Medium, Tumblr, and the re-consolidation of online publishing

Slick platforms like Medium could soon gobble up most of the self-published blogosphere


In the early days of the Web, people weren't quite sure how to grapple with the vast amount of information at their fingertips. The late 1990's were a time when many “Average Joe” users were beginning to connect to the Internet via dial-up connections. Yes, it was technically true that anyone could create a website of their own, but in that comparatively primitive era, you had to be quite technically skilled to set up web hosting and build everything from scratch. WordPress 1-click installs were simply not a thing yet. Additionally, search engines were not that useful yet, and social media would not exist for several more years. It was hard to publish content yourself and even harder to get discovered by anyone.

Big news companies like CNN and the New York Times naturally created news websites of their own upon realizing the immense commercial potential of the medium. But the hot virtual property of the time was the web portal — single page websites containing a directory of websites sorted by category, recent news, an e-mail service, MP3s, etc. Essentially, the portal was meant to be a user’s homepage, or a jumping off point for anywhere they might want to go on the web. Lycos was one such example of a site which sold for an insane $17.7 billion (2014 dollars) during the dot-com mania of 2000. Here’s what it looked like at the time:

A crowded assortment of categories appears quite different from the plain Google.com prompt we know and love

America Online users were treated to similar offerings inside the AOL walled garden, but aol.com served up a comparable portal:

The beauty of web design circa 1998. Users of the AOL software would be treated to a similar page on their welcome screen

The search engine on these web portals was given a tiny piece of screen real estate compared to the large directory of curated websites, sorted by category. Instead of relying on the user (and the primitive search & ranking technology at the time) to find “good” content, AOL and others hand picked sites they deemed worthy of viewing. Hand-picked news was also offered to users, as well as an e-mail service.

AOL and other services like GeoCities also offered publishing platforms for users, or “Personal Home Pages — New!” as seen in the AOL screenshot. These were essentially simple web sites that a non-technical user could create, which were hosted on the company’s server. Oftentimes, the company would curate a similar directory of these user created sites.

Big companies like CNN and Fox published content through their own websites, but smaller users and bloggers also published through company-owned infrastructure. That began to change in the mid-2000's when frameworks like Wordpress and Drupal began to get popular. The development of these open-source content management systems meant that bloggers who could figure out how to rent web hosting and log into a control panel would now be able to write and publish articles using infrastructure that they own, on a simple web interface. The development of “1-click installs” for tools like WordPress made it even easier. Improved search engine capabilities and the development of social media meant that, even if an aspiring journalist ran their own website on their own infrastructure, it was viable that they could generate organic traffic with good SEO and social media promotion.

However, the developers behind the Wordpress framework also worked on another project in parallel. Wordpress.org would host the open source framework, for users who wanted to host their own Wordpress-based blog. Wordpress.com, on the other hand, would be a managed service where the company would manage the infrastructure and hosting. Users were subject to restrictions on what they could do with the framework, and were limited to a subdomain unless they paid money. It was a closed system that offered less freedom and flexibility, but it was easy. And it has since paid off; users like the service, and it is significantly more popular than the free framework itself.

The rise of Wordpress.com was shadowed by a much bigger blogging juggernaut which rose in the early-2010's: Tumblr. Bought by Yahoo last year for over $1 billion, Tumblr successfully worked a social aspect into short-form blogging, and it has become massively popular. This Google Trends chart shows how it has quickly eclipsed open source blogging frameworks over the last few years:

While Tumblr was originally intended for short-form blogging, it has shown that it can accommodate long-form articles, as shown by writeups like this. But the talked-about newcomer in long-form blogging is, of course, (wait for it…) Medium. You’re on Medium right now, a service developed by two Twitter co-founders about two years ago.

Medium is seeking to fill a void in the blogging services marketplace, and it may very well eliminate the bulk of self-published CMS if it does so successfully. Bigger than the 140 character limit of Twitter and more verbose than the shorter posts usually seen on Tumblr, Medium also positions itself as being less complicated than Wordpress.com and Google’s Blogger service. Not to mention the fact that the technical issues with self-hosted CMS blogs are gone. The clean, “no-distractions” writing style, as well as the cool HTML5 web design are also helpful. Users simply log in with their Twitter account (which most people already have) and begin writing.

I believe Medium represents one of the final steps in a movement back to the days of Geocities and web portals. Obviously, the Web will never be the same as it was back then, but it may start to look more like it than you would think. Yes, there will always be that technically-inclined group of bloggers who want to manage every aspect of their site with a CMS framework and hosting infrastructure that they own. But for most people, they will gladly take the free Internet real estate that Medium or Tumblr is offering them, with the SEO taken care of, the hosting and performance headaches eliminated, and their article distributed to other users of the same service painlessly, allowing them to quickly build a readership.

Medium and Tumblr also allow quick and painless promotion of content through channels that they control. It is definitely true that these features are more “social” than they would have been in the dot-com bubble days, but the fact still remains that each company becomes a curator of content that it essentially owns. Instead of a loose collective “blogosphere” flung out on various web hosts running Wordpress, Drupal, and the like, the blogosphere will be a tightly grouped cluster of users on 2 or 3 popular services. Medium is certainly on the rise over the past year, and I’m sure Tumblr will take notice of that fact very soon:

People will certainly debate whether this is better or worse for the future of the Internet and online publishing, but overall, I see it as a good thing. It makes the entire process easier, and in the end, it will entice more people to write and publish their thoughts online. Discovering content will be easier, through professionally developed features and channels that users can subscribe to. Our go-to page for seeking out new sources of info may cease to be Google Search or our Facebook News Feed, but instead a channel listing similar to the old Lycos directory:

It will result in a more consolidated Web, but at the current prices for cloud hosting, and with the abundance of free frameworks like Wordpress in development, there’s always a “none-of-the-above” option for those so inclined.