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

Journalism as a service

I just read Jeff Jarvis’ Medium post titled “Returning Scarcity to News” and especially appreciated his argument for journalism as a service, rather than as a commodity content business:

Only when we reconceive of journalism as a service rather than as a factory that churns out a commodity we call content, only when we measure our value not by attention to what we make but instead by the positive impact we have in lives and communities, and only when we create business models that reward quality and value will we build that quality and value.

News and entertainment publishers are increasingly looking to major platforms like Google and Facebook for wider distribution of their content and alternative revenue options. It’s easy to understand why: these platforms have far greater reach than any single publisher and with ad blocking increasingly hurting publishers, they need to do something. And soon.

I’m cautiously optimistic that ad blocking will prove to be a positive trend that forces publishers to focus on better content and improve the overall ecosystem. I think we will have to wait a couple years for business models to settle and the dust to settle before we can draw any conclusions.

Still, I am hopeful that good quality content will win.

I recommend reading the rest of Prof Jarvis’ post on Medium:

View story at Medium.com

Image credit: kaboompics

Facebook can’t censor your blog posts

Facebook can't censor your blog posts

I came across a post on Facebook that is a great reminder that Facebook can’t censor your blog posts when you publish them outside Facebook’s sphere of influence.

Two days ago, Facebook deleted my personal account of the Holocaust, my intellectual property, for no reason in the world and under the sole justification that it “violated Facebook standards.”

I don’t know if Facebook actually did delete the original version of this post but this sort of thing happens on services like Facebook (and not just Facebook) all the time (often for good reasons, too).

Essentially, services like Facebook can (and do) remove posts that they feel are in violation of their terms of service. Reasons can include posts that advocate racism, incite people to commit violence and other bad things.

Sometimes, though, posts are removed simply because they offend some troll’s peculiar sensitivities. Examples of this include posts depicting breastfeeding.

Ran Shirdan’s Facebook highlights the importance of having your own space on the Web that companies like Facebook (and others) can’t censor simply because your content doesn’t meet their standards. It is almost trivially easy to create your own space on the Web which can share from to other services. Start with WordPress.com or even Medium.

Sure, the flipside of this is that racists, bigots and other offensive people can also publish their crap outside Facebook’s sphere of influence but that is the trade-off for your ability to publish the stuff that is meaningful to you and that you feel should be shared with the world without fear of being arbitrarily censored. By the way, there are ways to deal with bad stuff being published on independent sites too but they aren’t perfect.

Sometimes you have something important to share. Sometimes you just want to share something that isn’t that important. You should be free to express yourself in legitimate ways without worrying that some troll will have you censored.

Do fewer people trust bloggers?

Om Malik asked why fewer people trust bloggers that has been bugging me lately:

That question made me wonder: how much of our social media has become marketing that people actually question something for which you profess your love. I admit, sometimes I have asked myself — so what is that guy selling? I read Medium posts, and one in three are selling something. They are a variation of – my startup flamed, I am amazing, hire me as a consultant. Or look at how amazing my growth hacking idea was for me, so hire me. The “Medium post as a resume replacement” is part of the larger trend – social media as a marketing platform. It isn’t social when you have to question the motives behind “social objects” be shares.

I write for myself and I am employed as a marketing writer so I spend my day moving from one side to the other; between focusing on writing that feels right to me and then writing stuff that promotes my employer and its products.

There are days when the stuff I write as part of my day job is not the sort of thing I’d publish here and that is where the difference between being a blogger/writer and a professional marketing writer. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I write marketing text, my goal is to speak in my employer’s voice. When I write for myself, I use my voice. They don’t have to be the same and they usually aren’t.

At the same time, it should be clear from the context when I am writing with which voice but with so much emphasis on writing to increase exposure and attract more attention; writing just for the sake of expressing yourself often takes a back seat.

This blog is my space and I write about the things I am interested in. I don’t write for some form of remuneration, for the most part. When I am compensated for something I write here (and I haven’t been for several years) I am careful to disclose that so you can decide for yourself how much credence to give what I write.

As Malik pointed out, not everyone makes those disclosures so it becomes difficult to draw a distinction between self-expression and self-promotion. This just leads to more cynicism. I wonder, is this growing cynicism diminishing how much people trust bloggers, generally speaking? Is it something most people wonder about or is it generally accepted that most bloggers are pitching for someone or something?

Read Om Malik’s post titled “Social media is making us all skeptics & that’s not good”.

Social media is making us all skeptics & that’s not good 

Image credit: Pixabay

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.

Open source WordPress app on all platforms is good news for the open Web

I like the desktop WordPress app. It has improved quite a lot since it was first released and the only real difference between the desktop app and posting in the Web interface is that the app doesn’t include additional plugin functionality like Yoast SEO which I use on this site.

Anyway, I noticed that WordPress has now released versions of its app for all 3 major platforms: Mac, Windows and, last month, Linux. Automattic has also open sourced the WordPress desktop app. This is good news for the open Web in a time when there seem to be more high walls around platforms.

Source: WordPress Tavern

Pretty pleased with my latest in-depth piece on ad blockers

I’ve been thinking about why people use ad blockers and paying attention to how publishers are responding to the ad blocker phenomenon. It is a fascinating development that highlights pretty deep-seated dissatisfaction with the state of online advertising and an industry a little too caught up in what it can do and not what it should do.

I received some feedback on a guest post I submitted for publication on a content aggregation platform that inspired me to spend almost 4 days researching and writing a series I called “Ad Blocker Strategies” (most of that time home sick with borderline pneumonia) which has been published on imonomy’s blog.

I usually don’t usually share or promote my “work” articles here but I am pretty pleased with this piece. It runs to almost 6,000 words and represents my better work. It is split into three parts and here they are:

Ad Blocker Strategies – Ad Blockers Awaken

Ad Blocker Strategies – Publishers Strike Back

Ad Blocker Strategies – A New Hope For Publishers

Let me know what you think? I’m sure we’ll also release a consolidated version as a PDF in the coming weeks and share it on the imonomy blog.

Update (2016-01-17): Business2Community published a guest article I submitted to it titled “A Case Study In Industry Responses To Ad Blocking” which is, roughly, an extract from the Ad Blocker Series.

Image credit: Business newspaper reading by Olu Eletu, released under a CC0 Dedication.

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?