The Future of Medium
A critical look at the successes, challenges, and ambitions of this growing platform
On August 16th, three days after Medium launched in public beta, I published my first article here. I’m what you might call an early adopter, but despite my inconsistent publishing presence, hardly a day has gone by when I haven’t interacted with the platform in one way or another.
And I’m not alone.
There are very few products I can say the same about, so I wanted to explore the obvious question: why? What makes Medium appealing? Where is it heading? Why have so many adopted it as their publishing platform of choice…and why haven’t I?
Writing on the web is hardly a niche, so it takes a truly special product to rise above the crowded landscape of content management systems, proprietary platforms, and independent publishing options available to bloggers.
18 months into its life, Medium continues to demand attention. It’s tempting to conclude that this is simply because it provides a well-designed, streamlined path to publishing.
It is certainly beautiful — probably the most aesthetically and functionally pleasing experience on the web for reading and writing—but that alone is not enough to explain its endurance in an age of goldfish-level attention spans.
The underlying structure and philosophy of Medium seems to address the needs of both modern publishers and readers in a deeply forward-thinking manner.
This is hardly surprising. Ev Williams and Biz Stone have been laying the foundations for the past fifteen years, having launched the pioneering Blogger in 1999. Since then, Ev has demonstrated a knack for building attentive products; products that shape their identity around the inventiveness of their users.
It may seem like a haphazard way of building something, but Ev has earned our patience; after all, the last time he did this we ended up with Twitter.
As an observer, it’s encouraging to see that much of the conversation surrounding Medium has been a discussion about what exactly it is.
That may seem counter-intuitive, but witnessing this kind of identity crisis reveals a deep-seated eagerness among its participants: they want to understand. It would be easy for them to dismiss the platform as too confusing, or volatile, or simply uninteresting, but they don’t — because as unfamiliar as it may seem, Medium is inescapably fascinating.
But what do people actually want from the platform? Some are concerned about the usability, others about content or the challenges of discovery. Others still would like to see Medium become a more active participant during the writing stages.
Medium, to its credit, is listening. Improvements are constantly rolling out to address gaps in the experience, but the company has put itself in a difficult place by having to ensure that each decision benefits not only its readers, but also both categories of writer: independent and publisher.
What nearly everyone seems to agree on is that Medium succeeds at surfacing compelling content, and giving relatively unknown writers the opportunity to expand their reach. This vision of Medium as a “serendipity accelerator” is a powerful attractor for writers.
Rather than casting our writing into the open maelstrom of the internet, Medium provides a sheltered space where writers don’t have to compete with other forms of content. Here, the written word rules, and everyone is an eager reader. If the internet is a city, Medium is a village.
Like with any close-knit community, more is shared…for better or worse. You don’t compete with other forms of content, it’s true, but you must still contend with other writers, whose work will be shown alongside your own. Even your profile is populated in part by the work of those you have recommended.
Coming from a more traditional system, where each author speaks from their own platform, Medium’s approach can seem distressing.
In a sense, the writer is being abstracted away (to an extent) in favour of their writing. Ev himself says that “Medium is not about who you are or whom you know, but about what you have to say.”
This levels the playing field in exciting ways, but to those whose blogs exist solely or primarily as a marketing tool for their “personal brand”, this will be a deal-breaker.
As Michael Sacasas puts it, “blogs, the more conventional alternative, allow audiences to coalesce around personalities…on Medium, I can’t count on readers having read what I wrote before…I have to win an audience with every post.”
How much individuality must be relinquished in exchange for that audience? And is the very nature of Medium such that your audience is insular? Populous, but cut off from the wider world?
We’re Not Alone
One way to look at it is this: independence is the price we pay to publish on Medium.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a transaction that both parties — writer and Medium — should acknowledge in order to have a good relationship.
I used to think it was identity we sacrificed, but the reality is that writers are well represented on Medium. It’s easy to know who wrote what these days, despite the focus on content, and the rollout of a profile/follow system is one we’ve become very familiar with in the age of social networks.
It’s important to keep in mind that Twitter faced very similar challenges early in its life. To this day, your Twitter profile shows your own tweets alongside the tweets of others you’ve retweeted, but it remains clear who wrote what. We’ve learned to love that sense of community.
Admittedly, what works for a social network may not work for a publishing platform, but the end result was that Twitter’s reach grew far beyond its own borders.
Medium’s reach is also expanding, and quickly. This year, it was considered pervasive enough to be chosen as the publishing platform of choice for the White House — a tremendous achievement for which the team should be extremely proud.
So not only is Medium not an island, the exact opposite is increasingly true.
