America is a nation of second chances. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the world of technology. Sean Parker founded Napster revolutionized the music industry and lost everything in the process; now he’s making Facebook money. Mark Cuban cashed out at the crest of the dot com era, earning himself a cool billion dollars. Now he’s a bad boy NBA owner (and cable TV evangelist). Steve Jobs was one of the original second act’ers: after basically inventing the consumer PC (and losing his company), he returned to Apple to build it into the largest company in the world – and redefine personal computing all over again.
So, to say that second chances and tech genius entrepreneurs go hand in hand is almost to be redundant. Which brings us to Ev Williams and his current aspiration to outdo all of the above. Williams created Blogger, which was later bought out by Google and popularized into the 2000’s ubiquitous web platform Blogspot. Not content to coast on his Google money, he then co-founded a tech incubator called Obvious Corp. If you’ve never heard of Obvious Corp. you wouldn’t be alone. But I guarantee you’ve heard of one of its creations: a little ubiquitous web platform called Twitter. Over the course of five years, from 2003 to 2008, Williams managed to re-define web publishing twice over, first as a blog-driven medium and then as a micro-publishing, Tweet-driven medium.
Those are two pretty good acts, but like some Syd Fieldian ideal, Ev Williams is rounding his business life’s story into a three act affair. At the end of last year, Williams created a third web platform called Medium.
You would think after the mass popularity of Blogger and Twitter, the third Ev William’s creation would be bigger, bolder, and better. And you’d be wrong.
Medium follows a strategy that seems, at first glance, the exact opposite of Blogger and Twitter. If you were on the web at all during the 00s, you’ll recall the ubiquity of .blogspot websites. This was the era of roll-your-own blog platforms, before WordPress was what it is today. Blogger was the easiest way to publish your own blog. Just a few clicks and you were ready to go – no programming or HTML knowledge necessary. Its ease made Blogger spread like wildfire among the huge number of people who have something to say online. (We now know this number is equal to “everyone”.)
Twitter grew even quicker because 1) by 2008 (and really a few years later, as it really accelerated) we were already used to saying things online via MySpace and Facebook status updates, and 2) it was even easier to set up and start saying things.
If Williams were continuing this trend, you’d think Medium would be the easiest platform ever to start airing your ideas. Maybe there would be no signup process at all. Just tie your thought to a virtual rock and throw it out into the sea of the internet. But no. Medium rolled out in a very limited fashion. The first users were hand-picked by the company itself. Then, you were able to submit an application, along with writing samples and areas of expertise, to write “for” the site. I put “for” in scare quotes because it’s not an actual publication. There’s no pay. But there was an editorial process behind who could use it. After the application phase, users could sign up to try the nascent platform by linking their Twitter account and waiting.
Over the last few weeks, Medium has been allowing these users access to its publishing platform, including yours truly.
What explain’s Medium’s radical departure from Williams’s previous strategies for rolling out a (wildly successful) web publishing platform? One (buzz)word, I believe:
Now, “artisanal content” is something I just made up, but I believe it 100% explains Williams’s thinking for Medium, and signals a new direction for content strategy on the internet. Allow me to explain.
There were a few failings to Blogger and Twitter that inform the new direction of Medium. First, take Blogger. It made publishing on the internet insanely easy, but it’s been years and years since Blogger was actually cool. Alexa still has it as the #13 most popular site on the internet (just two spots behind Twitter), but yeah. No one really uses it. Tumblr is the new de rigueur blog platform for cool people, and WordPress is the serious CMS/backend/blog software for pro bloggers. (Well, sort of.) Blogger lagged behind new competitors because, even though it was easy to create a blog using it, it was hard to make a nice looking one. Not only that, but it failed to integrate robust social sharing/feed stuff like Tumblr did (and WordPress copied).
Twitter had an opposite problem. All the cool people started using it immediately, and it trickled slowly, then gushed, into the public consciousness. If you recall the phrase “Fail Whale”, then you remember Twitter’s growing pains. But those aren’t Twitter’s only growing pains. For the #11 website on the internet, an undeniably popular service that’s got celebrities, commercials, and leaders of state hooked you’d think it would be rolling in money. It is, now that it’s readying an IPO, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, just as recently as a couple years ago Twitter faced great uncertainty as to whether it could really monetize. It has done so, but in the most mundane way: advertising.
Medium solves the second problem, of too much growth with not enough revenue, by growing slowly. It solves the first problem, of not being cool enough and being sort of ungainly or ugly, by adopting a uniform and starkly minimal appearance.
Yeah, that’s it. You’re prompted to type a title, an optional subtitle, and then a post. If you select text, you’re offered a few formatting options such as bold, blockquote, and headings. You can choose to upload an image. That’s it. That’s it.
Medium is carefully curated, small production run, supposedly high quality content. Like homemade bitters or an expertly made jar of pickles, Medium’s content is artisanal. Not just for the sake of it, but because it meets some very real strategic needs.
I believe that Medium really is solving some problems that exist on the web. Everyone hates slideshow lists that require fifty-one clicks to read. We hate pop-up ads. We hate seeing five copies of the same story on TMZ, HuffPo, Yahoo, etc. This high-quality, minimalist approach is already popular on Grantland, and being pushed by new kid on the block Quartz. Medium is the blog equivalent.
Spammy, crappy websites are always going to exist. But this new push from all sides for higher quality, minimal design, ad-free (or discrete/good ad having) websites is not going to stop. It’s going to grow slowly but steadily, just like Medium’s “staff” of writers. If you look at a Blogger blog, you can tell immediately. If you look at a website made just five or so years ago, you can tell immediately. These sites look dated, they use dated visual cues and design concepts. And they have dated thinking behind them: more is better, just having a website is better than no website. No.
It may have been true a few years ago that just having a website was good enough, but that’s no longer the case. Your website needs to have a clear purpose and an even clearer presentation. Take a cue from Medium’s minimal appearance and CMS: if you don’t have a clear and obvious throughline for visitors and users, you’re going to lose them. This is the path: small, sustainable growth that foregrounds content and message.
Yeah, Medium isn’t a sure thing. (I mean, MySpace looked like a sure thing just a few years ago…) The thinking behind it is. And to be honest, I wouldn’t bet against Ev Williams’s third act, if his first two are any guide.
Some Good Posts On Medium