Aug 24, 2013

Regarding Medium

I like Medium from a certain design and technical perspective, but I have no plans to ever write there.

Medium Logo

I’ve been following the growth and development of Medium, a new writing platform from some of Twitter’s founders, ever since it was announced last year. My interest in Medium has been twofold. First, because I’m a blogger myself, I have a fascination with writing platforms, content management systems, and so forth. Not because I plan on switching from the custom ExpressionEngine set-up I use for Opus anytime soon, but because I just like knowing the tools out there for writers.

Second, because I’m a developer who has built content management systems, and who realizes that managing content is often a lot more complicated than it may seem, I’m always curious to see how others have solved the myriad technical issues of publishing content online (e.g., how interfaces for managing articles and media function, how content is organized, what the editorial process looks like).

From that latter perspective, I have to say that I’ve come away impressed. (I got my invite earlier this week, and finally had a chance to use Medium.) Medium has solved a lot of issues by simply ignoring them, and doing so rather elegantly. The interface for posting and editing content in Medium is quite minimal. You basically have three fields — title, subtitle, and body copy — with only a handful of formatting controls. The options for adding images to your posts is stripped down, too — you can add a main image, and set it as either full-width or no, and you can add images throughout your body copy. There is no “Save” button — Medium auto-saves as you type.

Overall, it’s a very weightless interface, especially when compared to some of the bloated interfaces that can be found elsewhere in the blogging world, and I appreciate that.

You’ll notice that, as you go through articles on Medium, they all look and function more or less the same. Unlike WordPress, writers don’t get to pick a theme for their content. Some might appreciate this — I personally like Medium’s minimal design as a reader — but this lack of visual individuality, and dependence on voice, style, and writing quality as differentiators, touches on one of the underlying tensions at the heart of Medium. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal explores this tension in a recent piece titled “What is Medium?”, where he asks:

In other words: what are the boundaries and limits of Medium? If anything defines a publication, it is what it *doesn’t* do. More specifically: is Medium a place where Peter Shih should post about San Francisco women he thinks are ugly? Is Medium a better place on the Internet or is it any old place on the Internet?

In other words, is Medium merely another blogging platform à la WordPress or Tumblr? Or is it a publication in its own right, one that subsumes individual writers’ brands and identities to the Medium brand and identity? I don’t ask these questions cynically. I really like Medium as a writing environment that encourages writers to focus on their words as their writing’s main draw, rather than themes and widgets. However, as Alan Jacobs asks, what it’s in it for people who post content on Medium? True, some might get paid, but what about everyone else?

You might get more reads because Medium is kind of an enigmatic “it” thing right now, with some high-profile posts, and folks are still curious about it. And perhaps Medium really is working on ways to increase awareness of, and promote, good writers (or, in Madrigal’s words, “skim the cream, and let the bad posts just sink, unloved and unshared.”) But ultimately, who benefits more? The individual writers, even if they get paid? Or Medium, who can use the content written on their platform to promote their platform? (I don’t ask that accusingly, mind you, but simply because they’d be dumb not to attempt something like that.) Basically, the question is this: What, exactly, is the relationship between Medium and those who write on Medium?

Right now, the relationship seems to be weighted more in Medium’s favor. As Marco Arment points out, “‘Medium’ is the prominent brand everywhere — the URLs, the layouts, the titles — instead of quietly settling for a little ‘powered by’ in the footer and letting the author keep all of the attention.” I don’t at all think Medium has nefarious plans to steal your content, but if you want to establish yourself as a writer online, platform choice is important, and I’m not sure Medium is the way to go for someone striving to make a name for themselves. Arment again:

Whether it’s worthwhile to you should depend on whether you want to establish yourself as a writer, whether you want to get paid for it in some form, and whether you can get an audience elsewhere on your own. Plenty of people can answer “no” to all three, especially if they do something else extremely time-consuming for a living and want an occasional place to write, but don’t have the time or inclination to try building regular audiences or become known for their writing. People who sometimes want to write, but never want to become even part-time writers.
But if the answer to any of those questions is “yes”, and you have any aspirations of building your own audience, you should consider whether it’s wise to invest your time and writing in someone else’s platform for free.

To their credit, Medium basically admits as much:

[W]e don’t expect everyone — or even the majority of people — who enjoy Medium content to publish on the platform. Not everyone has that inclination. However, for those who do even occasionally feel that need, we believe Medium can be a great outlet.

So even Medium seems to imply that their platform isn’t for “serious” writers, those seeking to establish themselves, etc.

All of which is to say that, though I like Medium from a design perspective, and think they’ve done solid work in solving some of the technical issues related to online writing, I have no plans to embrace it as a platform for my writing. Opus may not be perfect — my constant tinkering with it for the last 15 years or so should be proof of that — but it’s all mine. It’s my space, and my space alone, and I find great value in that.

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