Renewing Medium’s focus
Ev Williams

I’m thrilled that Medium is working so earnestly on a way to bypass the traditional ad-driven business model. Selling eyeballs to advertisers, as most social/media companies do, causes some huge UX and product management problems. What advertisers want (high-level exposure of marketing content) directly competes with what core users want (a content experience uncluttered and uncompromised by ads and commercial interests). And since advertisers are the only ones willing to open their wallets, you can bet their interests drive future product development.

But I worry that this isn’t a problem Medium can escape. Someone has to foot the bill for all their maintenance, development, and infrastructure. I can’t imagine a scenario where content creators are willing to pay unless they are remunerated elsewhere for doing so (in which case we, we’re still wrestling with the problem of content compromised by commercial interest and ads masquerading as content) and there are innumerable platforms where thinking folks can read for free. If Medium starts charging consumers subscription fees, they’ll just go elsewhere.

This is the same problem I addressed time and again with the students in the innovation bootcamp I taught at Brigham Young University. When students pitched the product they came up with in the course of the bootcamp, the critique I gave most often was:

Who’s going to pay for this? Your users aren’t your customers.

I think Ev Williams nails a problem in urgent need of a solution. Our society is plagued by ad-driven and ad-compromised media. Or, as he put it:

It’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.

Could a platform like Medium envisions exist, one that distributes high-value content that serves individuals and society as a whole with little or no dependence on established corporate and political interests, one founded on a “transformative model” rather than an “incremental improvement” to the default ad-driven publishing model? I believe so. But I expect it can only be built by a community like Mozilla, not a company like Medium.

Again, I agree with Ev. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say ad-driven media on and off the internet doesn’t serve people. And I hope I’m wrong; Medium has created a beautiful platform and a vibrant community of content creators and consumers. I certainly don’t fault them for either their optimism. And then again, maybe they can achieve their vision merely by implementing the sort of freemium model Spotify does, with a free ad-supported experience and an ad-free, subscription-supported premium experience.

At any rate, in criticising Medium for not solving their core problem before building their platform, I’m thinking equally of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and an ever-growing legion of startups and VCs who believe you can build sustainably successful content platforms merely by attracting enough user eyeballs to sell to paying advertisers. I suspect it’s only a matter of time before such platforms are supplanted by startups developing with their core users in mind, startups without any paying advertisers to compromise the ad-free experience those core users crave.

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