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?
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.
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?