The Future of Medium Should be Episodic

Medium’s announcement that they’re pulling away from banner ads is, depending on your stake in the platform, either a sign of their imminent decline, or an interesting attempt to buck the trend of every mass publishing platform towards clickbait.

I am, at heart, an optimist, and have loved publishing on Medium since the beginning, so I’m firmly in the second camp. I run a company that has publications running entirely on Medium, and I love the platform, the audience, and the team. I believe there is room for other platforms that aren’t Facebook in online publishing, and that display ads aren’t the only revenue model in town. The trouble is, it’s not entirely clear what the other options might be, at least not yet.

We’re exactly a decade into an era that has changed online content beyond recognition. This change has been driven not by specific technologies, but by the emergence of The Stream – the concept of repackaging content into mobile, personalised, real-time and never-ending lists. The Stream started in 2006, with the launch of Twitter and Facebook’s Newsfeed, but a decade late it’s clear that the competition to monetise its new audience behaviours has been won, by a crushing margin, by Facebook.

Our addiction to scrolling through streams of content with our thumbs has been the first new attention pattern to emerge at a large enough scale to monetise. But it’s not the only pattern that will emerge at such a scale, and it might not end up being the monopoly winner. There are things that The Stream doesn’t do very well at all, and 2016 has shown us plenty of examples of its negative impacts on culture, society and politics. The trouble is, the dominance of Facebook, particularly in online publishing, makes it harder to discern the other new attention patterns that are emerging.

If you organised the formats of mass media content by the average length of attention, then you’ll notice that the second half of the 20th Century was dominated by formats that last between half an hour, to about an hour and a half. TV programmes, LPs, CDs and movies were all formats that lasted on average between 30 and 90 minutes. In the last decade The Stream, by atomising content into clips, headlines, screenshots and gifs, has opened up new business models for content of much shorter length – around 3–5 minutes, and in many cases even shorter than that.

But something else has happened at the other extreme. Our current era has not just seen attention patterns slide downwards, but also extend upwards, with the immersive bingeing behaviours of streaming box sets and console gaming. The real change in audience behaviour in the last decade has not just been about attention patterns getting shorter, but about them exploding in both directions from the 30–90 minute formats of the late 20th century. We now regularly consume content in formats that range for a couple of seconds to many hours.

This spectrum of attention patterns will be the landscape on which the next media empires will be formed, just as broadcast schedules were the battleground for the TV empires of the late twentieth century. The challenge of the next few decades will be finding the attention patterns along this spectrum that mass audiences will adopt, and then finding business models that support creative work for these attention patterns. Looking at the history of previous media empires, like cinema or broadcasting, it takes at least 20–30 years for the business models to mature around new mass audience behaviours. We’re only at the end of the first decade of our current era of change. There’s a lot of audience behaviours, and potential business models, that haven’t been discovered yet.

If Medium are turning away from The Stream, they have a couple of options. They could become a pure platform, and ask creators to pay for services like Wordpress. They could try micro-payments models, which works well for some high-value content niches, but is not viable for general interest publications like The Ringer. They could try crowd-funding or patronage models, but these are difficult if you want to scale a business beyond a talent-led studio.

There is another, intriguing possibility – building a business model around publishing episodic series of content. Audiences understand this model – we’ve been brought up on TV seasons for decades. But freed from the schedule, we’re now consuming episodic series in new ways, from bingeing Netflix box sets to subscribing to podcasts and returning to the cinema for the latest episode in our favourite superhero franchise.

The episodic series has a number of qualities to it that are wildly different from The Stream. Streams are endless, whereas episodic series have a defined structure, with a clear, if not always resolved, ending. Episodic series can gradually immerse audiences in rich and nuanced stories, whereas The Stream has to tell as much of the story as it can in the first second. And there are a variety of business models for episodic series – from ads to subscription and physical retail – whereas The Stream seems like it can only support display ads.

Publishers working in The Stream obsess about engagement, whether this is click throughs, page views, or Medium’s more esoteric ‘reads’ measurement. But this pales in comparison to the kind of engagement you see around episodic series. I used to work in television, and briefly looked after the team that ran the digital communities around cult UK dramas like Misfits and Skins. There is no better definition of engagement than how many people just can’t wait for your next episode. This kind of engagement is genuinely valuable — fans actually want to give you their money. It’s a world away from measuring engagement as a casual click on a link before attention returns to scrolling through a stream.

There’s something about the rhythms of episodic series that seems to hit a sweet spot for audiences. A series is not as exhausting as a real-time, endless stream, and yet it doesn’t demand synchronous attention like a live broadcast. We can savour episodic series, bingeing them or stringing them out as we choose. They have scarcity, but can also be as numerous as the creator demands. Episodic series give creators tools that just aren’t there in one-off stories or live events — cliff hangers, reveals, multiple plot lines and characters that can drop in and out of focus before coming together in a finale.

The problem is, episodic series have up until now mainly been used for audio visual formats. Would audiences want to subscribe, follow, or outright buy an episodic series on a publishing platform like Medium? There are a few publications, like Great Jones Street, that have explored Medium’s membership service, and the brilliant Ghost Boat explored how to structure a written journalistic investigation in the same way that Serial did as a podcast. Fandoms are not only about drama — Kristen Taylor’s account of developing the fan community around the Serial podcast is the best description of audience engagement that I’ve ever read. But these are weak signals for a VC funded platform that has to find a way to make money in the short to medium term.

Still, I hope that Ev and the Medium team have the backing, and bravery, to explore them. There’s a lot they could do with the platform to help creators innovate with episodic formats. They could help publishers link articles together into series to make them easier for readers to follow, they could let readers subscribe to series as well as publications, and they could introduce payment models that work on multiple levels – subscriptions across publications or series, or purchasing trial episodes. They could also experiment with direct support and commissioning to encourage creators to innovate with serialised stories in different genres.

I hope that this is what we’re about to see Medium turn into – a platform that is swinging for the fences, experimenting with new business models and nurturing creators. Ev’s announcement suggests he understands that orienting Medium towards The Stream meant diving into a battle that could only have one winner, and Facebook has already won it. Perhaps instead Medium needs to shuffle up the spectrum of attention patterns, and find a new place to build its own empire.