What Blogging Has Become

Why Medium’s new features are more important than they seem

A man looks at his laptop at the TechCrunch’s 2012 Disrupt conference. (Beck Diefenbach/Reuters)

This is a post about Medium, which is a fascinating company partly because it has a lot of money, and partly because its leadership team first brought you Blogger (the first really successful blogging tool) and Twitter (Twitter), and which released a whole slate of new features this week in a kind of confusing way.

But first it is about this question: What is web writing in 2015?

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You know, web writing — that chatty, affable, ephemeral old thing. The thing that prized personality over pomp, the thing with feathers (and links). What does it look like?

Does its writer work for a big website like BuzzFeed, crafting listicles, quizzes, reporting, and personal essays? Do they write a newsletter? Or have they fully abandoned HTML, and now they’re trying their luck with a podcast?

It’s worth asking the question, because of course — of course — they don’t blog. Blogging — I mean, honey, don’t even say the word. No one actually blogs anymore, except maybe undergrads on their first week of study abroad. 2015 has been, so far, dismal for the art. On the establishment side, there’s burned-out Andrew Sullivan polishing off the Daily Dish a little more than two years after he took it independent. Meanwhile, the old “alt-blog” kingmaker, Carles, sold his Hipster Runoff to an unnamed Australian investor for $21,100 this week.

Open up an old blog and it was a list of posts in “reverse-chronological order” (meaning newest-at-top), written by a single author or a set of them, with a collection of topics connecting the whole enterprise together. Meanwhile, in the right rail, there was a list of other blogs read by this one. Things were generally chummy: A post might begin half of some other writer’s post, leading off with “As my friend Matt wrote…”

Very, very few people do that anymore. Now, tell someone you’re visiting a news website — which is what blogs were, categorically, less than a decade ago — and they’ll likely think of some institutional homepage with big rectangles, each with a headline, image, and dek.

Which isn’t to say that blogging is dead, exactly. In the tidy story that gets told about Web Writing, Blogging is Obi-Wan, and Venture Capital (or maybe Brands) are Darth Vader, and right before Vader takes a final swing at this scruffy, exhausted man wearing a bathrobe, Obi-Wan Who Is an Allegory for Blogging promises:

“You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

And then he dies but he’s everywhere forever now so actually he won.

That was supposed to happen to blogging. For a couple years now, it was clear we were going to lose the reverse-chron, single-URL game. We had already lost it, really: Sullivan was marginal long before his farewell post. But in return, we got Twitter and Facebook and whatever your other favorite social-media tool is. They adopted the chatty tone of blogs, and they unified the hundreds of streams of content in reverse-chronological order into just one big one. They made blogging easier, because a writer didn’t have to attract and maintain a consistent audience in the same way anymore. And along with the chattiness and ease of blogging, they were supposed to bring its attendant emancipations to the masses, too. You needed no institution’s permission to hit the ‘Tweet’ button.

And here’s the thing: They totally did. Never mind the Arab Spring: It’s impossible to pretend, in 2015, in a culture that understands what #BlackLivesMatter means, that corporate-owned social media have not shaped social movements and as a consequence changed U.S. mass politics. Assumptions built into blogging, assumptions once worth marveling at, have become part of the firmament of the U.S. cultural sphere.

It’s a nice story: The startups of the mid-Aughts figured out how to take the best parts of blogging and bring them together in one place, while cutting the parts that had made them so hard. It’s a story, too, that Medium fits nicely within: In the early 2000s, its CEO Ev Williams’ first company, Blogger, let people start blogs without actually buying a URL and running a web server; in the late 2000s, his second company, Twitter, centralized publishing further and made it even easier.

So it’s a nice story… and an imperfect one. Because there have been side effects to corporate online consolidation. Those social networks got so good at their job that they became coursing rivers of reader attention, worth billions of dollars—meaning that they can redirect a tiny bit of that flow, an amount unnoticeable to them, and refashion entire industries. That’s what one social juggernaut in particular, Facebook, has done to online journalism. In August 2013, it began sending many more readers than it ever had before to what it called “quality publishers” by promoting links from their pages to users’s News Feed. Now Facebook can refer more traffic than anyone else — whole leaping barrelfuls of it, as far as news organizations are concerned — and news organizations looking for growth have come to rely on it. An October 2014 analysis claimed Facebook drove nearly 25 percent “of overall traffic to sites,” which seems low to me. Justin Smith, CEO of Bloomberg Media, worried Wednesday that “the list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now.”

Imagine half to two-thirds of the thing that makes your revenue possible coming from anywhere. That’s what centralization has done. The glittering dream of ten thousand bloggers, each with their own URL and each remixing the news for their own audience — that curious ideal pitched between libertarianism and progressivism — has led to this.

And centralization, by the way, hasn’t just happened on the social distribution side. It has made previously niche web publishers more mass: BuzzFeed is a venture-backed, metrics-optimized ying built for Facebook’s venture-backed, metrics-optimized yang.

