What is, is not very important. Rejoice that it is.
Just last week I was zapping and I stumbled upon a late night talk show with two highly respected people. At that very moment in the show they had glowing sparkles in their eyes, the kind that look good enough to convince your attention to stop the zap, wide smiles and deep breaths as they went about: their love for reading. Behold how they cherished each read as a life event. How they were for example reading slower towards the end, so that the reading would last longer. How they waited in sorrow and wouldn’t start a new reading adventure too soon, because they felt they were cheating on the old one — they gave it some time to settle in. Listening to this, I felt like I was shared a vivid memory of great adventures. These are some powerful feelings for something so static and common as reading — and yet people had them. In the current state of online publishing we are lacking this.
I sometimes characterize Medium as content matchmaking: we want people to write, and others to read, great posts. Ev
When was the last time you felt anything remotely in the spectrum of love, attachment, excitement, identity for some piece you read online? How big is your bookmark library? When is the last time you referenced it, not for information, not for data, but for a sentiment?
That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. Ev
The original “total time reading” metric of Medium was a “generously gorgeous” idea. It attempted to solve the problem of quality versus quantity. It was a true meaning metric: if no one takes their time to read, there is no real point in writing; in that case, heck we should all be public speakers and turn to Youtube as a distribution channel. But writing is so much more than speaking. It has more energy packed into it, it has longer lasting effects on the audience, it addresses not one of the five senses (hearing), but the sixth (intelligence).
The problem with the internet for publishing is that it is universal in its approach. Everyone can join. Everyone is free to participate in any way. In doing so the internet hits the issue of the lowest common denominator.
The lowest common denominator could be described like this: if you want to reach tens of people you may speak with inside jokes, in reaching hundreds you may use your jargon, thousands you may still afford hermetic metaphors, hundreds of thousands and already your theme has to be of broad interest or appeal, but try to reach millions and zip! all you’re left with is the commonplaces of rhetoric. Of course all the style and depth can be there too, just heavily dipped in the writing equivalent of monoglutamate.
Lets see for a bit what we currently have. In the online content library of the world you will find some form one of these:
- the longform which is a rarity and, as they say, apparently the most expensive to produce; requires effort to produce — but also effort to read and grasp
- the post which is the normal length of the attention span of the educated online audience, the base of the blogging idea; requires effort to produce — but less effort to read and grasp
- the article which is some way of getting the penetration of a post with the depth of a long form, the article is what happens to posts when the blog graduates to publication; requires less effort to produce — editing caters to reduce the effort to read and grasp
- the status update which is, even in its finest form, just a quick blurb or some aphorism at best; spontaneous — no effort in any direction
But what are all these “forms”, anyway? Writing. What is writing? It is a way, a means of communication. It is not a form of communication. The form is language. The means is writing.
Writing is meant for reading.
It’s clear that there are many more people who occasionally have valuable perspectives to share than there are people who want to be “bloggers.” Ev
I am no expert in the publishing business. I did work with publishers, and building CMS systems for many years had me interact with a lot of people in this domain. And I do feel like I qualify in Ev’s target audience for Medium by having the need for “a voice” without the hassle of getting one. This is why when sentences like the following quote get highlighted, tweeted, favorited and re-tweeted I feel there is something disturbing happening:
I used to come here to speak. Now I come to Medium to listen. And that’s far more valuable in the long run, Andy Dunn
Why? The internet is full of places to listen. The departure from the passiveness of traditional broadcast media was with the hope that “the speak” power is finally shared between participants. How come we got to rejoice listening, as having more value in the long run? We encourage kids in class to speak up and not spend 12 years listening, and now we rejoice listening? This listening business doesn’t even match the whole network idea ☺where you really do speak up in some un-ordered blurb. Maybe I am in the wrong.
In the last few months, we’ve shifted more of our attention on the product side from creating tool value to creating network value. Ev
Just that sentence had a swirling internet post, reply, respond, tweet and agitate otherwise in all forms for the ardent question: has Medium pivoted once again on its strategy towards publishers and the audience?
No, not exactly pivoted but merely revealed more of the actual strategy.
Central to the idea of Medium is that it’s not just a publishing platform, it’s a “networked” publishing platform, Ev
The thing is networks are not platforms, they are distribution mechanisms. Platforms empower value creation by lowering the barrier of entry. That is the core asset of a platform and it is usually a tool. WordPress.com is a platform. Of course, the technicalities of what “features” a platform vs. a network has are irrelevant. Medium has great tools too, just as WordPress.com does, but the striving is now for wider distribution not easier launch. One can code a “platfonetwork” sure, but the point of the discussion is what vision the brand promises.
Medium as a brand — as a promise, was a flag that we, as people, have not forgotten what quality, effort, and high stakes mean when it comes to writing, not publishing. But now it is a brand that promises interactivity, distribution, instant feedback — all cool things but they are not supporting better writing, but better publishing.
