Medium can be the better Twitter

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I have changed my mind about Medium, the service created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012. Initially I was concerned about the startup’s effort to centralize content and how that would weaken the distributed publishing structure that made the web such a great place. 2 years ago I wrote:

“Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable”

A lot has happened since then. Among other things, at least for me, existing social media platforms have lost most of their appeal. Especially Twitter became unbearable, and I am far from the only one who has come to this conclusion. Just read the comments here (and this article).

The reasons why Twitter turned from an exciting tool for networking and access to valuable information into a toxic, polarizing and frustrating time-sink are multifaceted. Based on my long-term observation, one of its core weaknesses is its brevity. In a time of mounting global complexity, a service that due to its limitation to 140 characters acts as an outlet for impulses, emotions and binary, one-dimensional simplifications is the worst that can happen.

Donald Trump is the political manifestation of the culture that Twitter breeds and of the type of discourse its product design promotes. In a fictional world in which a service such as Twitter didn’t exist, maybe Trump wouldn’t even be U.S. President. Obviously, no one will ever know. In any case, the similarities between Trump’s mind and how the dynamics on Twitter play out are apparent, as is the huge success that Trump had and still has with permanently stealing the public’s and especially the media’s attention thanks to his tweets.

Nowadays, if Twitter would disappear from one day to another, I would in fact consider this to be good news for the political climate and society at large. But for someone who has been enjoying this service for so many years, it hurts to express that sentiment. Especially because I don’t want to lose access to my Twitter network of people and their knowledge — which I, outside of the 140 character universe — value a lot. This is where Medium comes into the picture.

I have changed my mind about Medium because I have stopped seeing it as a publishing platform that attempts to monopolize medium or long-form publishing in some sort of advertising-based environment. Instead, I look at Medium as a social network around smart insights, well thought out ideas and civilized, yet impactful debates about the topics that shape our times. I look at it as a platform which akin to Twitter gives people a way to express themselves, but which unlike Twitter or other social media apps encourages users — through design choices and an active enforcement of a constructive culture — to reflect a bit more before sharing something with the world. That does not mean that every text on Medium must be so brilliant or unique to qualify for the Pulitzer prize or to follow the highest academic or journalistic standards. But I am sure that in the right environment, with the proper incentives and effective role models, it is possible to direct user activity into a certain direction.

Currently Medium’s networking capabilities are fairly limited, but with “follow” and “commenting” (facilitated through a separate Medium post that is shown as a response), 2 out of 3 crucial features do exist. Only an internal messaging component is missing. But that should not be too hard to implement and would not risk feature creep.

The absence of a messaging tool aside, Medium pretty much already is a social network. It just has never promoted itself like that. Instead it lets users put links to their social media profiles prominently next to their follower numbers. This communicates that Medium does not want to be seen as competing with Twitter. But maybe it should. Medium could be the better Twitter. It would not be perfect (what is?) but it could be much better.

As has been widely reported, Medium is currently re-focusing its effort and trying to come up with a working business model. The company is said to plan the introduction of a paid subscription model. Whether Medium CEO Evan Williams would attempt to position his platform as more of a social network for those who look for refuge from the annoyance, tribalism and distractions of existing social media platforms is unclear. But there never has been a better moment for doing so than now.

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