Your writing enters a burgeoning ecosystem of diverse readers cultivated by everyone’s writing, not just your own. The responsibility of building that audience is shared amongst every writer on the site, which means you end up reaching people that would never otherwise discover your work.
Nevertheless, there are trade-offs being made when someone chooses to write here.
This understanding of give and take should be the crux of what informs Medium’s product development going forward: minimizing (or at least accounting for) the compromises that the writer must make can help the site develop a stronger value proposition.
And communicating that value to prospective writers will help them understand why they might want to write here.
The Great Attractor
As a writer, I can think of three ways Medium has incentivized publishing here:
Each of these contributes to the value proposition, and together they make it easier to understand why the platform is as captivating as it is.
It’s no secret that Medium pays certain writers to produce content.
Early on, there was criticism surrounding the fact that we had no way to know who was on the payroll. That criticism has faded over time, especially in the wake of Medium’s official publications appearing. Now, we can safely assume that the people getting paid to write on Medium are largely the folks who are editing or contributing to those publications.
Lately, we’ve even seen these publications hiring new writers via posts on the site, which seems like a natural way to leverage the expertise of your audience.
But the lack of transparency on the subject remains (to their credit, they do their best to be open about most things), and for those of us who write professionally, it would be valuable to understand Medium’s strategy for paying writers.
Simplicity is a goal that Medium shares with several of its competitors. It goes without saying that writing on Medium is easier than hosting your own blog — take it from someone who does.
Setting up a domain, installing a CMS (Content Management System), or even just choosing and customizing a Tumblr theme are all activities that fall into the category of metawork.
If you’re thinking about traffic spikes, stylesheet tweaks, monthly hosting bills, or server management, then you aren’t writing.
As you can imagine, writing is an important part of being a writer, so the simple fact that Medium offers a superb experience with virtually no setup effort is enough to make it very attractive to those who want to write instead of procrastinate or worry about the technology that powers their site.
But convenience is taken a step further.
Writing is often collaborative, and Medium distinguishes itself by accounting for the editing process too. Writers can easily share drafts for feedback, or publish an unlisted version of their story to share with a small focus group before unleashing it upon the world.
In effect, the entire writing process can exist on Medium: a story can be drafted, edited, and published all from the same interface.
Audience is, unsurprisingly, the major factor for many people who choose to publish here. Medium’s entire ethos is centred around making everyone’s stories widely accessible, and to a writer without a big following, this promise of an instant audience is mesmerizing.
But Medium’s offering is more than just a big audience. A big audience isn’t that hard to find these days. More difficult is the promise of an engaged audience.
Unfortunately, it’s a very difficult promise to keep as the service scales upward. For example, the first article I published on Medium had a read ratio of 95% — to me, that was staggering. The level of engagement was quite simply beyond my wildest dreams.
Nowadays, that ratio has been eroded by the ever-increasing population. My most popular article is sitting at a read ratio of just under 30%, albeit with thousands more views than that first one.
This is inevitable, and for the time being the ratio seems to be fairly stable, hovering between 25-40% for most of my articles. I would be curious to know if other writers are seeing different numbers.
As a writer with an established audience on my own blog, I could compare traffic directly, but a more pertinent question I have to ask myself is whether both audiences are equally engaged, and whether Medium provides the opportunity to grow that audience faster than what I could accomplish independently — that alone would be a significant value, but it’s one that’s impossible to judge without actually adopting the platform entirely.
Regardless, Medium has to ensure that the strength of its discovery features can keep up with the growing user base, otherwise engagement will continue to fall to the point where their great attractor — an engaged audience instead of just a big one — is no longer present.
For the low cost of free, Medium offers what I consider to be the best publishing experience on the web, free hosting, a world-class design, and an eager audience.
It’s quite the sales pitch.
This begs the question: where’s the profit? Monetization is the tipping point for a business, and while advertising works for many services, one of Medium’s strongest assets is the blissful absence of conventional marketing.
No sidebarnacles here.
This isn’t to say advertising doesn’t exist on the platform, but its presence is altogether less intrusive, coming in the form of corporate blogs and sponsored posts.
It may work well for Medium, but whether or not it’s enough to keep them in business remains to be seen. And clarifying their business plan is a crucial step in attracting writers who are concerned about the durability of the platform they choose to publish on — which is most of us, I think. No one wants the rug pulled out from under them.
A parallel question is whether or not there will ever be a way for independent writers to monetize their presence here, as they’re used to doing on their own blogs. I find it unlikely that we’ll see the usual methods on Medium (memberships, subscriptions, etc.) but there are other possibilities.
As Sean Smith points out, “Medium is subliminal marketing through inspirational discovery…telling stories, providing value and helping people — being discovered in the process — rather than pushing your content in people’s face and hoping they buy.” His post contrasts this idea against traditional avenues of marketing, framing the approach as pull vs. push.