On a personal note I believe in the long run the world will not benefit from this trend at large. I think the networks are simply businesses and that the mere fact they provide an accessible service with a very low barrier of entry — aka free — does not make them a social utility or a benefit for the world.
Networks are between power centers. Really decentralized networks are not possible because of spam, aka noise in the medium. To shield ourselves we agree to be a mere link in a chain. If the chain is between the right power centers for us, than it is good. However, because of links and power centers, a network results in a dilution of authority.
Facebook is great for connecting with people you know. Twitter is the real-time newswire. YouTube is the place for video. Tumblr is the place for viral, poppy, easy-to-digest nuggets…
Medium will be the first and best network for reading and writing words of substance. Ev
Here is a list in the quote above:
- some people
- flash news
- video clips
- viral nuggets
- words of substance
Apparently something is wrong with this list. Facebook is plenty superficial connections with people you barely know, but also a hub for keeping in touch. Twitter is superficial opinionated news, or links to real news, or bits of information which is not yet news. Youtube is not Netflix, video clips are the bulk of the content there, so its some superficial video content, but also the best outlet for video distribution. Tumblr is the quintessential superficial and easy alter ego for everyone. Where do “words of substance” fit into this landscape?
The infatuation of networks like platforms reminds me of this aphorism:
The ivy is convinced that it keeps the oak standing, Valeriu Butulescu
You can see why this is, money come from growing horizontally, verticals are for the niche. No one currently challenges this, and I hoped Medium will. But as software is eating the world, growth is eating the software. Just like it ate traditional media, industrial productivity and so on. Growth, as a factor for success, is detrimental because, eventually, everything that counts on growth for success will grow out of bounds. It is bounds though that push things upwards and limit dilution.
I dread we’ll get a feed of words and sometimes substance in between.
The epistolary network
I wrote a bad response a day ago. To @ev. And only because I could. I had 10 minutes of office time and a post of @ev brought up a flurry of thoughts. But the result of my hasty reply sounded like a comment in a reddit thread rather than a piece on Medium.
Responses are not free-for-all comments, Ev
But if you don’t want me to write a comment, why do I see a comment box? Maybe it is too encouraging ☺UX for users like me.
On Medium we have responses as a way to get some of the network effect to work for sharing ideas. Recently I’ve read a book on boredom. One very fun literary critic and a writer exchanged emails on the idea of boredom and then compiled a book out of them. It was so engaging. But how would that reading experience be, had the two added a third one in the mix which referenced another book between them and a fourth?
Responses are the contemporary version of discussions between op-ed writers last century. Leandro Demori
As they are, Medium responses could be compiled in a form resembling the epistolary in literature. But yet not so easy because they are threaded. You can respond to responses. This is not an idea exchange because the value is diluted in the branching. Every time the original point gets a new branch of discussion the building of it slays some of the original’s power.
By itself this is not a bad thing. This is how you scale horizontally in the land of knowledge. But where is the tool that allows us to scale vertically? Everything wants growth, but just like in nature: a tree will grow vertically way slower than the ivy horizontally. But the tree aims for the sky while the ivy merely gathers land mass.
But will those changes just dilute the very thing that made Medium different from the rest of the marketplace? Mathew Ingram
Lets see: how do people communicate anyway? There is one of these situations:
- the Solar system: someone knows it all and speaks to the audience. Sometimes, very rarely, someone in the audience grows a living ecosystem but only because they are shielded from the sun’s personal agenda, served by traditional media internet outlets.
- the Pleiades: everyone is an expert and they debate indefinitely. Gravitational locking could keep the debate on for centuries.
- the Meteor belt: no one knows much about anything but they gravitate around some center point of truth. Internal feuds erupt when people’s trajectory of interest intersect in time, served by Reddit.
- the Nebula: the creation chaos, everyone participates and sometimes, once in a while, a star is born, served by what used to be the “blogosphere”
- the Comet: while minding their usual business, everyone stops sudden and wide eyed until the shiny new thing disappears into the vastness of the content feed, served by Facebook.
Which of these does a “publishing platform that is a network” attend to?
Medium is resurrecting the high-level debate. Leandro Demori
Yes we need a high level debate. Currently the debate is too threaded, too brief and, seesh, way too thin. But does the networking effect encourage debate?
Besides, for an increasing number of writers and readers, the Big Story isn’t the point. The conversations with friends and colleagues that help create the story, the conversations with readers and followers and idols and peers after the story: That’s the point. Not the static thing. The ever-moving thing. Mark Lotto
I am no expert, as I said above, so its just my opinion, but the way I see it is not a strategy, but a struggle for industry wide metrics that marketers and VCs know and trust. Networking will not help the writing process, nor will it help the reading process. TTR died prematurely.
The ethical network
Can the individual, the platform and the society, all win?
The run after accepted metrics provokes some thought upon the impact the business of communication has on people now and in the future.
Like the old joke about having something cheap, fast and good, only two at a time work, I think the same applies to the effect of communication business upon our future.
I am seeing three players here: platform, individual and society.
