Yesterday I learned about Medium via this fantastic post by Kathleen Schmidt about pre-packaged publicity services for authors (if you read nothing else today, please read it). That is to say, I learned that it existed…and set about figuring out what it is and whether we should care. Is it The Next Big Thing or another Google+?
To understand Medium, it’s important to know that it is a project conceived and executed by Ev Williams and Biz Stone, the guys behind Blogger and Twitter. So first they created a service where everyone can have a personal soapbox from which to publish online, and then they made a tool we use to tell people about content, ours and that we find interesting.
Yes, I realize I’m grossly oversimplifying things here. But bear with me…
Which brings us to Medium. It (already) has essays on a wide variety of topics. When you arrive at the site, you log in with your Twitter account—there’s no facility to sign up any other way for now. Once you’re in, you can choose to look at Posts (the default view), which hosts a seemingly random (more on that in a sec) and rotating group of posts, or Collections, which displays clusters of posts on similar topics.
As I looked through various essays, it quickly became clear that the content is blog-like. But it is different, and I’ll be curious to see how users define it as different based on their usage. I noticed it to be generally more focused and quite considered. This probably has something to do with the super-simple and elegant posting interface, which gives authors the opportunity to focus on what they’re saying, rather than the bells and whistles around their words.
In his Welcome Post, Ev Williams provides some insight into what Medium will become:
Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced.
It’s not too late to rethink how online publishing works and build a system optimized for quality, rather than popularity. Where anyone can have a voice but where one has to earn the right to your attention. A system where people work together to make a difference, rather than merely compete for validation and recognition. A world where thought and craftsmanship is rewarded more than knee-jerk reactions.
On Twitter, I follow people who share content that is meaningful to me. They are my curators. Given that Medium is linked to Twitter, I can see that it could become a venue where a community of my choosing helps me know what to read. At the moment, anyone can “Recommend” a post, which impacts whether it shows up in the default Posts view. So it turns out those posts aren't random, and I imagine the tech minds at Medium are considering how to add qualitative elements to this process (although there is more behind that Recommend button than one might think, which is explained here).
I’m not a fan of the term “platform” because I find it to be overused to the point that it’s losing its meaning. But Medium is, in fact and practice, a platform. It is a venue to post text (as distinct from graphic or video) content. Publishing on Medium is, in a word, simple. When creating a new post, you choose one featured image (or not), and then type in your title and text. You can add basic formatting to your text—Headline and Subhead, Bold, Italic, Quotation—and links, but nothing else. This post describes it more elegantly. Oh, and can I just say, hooray for em dashes.
Once you've typed to your heart’s content, you click Publish. That’s it. You can choose to post one essay in multiple Collections, but there are no buttons to put it on Twitter or Facebook or Google+…or anywhere else, for that matter.
Like any good start-up, Medium isn't doing everything perfectly. I've been told they’re going overboard with email marketing that isn't providing a clear call-to-action or explaining to recipients what they’re doing and why they should care. They seem to have done a swell job of identifying influencers, but have been a bit less stellar when it comes to giving those folks a reason to participate at this early stage. I’m sure they’ll figure it out—after all, who among us didn't roll our eyes when we first heard about Twitter?
Because the content on Medium is dynamic (I had some fun yesterday watching it rotate), emailing influential prospective users with links to essays that might or might not be relevant to them (I've heard reports of this) doesn't seem awfully helpful. When you’re asking someone to participate these days, it’s important to explain exactly what you’re asking her or him to do in so many words (i.e., “Please come to Medium.com, sign in with your Twitter account, click on a collection to which you’d like to contribute…” or “Please come to Medium.com and explore the collections; when you read something you like, click Recommend.”).
In the end, new online stuff (technical term, that) is all about what need it is filling. I've concluded that Medium is indeed filling a need, namely a platform that is accessible and simple, which creates the opportunity for effective content curation. It’s early days yet, and so how exactly they accomplish this remains to be seen.
Ev Williams summed it up well in this post when he said:
If you have thoughts to share that you want to impact or influence people with—beyond just your friends and beyond 140 characters—we want to provide the tools and the place.
Medium is quite obviously a work in progress, but it seems to be heading somewhere rather than being destined to languish in “lots of users doing nothing” land. I wish them well, and look forward to watching what happens.