It’s an important subject, and one that Medium needs to address before it gets written off as the internet’s most elegant content farm. Andrea Phillips was quick to remark that the simple fact of publishing here entails granting Medium certain rights to your content, and her concern is that not enough is being offered to professional writers in return for those rights — “you can’t eat exposure,” as she puts it.
So why are we all still here?
Despite an unclear profit strategy, no monetization options, and a growing community of writers to compete against, Medium is larger and more popular than ever.
Every time I’m visited by the thought of “it’s not worth it,” I’m reminded that maybe it is.
There’s no other place on the internet where I can find such surprising, insightful, and unique stories as I can here.
The truth is that value can be a more nuanced concept than the blunt interpretations we’re used to. Yes, writers can go elsewhere to get explicitly paid. And we do. Unless we write for one of the publications, Medium is unlikely to become a direct source of income.
It may well become a focused source of opportunity though, just like Twitter before it, and that might end up being more valuable in the long run.
Medium is positioning itself as a merchant of opportunity, and I find myself warming more and more to the idea.
In researching for this article, I’ve had to ask myself some difficult questions about why I blog. After all, is my goal to make money from it?
No, but writing is a big part of what I do for a living, and I’d like to keep it that way. Does Medium’s audience and platform raise my chances of having that happen?
After all, it isn’t as if publishing your writing independently makes people start throwing money at you. It has to be earned either way.
Matt Gemmell recently wrote:
There’s a distinction, between making money and being supported in a creative endeavour. I hate the term “pay wall” as much as you do, but its very existence indicates a disturbing outlook: that we’re talking about some kind of toll booth. Like a border control station, erected capriciously in order to greedily extract money. A grab for surplus cash.
The reality is that creative output involves cost — whether it’s at the professional end, with staff and materials and print runs or editing suites, or in the spare-bedroom office of the independent artist, where the cost is time, and what else might have been accomplished during it.
If we don’t support the things we love, with actual money, those things will go away.
Like Matt, my goal is simply to write — to share interesting thoughts, experiences, and opinions with people. To spark conversation.
The reality is increasingly that people don’t pay for blog content directly, which has left many bloggers in the difficult position of trying to invent a new way to make a living from the skills they’ve spent years honing.
My blog contributes to my income indirectly, as future clients find my work there, enjoy what they read, and contact me about their projects.
Looking at it from that perspective, there’s little difference between publishing my work elsewhere and doing so here, unless you subscribe to the idea of “owning your audience.”
I’ve grappled — and will likely continue to grapple — with the prospect of migrating all my writing to Medium, but there are a few factors that make me hesitate.
Medium the Medium
I called Medium the best writing experience on the web, but it isn’t perfect.
To be fair, nothing is, but the difference is that on my own blog I am able to address imperfections myself, immediately. On Medium, the responsibility falls to the company.
I have complete faith in their abilities, but I have to contend with the possibility that my own needs may conflict with Medium’s, or that theirs might change in ways I don’t agree with, in which case I hit a roadblock.
This is one of the major impediments to publishing exclusively on Medium. I would venture to guess that accepting this situation is probably the top compromise that writers feel they have to make to write here.
Unfortunately, it’s also the least likely to be addressed, since offering more individual control would break the foundations of what makes Medium Medium.
It falls into the same category as the custom URL issue, which I mind mostly from the perspective of someone wanting to migrate an independent blog to Medium. Importing content is easy, but performing an SEO-happy, seamless transition is currently complicated.
It’s a tricky problem to solve. Even if Medium does implement custom URLs (the FAQ says “not at the moment” on that one rather than an outright no), I’m not sure there will ever be an easy way to make a seamless migration.
For more and more people, that effort will be a price worth paying to write here.
Dustin Senos is a supremely talented fellow, and his collaborators in Medium’s design department have demonstrated a remarkable attention to detail.
You might think that a site filled mostly with text would be simple enough to lay out, but of course it’s the tremendous skill of its designers that contribute to that impression of simplicity, elegance, and style.
Just to drive this point home, take some time to read about how they pore over the smallest aspects of presentation, like the alignment of quotation marks, the presence of the pilcrow, or the rendering of underlines. And that’s without even digging into all the crazy things the engineers are doing!
Suffice it to say that I admire the team.
But…there are some quirks that I think are fair to point out.
There are certain aspects of the editor that I find maddening. As an example, I love the way that the image insertion works, and how multiple images align nicely, but I’m baffled by the inability to align an image to the right of a paragraph.
Look, I’m a lefty, so I get that left is just plain better. But sometimes you might prefer to have something float off to the right instead, and in those situations you are out of luck.
