Online publishing will not die if Medium fails

Medium and the future of 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.

Update (2017-01-10): O’Keefe made a similar point in his blog post titled “Medium lays off one-third of its employees“.

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.

Before Medium

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 for now 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.

Image credit: Marco Djallo

Is Medium just a RSS reader?

medium-rss-iftttThe general consensus on Medium seems to be that Medium is a publishing platform, essentially. Rian van der Merwe has a different take on Medium which he explains in his post “Medium as RSS reader”:

But then it dawned on me… Indie publishers have been thinking about Medium all wrong. We’ve been thinking about Medium as a thing that eats all the world’s content with zero regard for publishers. But Medium is, in fact, nothing more than a next-generation RSS reader.

It is an interesting idea and I’m not sure I agree or would want Medium to become a fancy RSS reader. That said, his IFTTT recipe for automatically publishing his blog posts to Medium offers an alternative to the buggy Medium plugin for WordPress which I stopped using on my site.

View profile at Medium.com

Looking at Rian’s Medium profile, the IFTTT recipe seems to be working pretty well although I’m curious whether Rian needs to do any post-publication editing to fix formatting issues? I usually have to delete extra line spaces and fix quotes when I import my blog posts into Medium. If not, this is a good option for, at the very least, republishing blog posts to Medium.

Not just another WordPress vs everything else

I love that there are so many options for people who want to publish their words online these days. I was researching a topic for a blog post for the imonomy blog (I am employed by imonomy as a Content Marketing Specialist) and my colleague, Shirley Pattison (read her stuff, she writes about fascinating topics), suggested a topic: is WordPress’ dominance as a preferred publishing platform under serious threat from upcoming favourites? It was a really interesting post to work on and the result is my 4 000+ word post titled “Is WordPress Still The King Of Online Publishing?“:

Is WordPress still the king in online publishing and will it continue to hold sway in the months and years to come?

As a publisher you want to ensure that your site’s platform gives you the functionality you need to reach your audience and convey your message.

I explore some of the major options and contrasted their features with WordPress’ in this article. Each of these options; WordPress, Squarespace, Ghost, Medium and Tumblr, have strengths and weaknesses where I focused on three themes: writing tools, customization and social.

What interested me most about the topic was how each service I explored seemed to have a different emphasis, whether it was simplicity, its underlying social dynamic or something else. The post became less a “WordPress vs Everything Else” and more an exploration of which platform may work best for you given what is more important to you when you share your work.

I really like Medium but when it comes to my writing and maintaining some sort of collection that is under my control (as much as it can be, I guess), WordPress remains my preferred platform.

On a related note, it is worth reading my post on Social Media Today titled “Build Your Community Hub, Don’t Rent It” if the debate about whether to publish on your platform or a 3rd party’s platform is best for you?

Insta-maintenance

I love it when brands create more playful versions of error pages and app update texts. The usual “bug fixes and improvements” narratives really don’t inspire much passion. Instapaper is one of those brands that has some fun with messages like this maintenance placeholder.

I see most of these fun variations in app update narratives on my devices. This Medium app update narrative is pretty good too:

Poetic Medium app update narrative

Very poetic!

Like Bon Jovi for Medium

I think my writing career reached a milestone today. I was described as “Bon Jovi for Medium” because of my modest following there. I’m not quite sure what to do with that description (do I really seem that old?) but since I was a huge fan of the rock band when I was (much) younger, I’ll go with that.

One of the things I remember about Bon Jovi when my passion for the band was at its height was listening to the “New Jersey” album repeatedly on my Walkman. I’m pretty sure I had a tape (if I remember correctly, CDs only came out a few years later). I think I received the tape as a birthday gift and I have this memory of me listening to the album in the back of my parents’ car on a trip to some holiday destination. They are good memories for the most part.

Rock back then (and it wasn’t all that long ago) had a much more authentic feel to it. Maybe it was because the way we listened to music was more analogue than digital. It was all about tapes and radio and if you were going on a trip you had to plan your media consumption pretty carefully because there was only so much space for your tapes and books in your bags.

BASF
BASF by Groume, licensed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 licensed

You also had a pretty strong sense of owning your content even though, technically, you licensed it just as you do now. Having to insert, rewind, fast forward and play actual magnetic tapes in a plastic container that could become frustratingly tangled was a stark reminder of just how analogue it all was. You couldn’t just download a new copy of the album if the tape became twisted or snapped. You had to save up and go to a local music store (remember those?) and buy another tape. Similar thing with books. All that paper and tape defined our consumption.

Then, technologies advanced and we moved on to CDs and digital content which transcended those physical limitations. This may be starting to sound like a longing for the old days but it isn’t. I am very glad I live in a digital era where one device can carry thousands of books and songs and it all fits in my pocket.

At the same time, we shouldn’t lose that sense of owning our content. It is so easy to do that with so many ways to share content. Take Medium as an example. It is a remarkable platform and it becomes more and more appealing to be as it evolves. I love the writing environment. It is simpler and so much easier than using WordPress on this blog (which isn’t exactly that unpleasant either) and I have been tempted to just write on Medium many times.

