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.)

While people wondered why anyone would publish on Medium, as Marco Arment did, the big questions about what Medium was and what Medium was doing were relegated to footnotes. Indeed, Arment's post included this one: "[Medium] will also face a problem I'm familiar with: If the plan is to grow frontpage traffic and be more like a magazine, what kind of magazine is Medium? What's it about? Who's it for? And if they narrow the focus enough to make that easier to answer, who gets left out?"

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?

Why does this matter?

For us media producers, we have to decide whether Medium is a friend or a foe. They don't appear to have the financial constraints we have (like making money through advertising or subscriptions), which gives them a design leg up, and they also don't have the ethical constraints we have in what runs on their site. If we publish something plagiarized, it reflects poorly on us. If Medium publishes something plagiarized, it reflects poorly on the writer.

In fact, in five minutes exploring Medium's latest posts, I found a post that came right up to the plagiarism line. The content marketing company that created it quickly pulled it down after I tweeted about it. But who takes the brand hit for that kind of mistake? And if the answer is not Medium, have they managed to create a system in which only positive attributes can be attributed to the posts they pull from their platform bloggers? That doesn't seem like a tenable long-term situation. (This is the Internet, after all.)

Individual writers, too, should probably know what it means that their writing is going up on Medium. If Medium is a publication, their work is situated within the journalistic tradition, with goals separate from corporate imperatives. If Medium is a platform and the goal is for it to acquire more users, then everything that gets posted on its site is marketing for that platform itself, even the very best stuff. The payments to writers get filed under user acquisition, and belong in the business category "growth hacking."

Maybe, though, I'm applying old-line thinking to this new creation. Perhaps Medium can continue to do precisely what it has been doing, and their brand value will continue to grow while these major questions remain unresolved. The center will hold because there is no center. In a world when every post stands on its own, atomistically, perhaps it's silly to think a publication can't be incoherent. Maybe a platform can sometimes be a magazine, when it sends out a newsletter of its best content, or when a visitor comes to its home page, but not to an individual story.

So what is Medium? Medium is a place to read articles on the Internet. Medium is a blogging platform, like Wordpress or Blogger. Medium is the new project from the guys who brought you Twitter. Medium is chaotically, arrhythmically produced by a combination of top-notch editors, paid writers, PR flacks, startup bros, and hacks.

Is it the publication for our particular moment?