bit of their own background. Hughes has the most old-school (and impressive!) credential possible: He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. Williams, on the other hand, dropped out of college shortly after he started, a story which he offers up in great detail during this fantastic interview with Kevin Rose.

This is the fundamental nature of Medium: it’s meant to be inclusive and egalitarian. In crass terms, it’s arguing that 10,000 monkeys can make a better magazine than Ivy League editors. In the more charitable terms I prefer, it’s arguing that culture is better for amplifying the voices of those whom traditional institutions exclude, even if that requires giving a platform to those who are thoughtless or negative.

Regardless of which tactic is more successful (and fortunately for Chris and Ev, it’s not an either/or scenario), Medium is at least a reinvention of the traditional narrative whereby the tycoons who win at the beginning of a new technological era plow their winnings into buying up captive media to act as a house organ. Carnegies build libraries, yes, but they don’t usually try to give away printing presses.

Medium At Large

Going forward, Medium has to solve some issues about what it wants to be when it grows up. Since it piggybacks on Twitter’s identities, it doesn’t have the struggle of defining who’s “verified” (along with all the attendant inanity that accompanies verification) but it should do a better job of identifying the commissioned pieces that appear on the site.

That’s not because the money being paid is all that important, but because it provides a declaration of intent for the kind of content the site is going to promote. (It should be noted that Medium’s rules for content are admirably clear.)

Every social media platform is identified by its early breakout successes (few of us realized just how profoundly prescient Lazy Sunday’s success would be in representing YouTube’s future), and while Medium has done a brilliant job of presenting itself as a “serious” or desirable neighborhood for writing on the web, the great danger now is that it’s seen as just a plaything for overprivileged techies. In fact, the first thing I ever wrote on Medium was about exactly that danger. Sure, Williams’ earlier efforts with Blogger and Twitter transcended those concerns to some degree, but those were started back when he was an underdog.

And I’m equally excited to see how Medium evolves technologically. It doesn’t presently have much of a social model; The inability to follow people is clearly intentional (probably part of undoing some of that obligation to post often), but it’s tough to follow collections and discoverability overall is a challenge.

At a deeper level, the authoring environment on Medium is unparalleled (they actually have repeatedly quoted me to that effect on their introductory articles), and the increasing amount of code the company is sharing on GitHub makes me hopeful that some of the tech that makes such a good experience possible will be opened up.

There are more nuanced choices, such as offering statistics to authors that show not just page views, but how many people actually read an article, which offer great promise as well. This is especially true as Ev has hinted at an interest in paid content as part of the mix of revenue streams for Medium, and anything that changes the web’s current relationship with traditional display advertising would be incredibly powerful.

Similarly, the fact that Medium is entirely a web-based experience (it has a responsive design on mobile devices, but almost no mobile writing experience, and no native mobile applications) is heretical according to current Silicon Valley orthodoxy. Certainly we can picture mobile applications being added in the future, but the fact that Medium is web-first is an under-sung victory for those of us who love the web, and harkens back to some of the idealism about the Internet that’s always underpinned blogging technology.

The most important parts of Medium’s future aren’t about its technology, although those innovations have been surprisingly underplayed.

Instead, Medium matters because it helps to define whether great writing finds a sustainable expression on the web in the post-banner-ad era. Medium matters because it pushes blogging, the native medium of the web, to a new stage of evolution after a decade of relative stagnation.

And Medium matters because of what it is: Something that looks really familiar, but is actually quietly something truly new.