The problem is that I don’t really own my stuff on Medium. Technically, again, I do own my content but publishing on Medium means you have to give it up and let it find its own way in the world without much more than a flimsy tether to you. Obvious Corp could change its business model, Medium’s features and your investment in all than beautiful Medium writing would go the way of a SnapChat conversation. It may never happen but it isn’t really up to you, is it?

This isn’t to say that publishing on your own blog guarantee’s your content’s survival into the future. Web hosts can close up, software can break (or, in my case, be broken) and a cosmic calamity can wipe out all human technology leaving us with analogue tapes and paper books. We really should let go more but should we just write for a platform that isn’t ours and hope our work stays in touch and visits some time?

I’m not so sure that this is the way to go. Just because there are so many appealing places to publish our thoughts, passions, random ideas; doesn’t mean we should. As much as I am a fan of Medium and the incredible writing I find there, I think we should hold on to that somewhat unhealthy attachment to our stuff and write for a space we control and then let that stuff reach out to those other platforms without leaving the comfort of home.

I don’t miss that cassette tape, as much as I love the music it carried. I do make damn sure I have backups of its digital descendants, though. My trust for the digital world only goes so far. You can call me old fashioned.

And, in case you were wondering, I still like Bon Jovi.

Update (2015-04-05): This is a little meta but I had to share how Medium embedded this post in a short Medium post I created to share this post. It is very cool!

I think my writing career reached a milestone today. I was described as “Bon Jovi for Medium…


Featured image credit: Bon Jovi by Rosana Prada, originally published on Flickr under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 license. Sourced from Wikipedia.

A parable about hubris and an ongoing digital tragedy

Row of Postal Clerks Processing Mail

This post was originally published on Medium

It feels like a lifetime since the Pushers left and the Communicators stepped up. Before then, the Pushers shaped the Message, told us how we would feel about their brand, their products and services. We either accepted what we were told or, well, we didn’t have much choice.

Then, it all began to change. The Manifesto taught us that “markets are conversations” and even though the Manifesto was soon overlooked by a younger generation, its central social message persisted and shaped our interactions with brands. This new generation, the Communicators, began to explore what a more collaborative, engaged conversation would sound like, feel like and what it could do for brands desperate for attention in an evolving digital world where we didn’t have to accept what we were told. Over the course of a few years, we discovered we had our own voices, choices and perhaps even power to influence others too.

As the Communicators rose from among us, we joined them in their journey and became their followers, their fans and co-creators. For a while we were on this wonderful voyage together, Communicators and followers. We formed new communities and we shared our lives more freely than we ever had before. We looked up to our new leaders with great admiration. They were like us and we loved them.

We had a brief Golden Age when we were finding our individual voices. Facebook brought us closer together, Twitter brought the world to us with such immediacy we were astounded at first. More services and tools followed and, today, we have so many ways to share, we are forced to choose based on where our communities are strongest. Once we thirsted for creativity, today we are inundated with it and we use terms like “overloaded” because we haven’t developed effective tools to filter our consumption. Still, its a good time for self-expression and there is so much of it.

The Communicators embraced these new tools for the brands they serve and they used them to capture our attention, share wonderful stories that entice us and weave new fabric to clothe those old brands the Pushers told us about. The Communicators learned more effective techniques as time passed and as they rose to greater heights and found that the brands they served worshipped them and their mystical magick (we knew it was nothing of the sort but then we still believed we travelled with our new prophets). Slowly, almost imperceptibly to most, the Communicators began to believe the praise heaped on them by the brands that also paid them richly. The Communicators began to believe they were the embodiment of the new Social Message and rather than being its interpreters, they started shaping it to suit their vision of this new era. They created new mantras and new laws.

Perhaps the rarified air and great heights led them to forget their earthly origins with us. Perhaps they simply saw themselves as the Pushers’ rightful heirs. Either way, our Communicators changed. They demanded more attention, more praise and they did it in subtle ways. They hosted grand parties and dinners and treated us as beloved followers, graced us with their attention and public praise as if that would somehow sustain us or even elevate us. Some of us became officials in their courts and rose above the rest of us, enjoying success for as long as they were in favour.

Then the Message changed. Our conversations became distorted. We only heard stories of joy, success, praise and favour. We didn’t heard stories about tragedy, disappointment and failure (well, except where failure was heralded as the seed of success). We noticed that officials in their courts disappeared and were replaced and heard quiet rumours about followers who fell into disfavour, were cast out and exiled. Nothing confirmed and yet the rumours persisted.

As the Communicators rose to even greater heights it was as if the Sun shone even brighter on us all and it was tempting to believe times were never this prosperous but this new light didn’t shine everywhere anymore. With this great light came more shadow. The Message was shaped even more and something unfamiliar crept into it: intolerance. Once again, we are told how we feel about brands, their products and services. The Message is no longer a shared construct, the Communicators shape it for us. For the most part we like it and, if we don’t, well, does that matter?

A dull life

This post was originally published on Medium as “Too much focus on a dull life“.

Too much focus on a dull life