Then we have post thumbnails. Oh, the post thumbnails.
I can only hope that the design team is currently hard at work on this, because the current implementation is awful. The fact that Medium automatically pulls the first image in an article is fine, but the results of the automatic cropping are hideous more often than not.
The intent, of course, is to keep you from having to worry about it. But having to upload a separate thumbnail and header image isn’t what worries me.
You know what worries me? This:
We can spend hours perfecting the layout of a post, only to have our efforts defeated by the amateurish representation in an article list. If the option existed to upload a custom thumbnail for those square layout scenarios, then that listing might look like this instead:
Limitations are great, but there is such thing as too limited.
Sometimes, I run into issues of functionality.
A simple one to demonstrate is the performance and rendering of the note-style comments. These are, for the most part, brilliant, but the system struggles to render quickly with many comments on longer articles.
Moreover, certain layouts will result in comments rendering in a way that’s either unreadable, ugly, or both:
One of the pillars of Medium’s content discovery strategy was its Collections. As the name implies, these were sets of articles, curated by users of the site. Anyone could create one, and it used to be that anyone could submit articles for consideration.
Before you could follow individual writers on Medium like you can today, you could only follow these Collections, and since they were open to contributors, it was comparatively easy to distribute your article through the network quickly.
This functionality has undergone a lot of revision, and the reception has been chilly at best despite the fact that the original incarnation had clear issues when scaled to a larger user base.
The current iteration comes in the form of “Publications”, which can still be created by anyone and managed just like collections could. They operate almost like magazines within the Medium network, and all of Medium’s own publications use this technology.
There are two major changes versus the original system, and these are the sticking points for most of the critics:
- Articles can only live in one publication at a time
- Contribution is invite-only.
The first is a positive change as far as I’m concerned, because it ensures that you don’t get a bunch of overlap when following several similar publications.
But the second is an unfortunate limitation because it restricts a writer’s ability to propel their work across the site, especially if they’re new to Medium and haven’t been invited to contribute anywhere.
This is a double-edged sword for editors too, as those who have just launched a publication have a tougher time getting writers now. The official recommendation is to provide contact details in the publication description and have writers email you.
This not only takes people outside of Medium, but it strikes me as a grossly inelegant solution.
Of course, large publications wouldn’t be able to deal with the influx of submissions they would receive if things worked the way they used to, but there’s an obvious middle ground here: make open submissions an optional setting for the publication editor.
That way, an editor could open or close submissions at will, giving writers the opportunity to pitch their work and allowing the editors to close the stream when they have enough contributors.
The final problem that I have with Medium is its shallow analytics.
Like any writer, I think, I’m curious about where my visitors are coming from. I like the ability to quickly see what tweets point to any given article, but I wish I could do the same for Facebook and other social networks.
Likewise, there are important gaps in the information you get. For instance, I have no way of knowing how my audience is distributed globally. Am I reaching people world-wide or just in the Americas? Are they mostly on their computers, or are they mobile? Does that have an impact on whether or not they read through fully? Do some articles perform better on mobile versus desktop?
These are all questions I cannot answer about my readers on Medium. Whether or not these answers are important is debatable, of course, but coming from my own blog where I have detailed real-time analytics, Medium’s offering is sparse.
To me, as an individual writer, this can be dismissed as an inconvenience, but to a publication that’s looking to adopt the platform, the lack of more detailed analytics can seriously impact their ability to refine a publishing strategy.
As Medium continues to develop its publications, it seems inevitable that analytics will eventually receive an overhaul.
Looking to the Future
For now, I am not quite ready to migrate fully to Medium. But I am happy to write here in parallel, and eager to watch as the product continues to mature and develop.
I feel like I have a better understanding of Medium’s appeal now. It lies in its ability to provide an environment that caters to writers, readers, and publishers alike, where good writing is more important than popularity.
It’s a place that nurtures well-crafted content and rewards quality, in stark contrast to so many other online destinations.
The platform faces many challenges: improving article and publication discovery, continuing to nurture and attract writers, expanding its roster of large-scale publications, and finding a business model without compromising its core values.
Having watched it grow over the past year and a half, I am confident that Medium will meet these challenges in thoughtful and purposeful ways, I just hope the team doesn’t lose sight of user feedback along the way.
As for where exactly Medium is headed, I still don’t know the answer. I’m not sure Medium does either right now.
All I know is that when they do, I’ll be right here to read about it.
Icon credits: Alex Auda Samora, Wilson Joseph, Mike Endale, Nick Lacke, Atelier Iceberg, L. Pence, Monika Ciapala, Océan Bussard.
Images courtesy of Unsplash.
Marius Masalar is a digital adventurer and game music composer. He’d love it if you said hi on Twitter.