What Medium is to me

Originally posted on Medium, naturally.

Matthew Butterick in The billionaire’s typewriter:

Mr. Williams claims that Medium is “the best writ­ing tool on the web.” Okay, that’s at least con­crete. But we’ve got a lot of good web-based writ­ing tools al­ready. Medium does more than those?
Ac­tu­ally, no — Mr. Williams con­cedes that Medium has “stripped out a lot of the power that other ed­i­tors give you.” So how is it pos­si­ble to be “the best” while of­fer­ing less?

(via ma.tt & Anil Dash)

Since when does best equal most? Is that our new yardstick for quality? Apple has made a living building products that do much less than the competition, be it Microsoft with Windows, Google with Android, or any portable music player. Along the way, Apple’s generally had much higher satisfaction rates. And the people who use their devices can’t stop gushing about them.

Why do you think that is?

Medium is doing something tricky — on one hand, they’re trying to build something that can make anyone’s writing look beautiful. That’s not an easy task. Not all people are good writers, and not all people have good design sense. But as Medium has evolved, they’ve made it harder and harder to publish a bad, unreadable story — without limiting who can join by charging a fee or making setup complicated and techy.

On the other hand, they’re trying to build a business that makes money. Throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks isn’t a great strategy for that. Instead, they’re starting from an established paradigm and slowly building out thoughtful features to change the ideas of what a publisher and publishing exactly are in today’s world.

It makes no sense in the con­text of to­day’s web. If Medium had launched 10 years ago, it would’ve been as­ton­ish­ing. But it didn’t. To­day, the costs of web pub­lish­ing — in­clud­ing de­sign — have de­clined to al­most zero. Rel­a­tive to to­day’s web, Medium is not cre­at­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties, but in­stead clos­ing them off. To pre­vail, Medium needs to per­suade you that you don’t care about the broader ex­pres­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties of web publishing.

That’s simply not true. Setting up a good looking blog on Wordpress, Blogger, or Squarespace requires some combination of time, money, and expertise. With Medium, I can connect my Twitter account with a couple of clicks, and with one more click, “Write a story,” I’m in.

This is a faulty line of thinking — that everyone with ideas worth sharing has the time, resources, and experience to make a beautiful blog. That’s just not at all accurate.

And now that Medium allows publishing through iOS, how powerful is that for people without access to a computer? Can you set up a beautiful Wordpress blog on an iPod touch? I don’t think so.

In truth, Medium’s main prod­uct is not a pub­lish­ing plat­form, but the pro­mo­tion of a pub­lish­ing plat­form. This pro­mo­tion brings read­ers and writ­ers onto the site. This, in turn, gen­er­ates the us­age data that’s valu­able to ad­ver­tis­ers. Boiled down, Medium is sim­ply mar­ket­ing in the ser­vice of more mar­ket­ing. It is not a “place for ideas.” It is a place for ad­ver­tis­ers. It is, there­fore, ut­terly superfluous.

I’ll be honest — I don’t love this. Online advertising sucks. I know there are ways to make money beyond advertising. But there’s also one key difference I see here.

Medium isn’t selling ads against our content (yet), in a way that that seems negative or dishonest. Unlike many other major players in the tech space, they’re taking “us­age data” as he says, and figuring out ways to monetize that. That’s a big difference to me. It’s learning from your users and applying that to future work and promotions. It’s not taking a story I write about a film and pasting the local showtimes next to it.

And again, isn’t that exactly what Apple does? Does the Apple Watch not exist, in part, because they’ve learned how people use, and perhaps more importantly, want to use their technology?

When Medium works, it connects writers with an audience that is far beyond their typical reach.

Yes, I do tend to get more visitors to my personal site that I’ve spent years building, tweaking, updating, and paying for, but my writing has traveledmuch further with Medium’s help.

When it doesn’t work, it is absolutely frustrating to see a post that you’ve put a lot of time into shrivel up and die — but it’s going to be ok. Medium doesn’t claim any ownership over our work. I can take this post and rewrite it or repackage it for my personal blog, or any other means I see appropriate.

