What’s Going On At Medium?
WAIT, WHAT’S GOING ON AT MEDIUM?!
I run Matter, which Buzzfeed refers to as “the young, but highly respected science publication … later relaunched as a successful (Matter was nominated for two National Magazine Awards this year) longform magazine.” (Originally Buzzfeed referred to us only as “the young, but highly respected science publication” — but, guys, my wife (!!) emailed them asking for an update. I’ve updated here as well. There are other factual errors in Charlie’s story, but Charlie and I can talk about them in private, like old-fashioned media gentlemen.)
Matter is a good magazine, and we’ve won the sorts of accolades that usually go to The New Yorker and Wired and GQ. We’re lucky to exist at a company where we’re encouraged to do work — and only work — that is unique, and forward-looking, and radical, and novel, and different, and true. But let me tell you a secret: Matter was never meant to be just a magazine. Actually, it’s not much of a secret, because I said it in my editor’s note, “What is Matter?,” published almost a year ago:
Mostly, Matter is going to try stuff…. We’ll explore ideas that start or end conversations, that have meaning and impact, that change minds. We’ll try to show you things that aren’t just shareable, but memorable. We’ll try not to screw up, but sometimes we will. (Sorry about that, in advance.)
But also, Matter doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s a publication that’s entirely native to Medium, and built by the editors, designers, and engineers of Medium. Matter will grow and evolve and change as the platform grows and evolves and changes. (Ev has lots more to say about this here.) In the meantime, when we publish something that inspires you, excites you, pisses you off, misses the point, or begins a conversation you want to carry on, which is hopefully often, hey, that’s what Medium is here for.
“We’ll explore ideas that start or end conversations, that have meaning and impact, that change minds.” So… I guess that’s always been the strategy?
The problem with creating another magazine, even a good one, is that it puts you in the same game as everyone else: sharing your headlines and links on social media, in the hopes of getting readers to see, then share, your headlines and links on social media, in the hopes of getting still more readers to see, then share, your headlines and links, and on and on. It’s the wind dispersal of seeds, blowing things out as widely as possible in the hopes they find purchase somewhere. I don’t love it. You probably don’t either, because nobody sane does.
Now, as a platform, Medium has always tried to deemphasize virality and views and hits. We’ve always tried to see past the social age to the next age — the engagement age, the attention web. And Total Time Reading long seemed like the most meaningful way to encourage that. Now, total time reading is a metric I personally adore — seeing people spend hundreds of thousands of hours reading your stuff makes you feel pretty great. It’s still meaningful! But when we talk about engagement and attention, we’re not just talking about time spent on the page (or a series of pages).
We’re also talking about what comes after a story is read, or what can: that high-quality conversation around the issues and ideas that matter to people. How do you measure that? How do you create that? It surely requires building communities of value. Enabling them. Dealing swiftly with abuse around them. Recognizing that these conversations are happening on their phones, not their desktops. Channeling these conversations into new forms of storytelling and journalism. Maybe that even means inventing new categories in media — as staggering and novel and elastic as newspapers once were, print magazines once were, zines once were, blogs once were, websites once were.
This begins to suggest so many possibilities — not just for professional publishers, like me, but anyone anywhere with something valuable to say, and anyone anywhere willing to listen.
An aside about longform. Warzel writes:
“Some fear that now, the company could shift away from prioritizing traditional articles in favor of work that is more interactive. That doesn’t mean that outlets like Matter will stop publishing great, ambitious longform work entirely, but that they will likely also feature geared toward fostering reader engagement.”
Too many people conflate greatness/ambition and longform. Yes, the Medium publications will still publish long features, sometimes, and they will still be great. But crazy-long word lengths and classical structures and elaborate layouts aren’t the only way to explore narratives, ideas, and subjects with depth and intelligence and ambition. Besides, for an increasing number of writers and readers, the Big Story isn’t the point. The conversations with friends and colleagues that help create the story, the conversations with readers and followers and idols and peers after the story: That’s the point. Not the static thing. The ever-moving thing.
I don’t actually know what any of this is going to look like, these Not-Magazines that are still aggressive, still high-quality, and still ambitious, but built on conversation and participation rather than broadcast and social sharing. The result won’t be traditional and New Yorker-y, but it won’t be Quora or Yahoo! Answers. It won’t be built of quizzes, either. (Which, guys, Steven Levy wrote because it made him laugh, and because I couldn’t figure out the answers. Not because of some grand strategy change.) I don’t know what it’s going to be; no one does. I think it’s going to be unrecognizable, at first, to all of us. But I know it’s worth trying, and failing, until we figure it out.
Besides: If Medium didn’t already exist, I’d have to invent it. To do the kind of work we’re all talking about, I’d have to invent a place that isn’t just a beautiful place to publish, but “a network. A network of ideas that build off each other. And people.” I’d have to code that shit myself.
Just now I turned to one of Medium’s engineers and asked, “How long would it take for you to teach me how to code as well as you? Like, if I wanted to build my own Medium?”
“Oh, boy,” he said to me, and laughed. “Ten years?” I don’t want to wait that long. Do you?