Yesterday evening, writer and historian Zoya Street of Memory Insufficient (and a number of other projects) took to Twitter to ask a question I’ve been mulling over myself lately:
Why is Medium taking off? What it is exceptionally good at?
I tried to give a suitably brief answer there, but ultimately decided that the topic requires some elaboration beyond the 140 character treatment.
Medium, for the uninitiated, is a Web publishing platform currently in beta. The simplest way to explain it would be as a reconsidered approach to blogging, and, indeed, one of its founders helped design one of the best-known blogging platforms, Blogger.
The most obvious difference between Medium, in its current incarnation, and other blogging platforms is the way it streamlines design concerns. The layout and visual texture of the site is uniformly neutral, and the back-end editor offers only enough tools to allow authors to add images and apply minimal formatting to the text. The intended effect is throw emphasis back on the written word by reducing the temptation to let visual design stand in the place of solid writing.
But there is another notable difference, particularly when you compare Medium to one of the most widely used blogging platforms, WordPress. While WordPress offers a downloadable suite that can then be installed on a blogger’s own domain space, Medium is strictly a hosted affair. There are no standalone blogs running on the Medium platform; writing on Medium means publishing to Medium.com.
That may sound like the sort of restriction that would put a lot of people off Medium from the start—as Zoya pointed out, many of the first batch of writers (myself included) already have blogs of their own—but its status as a hosted platform may actually account for Medium’s early success.
Blogging, you see, is shrinking. Not that there are necessarily fewer people blogging now than there were a decade ago. What’s changed is the way that people move across the Web. Social media seems to be a major factor in that change; so also is a concerted decline in the once ubiquitous practice of liberally linking to other sites. The result is a accumulation of social capital around a handful of prominent commercial sites, like Salon, Slate, The Atlantic, Gawker and its affiliates, The Huffington Post and so on.
On any given day, take stock of the links that pass before you on your broadcasting platform of choice and you’re likely to see the same dozen or so domains predominating. A constellation of mid-tier contenders may sneak in as well, and you’re likely to follow people willing to beat a drum for their favorite indie upstart, but the new media behemoths are virtual black holes, drawing into their orbit the attention of anyone who happens into their vicinity. The more largely they loom in your visual field, the less likely you are to see the work of bloggers who aren’t backed by big dollar budgets.
For bloggers, then, Medium is appealing in no small part because its monolithic platform provides a brand umbrella that could plausibly compete with the most prominent commercial sites for a larger portion of the available attention space. Moreover, its design team is working to increase the reach of posts by integrating closely with Twitter—which originally grew out of Odeon and Obvious Corp, companies that Ev Williams helped found—and through internal social features, like the ability to “Recommend” posts with a single click.
They are, in effect, building a platform that, at its core, revives the interconnectedness that characterized blogging in the era of Robot Wisdom and the blogroll. Whether or not they’ll succeed—whether or not, for that matter, we’ll be better off for it if they do—remains to be seen, but it does, at least, make for an interesting experiment.