What Is Medium?

The site from Twitter's co-founders is one year old, and still mysterious

Just about a year ago, a new website from two of the founders of Twitter launched. It was called Medium. The new site was invite-only, but outsiders could read from various collections. Ev Williams announced the site in a post. Medium, he said, was "a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends." While Medium might look like a standard blogging platform, a content management system, it had been "designed for little stories that make your day better and manifestos that change the world." And yet "it helps you find the right audience for whatever you have to say."

At the time, I didn't notice the contradiction between the normative idea that Medium was some particular kind of publication -- that "a Medium" was a genre -- and the platform idea that Medium was for anyone to do anything and "find the right audience."

Over the last year, Medium's momentum has been building, and as it grows, the tensions between these sentiments is beginning to show. In the last couple weeks, five very different posts circulated widely in social media, all housed at Medium.com. They were:

The first two pieces are awesome. The second two are the opposite of awesome. And Catalano's story was fascinating, even if ultimately proved that her husband's former employer was paranoid more than it proved anything about the nature of government surveillance. The posts on Medium are arrived at in different ways. The Norton and Davis articles were clearly driven by Medium's in-house editors like former Wired.com chief Evan Hansen (for whom I used to work). McConlogue and Shih were just blogging, as people have done since Blogger and Wordpress evolved.

From the outside, Medium's strategy has seemed to be the following: 1) Create a beautiful, simple blogging platform, which Medium most certainly is. 2) Very slowly release control of who can use Medium to create cachet. 3) Pay some people to post to the site, but not most of them. (Sub-strategy: Don't disclose who's working for Medium and who's working on Medium.) 4) Promote the people they've paid along with a very small subset of everyone else.

All this built the idea that Medium was something more than yet another blogging platform. It was a place to be seen. Pieces that might have run on The Atlantic, The New Yorker, or Wired would pop up on Medium, and I'd be like, "Dang. How'd that happen?"

Medium seemed to be a machine for generating the kind of passaroundable content that does so well on Twitter. You want a smart "second-day" take on the news? Oh, here's this post on Medium.

All that made sense, too, given that the company was hiring elite web editors. Medium wasn't building a magazine, I realized, but a magazine killer.

They would and could do what we could do, but merely as a component of their overall strategy. It would be as if LiveJournal simultaneously built The Verge. It was almost an evolved Huffington Post or Forbes, with similar editorial chops at the high end and a better blogging platform at the low end (minus the relentless social media stuff).

Until recent weeks, this seemed like a tremendous strategy. They could skim the cream, and let the bad posts just sink, unloved and unshared. They got a bunch of great free stuff they could promote and any crap that got published on Medium didn't besmirch the great work they were doing with their paid-for stories. They could have their cake and a free one, too. (In this analogy, I suppose eating it would be making money, and so far, there's no sign Medium is doing anything but stockpiling cake.)

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