If publishing is more about interaction than about content, the platforms are win. But is this a win win win?
The advent of the internet is based on the “free”, the idea that copyright is outdated, that content should be universally accessible and in the end disposable. Yes, disposable. Do you know what happens with the information once there is no effort required to acquire it? It is forgotten.
The long, curated, edited and “big”, story is a lose, win, win. Platforms don’t get about nothing from these, however there is great reward for the individual who put in the great effort required for a longform, and also a great reward for the society since it has a bunch of ready made thorough thoughts at its disposal.
140 characters can be brilliant but they’re still dry. It is exactly like a concentrated syrup. You know its good, but it clearly needs water to be drank. From 140 characters as we see The Platform wins a lot, given the smart way the platform was built — and the free publicity it got. Then the individual is also a win on spontaneous genius, you can speak suddenly with hundreds of thousands of people instantly. Yet society is a looser here. Someone revisiting a 140 chars status from another time or even just another space gets nothing out, knowledge is definitely not encapsulated in them and the understanding is lost. If the secret of life was made of two words, you would need two libraries to explore it.
So might Medium be for medium content? Not longform, but also not brief thoughts. Who knows, the medium is fluid.
The problem is who handles the wins. Currently it’s all software eating the world, yay!, but this whole thing is very predatory — and the ones who only praise it should consider the implications of too many lions in the savanna. We are not having common government for our culture anymore. Political government is the one we see all the time, but there are other governments too: lifestyle, generational, cultural or spiritual. When networks make themselves platforms, the government they represent becomes suddenly private. The wins are handed by the visionaries that created them in the first place. Facebook is the vision of Mark, Medium is the vision of Ev, Tumblr is the vision of David and so on.
Also, here is an example of handling wins from a position of vision:
Too many people conflate greatness/ambition and longform, Mark Lotto
And the problem that you have a win/lose combo is very small compared to the real one: the decision of which one between the individual, the network and the society loses does not rise naturally. The network is mostly owned privately. The private interest is business oriented. Business orientation provides for profit, not for benefit. As much as it is a good thing that profit generates innovation, it is also a bad thing that profit loves inoculation, aka educating the market. Therefore the benefit you get from someone else’s profit is not about the real need, but about the imaginary one their innovation solves. Very little product innovation is rising from true social problems, intimate needs, hardships of life. Almost all those who serve these are NGOs.
So what is it that could make all three partners win?
The network is the scales. When the platform leans to society the individual looses, when it leans to individual the society looses. The network can make the concession for the greater good or not.
The network as a scale if it is forced into a platform, by great marketing, by incredibly awesome tools inside it or simply by historic context, is an unstable platform. Content dissemination with content monetization automatically bring down curation efforts, because the Internet is one big freemium product.
The thing is if no one reads there is no purpose in writing anyway. So the network thing does make sense. Yet what is the value for the writer, the talented writer, that cannot for various reasons be social and do networking?
I am sure there will be lots of vocal people who will cheer to the sight of the soon to come Medium Social Network, MSN again?, yet it is a thing to dread too, as no one has yet figured out a way to sell good stuff to mass audiences. And millionaires want to be billionaires. Why be a platform worth a hundred million, when you can be a network and be worth a hundred billion.
Let’s assume Medium will turn the chat into conversation. It will be an odd and long one.
In searching on the subjects above I’ve gone trough probably forty pieces on this new announcement on The Story, announcing Medium is not a publishing tool. I wonder why are people so opinionated on products anyway? Why does anyone care so much on where the founder of Medium wants to hint his business? It is a business, isn’t it?
Maybe it is a form of shout-out. A small inner twitch when you cannot find one single island of purity saved from noise. Maybe is simply crushed hopes and dreams of wannabes people who put too much confidence in a tool.
But good writing is not the point of Medium. It’s not what we’re optimizing for. The goal is to create a place people get smarter, share knowledge, understand and be understood. A place that where ideas that matter can be shared, built upon, and affect the world. Beautiful writing is a lubricant for all of those things — but it’s like the atmosphere of the restaurant the taco is served in. Ev
Probably this is the main point people don’t get. This business does not plan to make people better writers. Why would it? Does Facebook plan to make people better friends? Hell no! Yet the writers are the substance of medium and the friends are the substance of Facebook. But they, being simply Silicon Valley companies, are consuming their substance, just like we burn everything we can get out of this planet. In order to get sustainable models for networks, we need a sustainable substance first. I want the green energy of the online networks. ‘Till then Ev does the best thing for the business.
Some of Facebook’s comments are OK. Some of the Facebook friends are real. The fact that some talented people write great comments and wall updates is a good argument that no form of content is bad by itself. The fact that legitimate people’s uprisings have had a global voice is a great argument that networks give back too in usefulness.
Facebook is often used by us mainly for its group functionality. I know plenty of classmates who only go on Facebook to check the groups they are part of and then quickly log off, Andrew Watts
The noise kills the medium, so make sure to stay tuned.