Twitter is six-and-a-half years old. In tech time that’s old; really old. It started life as a short message service (SMS) communication platform for small workgroups within Odeo, a podcasting company. In 2010, Ev Williams stepped down as Twitter chief executive and it’s been mostly downhill since. Williams’s other big success, Blogger, was also an off-shoot of a larger, unsuccessful project—Pyra’s project management software.
Williams’s next big adventure—again with his Twitter and Blogger partner Biz Stone—is Medium, an attempt to raise the quality level of publishing on the web with a new publishing platform. Articles are organized into “collections” that share a common theme and template and can be either open to submissions or closed. Anyone with a Twitter account can read and rate Medium articles. Only an invited elite are allowed to actually publish on Medium so far. Some Medium collections are text-dominant; some are photograph galleries.
Dave Winer notes that Medium’s collections are upside-down categorization: “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” Instead of organizing content chronologically, like weblogs, Medium organizes content based on reader ratings. The concept is that the cream will rise to the top, becoming more visible.
Joshua Benton, writing for the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, notes that for the last eight years or so, publishing on the web has migrated from individual-driven publishing back to centralized institutions. “That was when a few smart people realized that there was a balance to be found between the organization and the individual,” writes Benton. “The individual sought self-expression and an audience; the organization sought sustainability and cash money.” The new business model surrounding publishing, Benton observes, revolves around serving users “by helping them find an outlet for personal expression, then build a business around those users’ collective outputs.”
Benton also points to the second-biggest downside to Medium from my perspective: “... It degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.” Clicking on a byline in Medium, for example, links to the author’s Twitter feed, not a bio or archive of the author’s other work. Benton claims that this is a feature because authorship doesn’t scale. It’s the collection—not the author—that matters in Medium. “Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about,” writes Benton. And, as Benton points out, when authorship is degraded, all authority (and probably financial benefit) rests with the platform. That Medium hopes to raise the qualitative bar while simultaneously degrading authorship is a disturbing irony. Quality has consistently been associated with authorship, not platform. The power of the hypertext link ensures that will remain the case on the web. The best advice I can offer Williams’s and Stone’s team is to spend time (re)reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, paying special attention to Phaedrus—especially his reemergence—and Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality.
That’s not to say that topic-based publishing on the web won’t be successful. It almost certainly will, especially in terms of discoverability of useful information. It’s just that there’s no real need to separate authorship from topicality; in fact I’m pretty sure that author discoverability within topic streams will emerge as the most successful model. Unfortunately, it will come at the expense of serendipity; some of us will gladly give up interesting and accidental for useful topicality.
But the biggest downside to Medium from my perspective is its lack of interoperability. There are no RSS feeds, no way for a degraded author to get his or her content out of Medium. Discoverability is crowdsourced and siloed, so the chances for serendipitous accidental discovery—something I find absolutely crucial—is replaced with homogeneity. Once again Dave Winer, in his first Medium article, articulates this succinctly. Winer has pledged “to only use systems that let me flow stuff in and out while maintaining originals in my own space,” so his Medium post is surprising. He explains in another article on his own site how this came to be and his hopes for Medium.
I’ll see Winer’s pledge and raise it with the suggestion that we all only use systems that let us flow stuff in and out while retaining the information authority of our original work.