Medium’s pivot and the fate of online publishing
Dave Winer recently said, “If Medium were to fail a lot of history will go with it”. Kevin O’Keefe picked up on this and commented on Twitter that this would affect content published by the White House too.
I read both Winer’s and O’Keefe’s comments as suggestions that Medium is Too Big To Fail and that its hypothetical failure would be disastrous. If that were to be the case, it would say far more about the folly of investing so much of their work into a platform that its users had no meaningful control over.
Taking a step back
Before I go on, here is a little context if you missed it. Last week, Ev Williams published a post titled “Renewing Medium’s focus” in which he explained Medium’s pivot away from various forms of advertising it had been experimenting with.
I agree with Medium’s assessment of the publishing landscape and that there is a definite need to find more sustainable and productive ways to earn revenue through online publishing:
Our vision, when we started in 2012, was ambitious: To build a platform that defined a new model for media on the internet. The problem, as we saw it, was that the incentives driving the creation and spread of content were not serving the people consuming it or creating it — or society as a whole. As I wrote at the time, “The current system causes increasing amounts of misinformation…and pressure to put out more content more cheaply — depth, originality, or quality be damned. It’s unsustainable and unsatisfying for producers and consumers alike….We need a new model.”
I also agree with Medium’s conclusions about the current state of online advertising as a dominant way for publishers to make money. It doesn’t leave the Web or their readers in a better place at all (even though it supports the basic model):
Upon further reflection, it’s clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn’t serve people. In fact, it’s not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other “content” we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse.
So what Medium decided to do is pivot away from advertising models to something else:
So, we are shifting our resources and attention to defining a new model for writers and creators to be rewarded, based on the value they’re creating for people. And toward building a transformational product for curious humans who want to get smarter about the world every day.
What that “new model” isn’t clear and I doubt Williams and his team have a clear idea of what that will be. Whatever they come up with is going to have a big impact on online publishing because there are a number of other major publishers asking similar questions. Online advertising as a primary means of earning money online is a downward spiral to fake news and clickbait because it is all about attention.
What if Medium fails?
Medium is the lovechild of a self-contained social platform and blogging. It has beautiful writing tools and is designed to be a wonderful reading and engagement platform.
It has grown remarkably and it’s no surprise that so many people have invested so much of their creativity and thoughtfulness in their articles published to their personal profiles (the Medium version of a blog). A number of publishers have also shifted their publications to Medium’s platform based, partly, on the promise of revenue shares from Medium. It seems these publishers were also caught by surprise by Medium’s pivot.
There is a huge challenge in investing so much in a single platform that you have no real control over. As Winer pointed out:
Through all the zigging, the thing that has remained constant at Medium is the high quality and usability of the software. But it’s possible for others to do what they do, to be as easy to use, without the uncertainty about its future as an archiving system.
It is still very early days (literally) and I think it is premature to worry much about the prospect of Medium failing to find a sustainable revenue model for itself and its writers and publishers. Still, it is something to think about because what happens to Medium could well mirror the broader online publishing industry in the sense that if Medium succeeds, it could revolutionise that industry.
What struck me this morning when I read O’Keefe’s tweet is that Medium didn’t create something new. Instead, it built on a distributed network of independent publications that sprung up 10 to 15 years ago. Back then, we called it the blogosphere and comprised a growing number of independent blogs that referenced each other using annotations called trackbacks. Back then, people followed each other using RSS readers (Dave Winer is one of the creators of the technologies that made that possible) and commented on each other’s blogs.
The blogosphere wasn’t as coherent as Medium. It wasn’t as well defined or connected and not everyone used the same software for their blogs. That meant interoperability challenges. It was very much a version 1.0 of independent publishing but it was wonderfully empowering because it gave people like me the ability to create a space to write and share.
The blogosphere was the first real version of the social Web that has since diversified and coalesced in terms of formats, platforms and media. More significantly, much of what Medium’s functionality existed long before Medium existed and exists alongside it today.
Over time, WordPress surpassed Blogger (another of Williams’ and his colleagues’ creations) as the dominant publishing platform and it remains the leader of the pack with 27% of the Web using WordPress.
