By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)
Web publishing platform Medium debuted a new feature set last week, dubbing their latest release 1.0. The Ev Williams-led company has been controversial in web publishing circles since its debut, often being met by critics with the dismissive question "But what is it for?"
This is the stance of the King of the Apple bloggers John Gruber:
I still don't get what Medium is. These new features certainly look pretty, but they make me more confused than ever regarding what Medium, as a whole, is.
As Medium currently stands this is an entirely ridiculous stance.
Gruber is a sharp cookie, one of the sharpest in the design blogger set. His arguments are often iron clad, at least as far as the evidence he collects goes. He's the kind of critic who worships at the altar of the details. To sweat them is to honor the practice of design.
Sometimes, however, it doesn't pay to view the world through a macro lens. The forest can be missed for the kerning on the font that spells out t-r-e-e-s. This is what I believe is happening here with those who look at Medium and go "Huh?"
Ev Williams lays the case for Medium out succinctly. He calls it "a new publishing platform." That's pretty succinct right there. Williams elaborates on the point this way:
One of our goals was to make it dead simple to write and present a beautiful story without having to be a designer or programmer. We also sought to help great ideas quickly find the right audience -- no matter who they came from.
While I don't get why some members of the technorati seem to be under the impression that Williams and company are not sure if Medium is a dessert topping or a floor wax, I can understand where some of that confusion stems from.
Williams, you see, has decided that he can go home again.
What we're witnessing with Medium is a live-fire test of the next Blogger. That's the platform that Williams sold to Google back in 2003. After that he noodled around with podcasting with his company Odeo until one of their product teams whipped up Twitter as a way of doing group SMS messages.
The problem that web publishing faces--monetization, design and discovery amongst others--can't be solved the way Apple's Jony Ive would tackle it. For those keeping score at home, that would be shaving down the rough edges until publishing was a seamless piece of al-u-min-i-um.
The Medium experiment, and even with the 1.0 designation that's still what the platform is, has made some bold moves to blur the lines between professional and amateur writers. It bought the Kickstarter-funded science web-magazine Matter and ripped down its paywall. The company has attracted other web publishers to their banner. It has been paying some of the writers on the platform in order to seed good content, but it hasn't said who. That lack of transparency won't be good in the long run.
I can say, unequivocally, that as a writer who has published on Medium and who isn't being paid by that company, that I've extracted a good amount of value from its methods of exposure. There's something magical about seeing Twitter arguments erupt about one of your own posts in Portuguese. At least I think it was Portuguese, the Tweets were coming from countries where that's the dominant language. (Disclosure: I am being paid by Youth Radio for some of the posts I've put on Medium, like this one, but not all.)
Running the experiment with just the paid writers would not have replicated the blogosphere in miniature, which is pretty much what Medium looks like now. It is an unholy amalgam of LiveJournal, Slashdot, The Magazine, and the features section of Rolling Stone. Pretty much in that order. Medium is the medium, reflected back through a funhouse mirror, and that's a good thing.
So far the other shoe has yet to drop, advertising is absent from the vanilla version of the platform. It will come one day, as it has to every other tool developed in the social media age. Perhaps The Obvious Corporation, the Williams/Stone joint that backs Medium, will find some novel way to make ads not annoying. A tall order, but a fella can dream.
In the meantime we're all reaping the benefits of this experiment that multi-millionaires are bankrolling. Comments on Medium are actually tolerable, and the practice of attracting them to each paragraph pushes to the side some of the more obnoxious Internet practices (e.g. "FIRST!"). The style was copied by Gawker, who clumsily rolled it into one of their updates without nuking traditional comments.
The "Collections" function of Medium, which is their bid for tackling the issue of discovery, has evolved as well. Gone in the latest release are open collections where anything goes. Instead, much like comments, each post submitted to a collection must be approved by the curator of the mix. Since the turn of the century I've been saying that "the web needs editors," and this feature is a step forward in that cause. (Well, you need an editor, buddy.--ID NOTE)
The web is endlessly extensible (more or less) and with those infinite possibilities come a breed of stagnation. When the experiment is over we may find that Medium is split into a few product lines: a professional CMS tool for publications, a free blogging platform for amateurs, a candy ordering service for sugarholics. Okay, probably not that last one.
What finally emerges will have been tested in the most demonic crucible ever devised: the living Internet. We will either have cause to celebrate, or fear for our very lives before the drones grind our bones to dust for Instagram likes.
Public media's TurnstyleNews.com, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.