Is Medium Following The Facebook Playbook?
Is Ev Williams building a ‘perfect forest’?
I was reading a great post by Sarah Aswell on Splitsider called How Facebook Is Killing Comedy, in which she interviewed Matt Klinman. The preamble:
Last month, in its second round of layoffs in as many years, comedy hub Funny or Die reportedly eliminated its entire editorial team following a trend of comedy websites scaling back, shutting down, or restructuring their business model away from original online content.
Hours after CEO Mike Farah delivered the news via an internal memo, Matt Klinman took to Twitter, writing, “Mark Zuckerberg just walked into Funny or Die and laid off all my friends.” It was a strong sentiment for the longtime comedy creator, who started out at UCB and The Onion before launching Pitch, the Funny or Die-incubated joke-writing app, in 2017.
But Klinman explained in a thread: “There is simply no money in making comedy online anymore. Facebook has completely destroyed independent digital comedy and we need to fucking talk about it.”
I recommend reading the whole piece, because Klinman really understands the economics of the internet, through the lens of the comedy internet. The short version: comedy websites were making money from ads (and selling things), then those sites began to use Facebook as a means of attracting readers, but Facebook was making all the ad revenue there and why would comedy fans click through to Funny or Die or wherever if the content was already on Facebook?
As Klinman says,
Facebook says that they are building communities, but really they’re fracturing us. We are all on our own little news bubbles and on our own little islands. It’s also fracturing our own creative projects. The internet has turned into a place where you can’t have many different people speaking as one entity and expect those people to make a living. And to me, those are the most exciting, rewarding projects, and I can’t make those now. I am looking at the past with rose-colored glasses, but you can say categorically that the internet was a better place 3–4 years ago. It used to be fruitful, but it’s like a desert now.
Here’s another analogy, and I learned this in an ecology class: In the 1800s (or something), there were big lords, or kings or something, who had giant estates with these large forests. And there were these foresters who had this whole notion of how to make a perfectly designed forest, where the trees would be pristinely manicured and in these perfect rows, and they would get rid of all the gross stuff and dirt. It was just trees in a perfect, human-devised formation that you could walk through. Within a generation, these trees were emaciated and dying. Because that’s how a forest works — it needs to be chaotic. It needs bugs and leaves, it makes the whole thriving ecosystem possible. That’s what this new internet should be. It won’t survive as this human-designed, top-down thing that is optimized for programmatic ads. It feels like a desert. There’s no nutrition, there’s no opportunity to do anything cool.
So, I am not a comedy writer, but I believe that Medium is orchestrating a sort of Facebookization of long-format writing (along with Linkedin).
Ev Williams, the founder and CEO of Medium, is actively discouraging the publication model that was what attracted a long list of publishers to the platform, which provided at least a few mechanisms for individual expression at the publication level: ordering of stories on the home page, recruiting contributions, and organizing by topics. Many of those publishers have left, or abandoned their publications. (I shut down Work Futures (workfutures.io) a few weeks ago, and departed for Substack and the recast Work Futures (workfutures.org).)
Now, Medium wants to manage all publishing and curation, with its own editorial staff and algorithms. A perfectly designed forest, as Klinsman suggests.
We need to question how Facebook does what it does, or simply opt out. If billions stopped relying on Facebook to serve up its version of media reality, would we be better off? I bet the comedy writers at Funny or Die would be.
And what about Medium? Are we better off because of Medium’s mechanisms to suggest to us what to read, or would we be better off with thousands of independent curators and publishers, or the basic social affordance of following the best writers, directly?
And if Williams wants to enact a membership model with reader’s fees subsidizing writers, why can’t he implement a system where readers can fund writers directly? Why does membership have to be diffused as it is now, instead of direct and transparent?
I wish Medium was just a platform, a minimal blogging solution with better social affordances than Blogger, Typepad, and Tumblr, and lots of the messiness of the nearly forgotten ‘web culture’ that Facebook stripmined. But I think Williams is trying to build a perfect forest, following Facebook’s lead.