Would it be great if Medium paid users whose work brings massive attention to the network? Of course. Though I could be wrong, I think their focus on publications is just the tip of the iceberg in that regard.

Either way, I don’t think you would’ve read this had I not posted it on Medium. Isn’t there some value in that?

The Little Freelance Handbook

On Friday, I (re)published a project I've been working on since 2013, for free, on Medium: The Little Freelance Handbook

The feeling that the floor is always about to fall out from under you… does it ever go away? I don’t think so, and it probably shouldn’t. It is what keeps you moving. If you sit and think about it too long, you’ll think you can’t handle it. If you just keep moving, everything keeps working.

The Web's Grain

Frank Chimero on designing without borders:

Edgelessness is in the web’s structure: it’s comprised of individual pages linked together, so its structure can branch out forever.
Edgelessness applies to the screens that show the web, because they offer an infinite canvas that can scroll in any direction for however long. Boy, do we take for granted that a screen can show more content than is able to be displayed in a single shot.

Later, he continues:

A quick example from my life: Twitter didn’t replace Facebook. The iPad didn’t replace my phone. My phone didn’t replace my TV. Now, I watch YouTube on my iPad, toss the video up to my TV, while checking Twitter and Facebook on my phone. It’s a little constellation of technology. But I keep asking myself: how many more things can I juggle? And for how long?

Read the whole thing - it's a storytelling and design experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone with any interest in how designing for the internet should work.

If you look hard enough, it translates to all forms of storytelling. One film-related example is crafting an interactive documentary experience, like Elaine McMillon's Hollow. Or any modern marketing campaign. It's about taking little pieces of a larger whole - a picture here, a tweet there, and creating a cohesive message that connects you with people who want to see your work. It's like a sophisticated method of tearing a bunch of pages out of a book and piecing them back together side by side.

Reading List 2

In eight weeks, I've read more books than in all 104 weeks of 2013-14 combined. I wish I could understand what's changed - maybe I'm just getting old.

Another thing I've noticed is that all the books I've read lately were written by men. Mostly, or entirely as far as I know, white men. I made a conscious effort to change that this month. If I'm reading five, six, ten hours a week, I owe it to myself to seek out diverse voices.

Oh, and where am I finding an extra 10 hours to read each week with a full-time job and a one-year-old? I'm reading before bed every night. Sometimes it's just 15 minutes, others it may be two hours because I can't sleep. Even if you only have 15 minutes to spare each night, you can finish most books within a couple weeks.

February, 2015

100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater (Sarah Ruhl) - This book has some truly outstanding writing. Some portions of the book just aren't for me - particularly the parts heavy on theater-specific themes - but it's worth reading those parts for the pieces of wisdom and brilliance throughout.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (Marie Kondo) - This book boils down to one simple idea for me: If an item no longer gives you joy, then it has served its purpose and is time to let it go. That perspective alone was worth the price of admission. Beyond that, it's a lot of tedious repetition, even for a short book. It's also presented for a very specific type of person. Not in an above average income bracket? Have more than one kid? Some of the advice given is simply not practical.

How to Be Black (Baratunde Thurston) - This is good. It should, without question, be required reading for every single college student. I don't think I can give much higher praise than that. Thurston's hilarious writing style from The Onion is on full force tying together a number of important topics.

Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel) - If this book were a pie chart, it would have three sections: The book I wanted to read, the book she wanted to write, and the book she wrote to connect the two (which is sadly the weakest link). It missed the right balance of the three for me. Overall, I enjoyed it, but I did skim some pages.

On Immunity: An Inoculation (Eula Biss) - I picked this up on a whim after seeing it in Mark Zuckerberg's A Year of Books, and I'm sure glad I did. Her writing is wonderful. Her use of metaphors critical. She takes on such a hot topic - vaccines - yet doesn't argue. She sets up facts, and supports them. She sets up myths, and knocks them down. All with grace and understanding. Highly recommended for parents, but everyone should read this book.

Up next

Man V. Nature: Stories (Diane Cook)

Previously

Reading List