What’s Next for Medium?

After five years and $132m in funding, Medium founder Ev Williams announced on January 4 that they would be laying off a third of their workforce and shuttering their NYC and Washington, DC offices. Happy New Year indeed.

In his post announcing the news, Williams blamed the ad-driven publishing model for preventing Medium’s future growth. Essentially, even though his company was created explicitly to disrupt the old way of rewarding content creation, the need for growth required the same deference to clickbait and corporate-sponsored fluff that Medium was intended to do away with.

It’s quite the conundrum: Medium’s success requires a dedicated group of readers and writers, rewarding one another with shares and views based on “the value they’re creating for people.” But, how do you separate that value from the value advertisers care about, which is centered on pageviews and virality?

As DHH pointed out in a recent post titled Venture Capital is Going to Murder Medium:

“It’s just that in Silicon Valley, you can’t merely make a better typewriter and sell that at a profit. No, you have to DISRUPT. You have to REINVENT. Well, at least you need the appearance of that, while you squeeze eyeballs until they pop out enough advertising dollars to give the VCs that 10x return.”

As a member of the venture community seeking that 10x return, I sympathize with the investors who expect a positive ROI. But as a human being frustrated with the decline of rational media discourse, I want to have my cake and eat it too, dammit.

At Ekistic, we love the Medium interface, and use it as our company blog (that’s where you’re reading this after all). I hope that won’t change. So, what’s the answer to their revenue problem?

Fred Wilson wisely points to Steem as a potential new business model. For those who aren’t familiar, Steem is a blockchain-based social media platform that incentivizes content creators with tokens and credits for posting popular content. Think of it as Reddit with real rewards instead of just upvotes. I think Steem has a very compelling product, and is a novel way to utilize cryptocurrency. What I don’t get, however, is how eliminating the middleman will magically solve the clickbait problem. Advertisers use clickbait headlines and memes because people click and share them. Steem users will hopefully not reward clickbait with upvotes, but as that community grows, will they face the same issues? Will bots proliferate to game the system?

I commend the Medium team for making a very tough decision to regroup and change their model, but I have to question how they didn’t see this coming over the past five years. Is the rapid growth and scale required by outsize venture investment really incompatible with the type of knowledge community Medium wants to create? I hope the answer is no, and think the media and investing community will be watching closely to see what happens next.