Closer to what we really need
As popular as WordPress is, it isn’t always as easy to use as Medium. It has evolved over time and it has its share of dials and buttons to tweak if you want to take advantage of more complex features. I don’t agree with Frederic Filloux who painted a troubling picture of WordPress in his post “A New Model for Medium” where he said:
First, for elegant text-based publishing, there is a need for a simple, easy-to-use, well-designed platform such as Medium. WordPress was supposed to deliver just that, but it took a geeky turn, saturating its ecosystem with scores of third-party plugins — more than 48,000 at last count — whose quality can charitably be called uneven. Most WordPress sites end up using dozens of plug-ins, each one bound to create its own set of problems: slow page-loads, crashes, random behaviors or update cycles that don’t match WP’s platform agenda. Unless you have sizable tech resources at your disposal, WordPress is a nightmare.
For starters, if all you want is to create a space and start writing, WordPress.com is a great place to start. Setting up is probably a little more involved than Medium because you have more choices when it comes to theming and other customisations. Medium is simpler, sure, and a compelling option for many. Still, discounting WordPress so handily is misguided.
Something I have noticed about open-source software is that it can be messy when compared to closed-source products. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that open-source software aims to be more inclusive and permissive. WordPress is a little messy by comparison with Medium, although the design isn’t terrible (at least, not from my layperson’s perspective).
The reason why it is important not to lose sight of this is precisely the concern that Medium’s shift has aroused and its challenges beg the recurring question: where should you publish your work?
As much as I like Medium, I am still a big advocate for publishing to your own space on the Web, even if you then syndicate elsewhere (including to Medium). You may not even control your site’s fate completely but you usually have more say over its future than a wholly hosted space. As Winer put it:
In the meantime, all the content that continues to pour into Medium is at risk due to the missing business model. And this is where I part with Filloux. I wonder why he only discusses Medium’s interest and the interest of its shareholders. What about his interest and that of other people who use Medium as their publishing platform? Is this the best way?
I argue that it’s not. That what we need is a better designed WordPress, or an open source Medium. Or something new that is inspired by Medium’s smooth UI, and WordPress’s open source heritage.
Where to now?
For now, Medium users can keep using Medium to publish their work. I still find great, thought-provoking articles there. If you are concerned about Medium’s future and the risk of losing your content, you can always export it and keep backups.
I prefer to write my articles locally first before I publish to my blogs. Once I’ve published to my blogs, I’ll syndicate to my social media profiles and, now and then, to Medium too. Medium is actually pretty good for this because it incorporates
rel=canonical links that point back to your original blog post if you import your articles into your Medium profile. At least, this way, you preserve your work in your primary publication and if Medium goes away, you still have it all.
And if it all comes to naught and Medium shuts down one day, WordPress and others like them will continue to thrive. The IndieWeb movement is doing some great work to build on the early blogosphere technologies and link all of our blogs with our social profiles and to each other. Yes, it is geeky but I think it represents another bright future for publishing.
Back to Kevin O’Keefe
I started this post with the intention of responding more meaningfully to O’Keefe’s reply to me and, as you can see, it grew a little.
His last point here about people not returning to archives is a fair point although it isn’t the real issue here. The important thing is that there should be archives for people to return to if they decide to.
If, say, the White House exports its articles and archives them on a self-hosted site (which is very possible given how the White House will approach Presidential transitions), that content will be accessible through search and by browsing the site directly.
On the other hand, if Medium/Twitter/Facebook/Other fails and takes all the hosted content down into digital oblivion with it, you will have to rely on initiatives such as the Internet Archive to capture your material and store it for posterity.
I’m holding thumbs for Medium more because I want to see if they can come up with a new revenue model for online publications. The ad supported model works fine but it’s taking us down a path I don’t like all that much. As M.G. Siegler put it in his post titled “Long Medium”:
At some point, there will be a fundamental recalibration of the publishing model. Medium can be the catalyst for this, especially now with such a strong base in place.
Originally published at pauljacobson.me on January 10, 2017.