This utter reliance of publishers on a couple big distribution engines —that’s just the present! Looking forward, John Herrman, a BuzzFeed alum and now the editor of The Awl, predicts that news sites will grow ever more addicted to the traffic that social apps will provide them. News outlets have already been forced to sacrifice control over distribution; now they’ll sacrifice control over publication too. Facebook today, already, now, wants news orgs to publish video directly to their Facebook pages. Herrman forsees reporters filing to Vine and Yik Yak and the whole business of online media becoming contorted:

In this future, what publications will have done individually is adapt to survive; what they will have helped do together is take the grand weird promises of writing and reporting and film and art on the internet and consolidated them into a set of business interests that most closely resemble the TV industry.

And once these news brands, BuzzFeed and The Atlantic and The New York Times give in to apps, and once internal editorial structure reorganizes itself and the whole state of affairs becomes normalized for eight or nine months, some 24-year-old assistant editor who’s used Snapchat since high school and who majored in computer science and public policy will walk home and think to themselves (to quote Herrman again): “What was even the point of websites? Were they just weird slow apps with nobody in them?”

Back in the present, here’s New York Times CEO Mark Thompson earlier this month, on whether the venerable Gray Lady is considering publishing video directly to Facebook:

My starting assumption is that … you’re better off playing the game. […] Each circumstance has to be considered on its own merit. […] There’s a danger, by the way, of staying outside the party.

Facebook’s great attentional party! So that’s one 18-months-from-now future. It doesn’t feel too far fetched considering that, 18 months ago, the Facebook Traffic Disturbance was only revving up.

Into that ecosystem enters the New Medium.

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Each of Medium’s new features seem small individually, and the tech press is treating them like a minor product update. You can tag posts by topic now. They added a text editor to the homepage, so you can log on and just start typing. And the homepage has a stream of stories, now, too: a mix of posts by people and publications you follow, arranged in reverse-chronological order.

Ev Williams explains the changes by saying the company has become known for longer and well-produced stories and that, while that’s nice, it really wants to be a home for all kinds of writing — long, short, and, um, middle-length. That makes sense, but I think that’s the MacGuffin of this new Medium.

Because there are other changes, too, changes I haven’t seen announced. Collections, which had been the non-chronological and distinguishing organizing device of Medium, have been recently rechristened Publications. And user profiles just look bloggier now: Except for one featured post, they descend forever in an infinite scroll of previous posts, organized (wait for it) reverse-chronologically.

Taken collectively, these features completely alter the feel of the site. Medium feels more like a social network than it ever has before. There’s a stream of friends’ content at its center now, just like there’s a stream at the center of every other major social site. Indeed — arranged around writers, supportive of conversation, and eager to be a home to typed content of all lengths — Medium feels like nothing more than a design-y Tumblr for people with startups.

Is that what it is? Apparently it’s time to figure out What Medium Is again.

Back when Medium launched in 2012, collections were what differentiated it. Williams wrote:
Posting on Medium (not yet open to everyone) is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a blogger or worrying about developing an audience. All posts are organized into “collections,” which are defined by a theme and a template.

The burden of becoming a blogger.

Nieman Lab director Josh Benton glommed onto this, in a still-remarkable post about the nascent site. One of the most radical things about Medium, he wrote, is that it makes authorship less daunting by degrading it. Benton argued that the web had already moved on from the author as a distinguishing trait (which meant that it had moved on from blogging, although he did not quite say that). Now, web writing was much more atomistic, with charts and infonuggets being swapped across publications, and “the web was better for it.”

But Medium’s key device, he said, was the collection:

Medium is built around collections, not authors. When you click on an author’s byline on a Medium post, it goes to their Twitter feed (Ev synergy!), not to their author archive — which is what you’d expect on just about any other content management system on the Internet. […]
As Dave Winer noted, Medium does content categorization upside down: ‘Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.’ He means collection in Medium-speak, but you get the idea: Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.

Okay, so, this is totally different now! With New Medium, a post doesn’t need to exist inside a publication-which-is-the-thing-that-used-to-be-called-a-collection. It can exist under your byline alone. That you’re the author is the organizing fact.

And that means that Medium The Company has abandoned the tenet that differentiated it at launch: that the burden of authorship-over-time is what kept people from writing online.

In 2013, Atlantic contributing editor Alexis Madrigal tried to get a handle on Medium on its first birthday:

If Medium is a publication, [writers’] 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.

Medium has only leaned further into this tension. Its new product was called, internally, “Bloggy Medium,” and old-school bloggers like Michael Sippey wrote poignant internal memos hailing blogging’s conventions. It has launched internal magazines, hiring ever-fancier editors and paying even more writers. And it has at the same time “revolutionized the press release.” Medium was where the White House posted the 2015 State of the Union Speech before it was delivered and where Mitt Romney announced he wasn’t running in 2016.

But you can only flirt with being a platform for so long before you just become one. The description of Medium that’s most stuck with me is from Josh Benton again, this time on Twitter: Medium is now “YouTube for prose,” he said. In other words, it’s a platform. And I think with these product changes, it’s embracing that. It feels like a social network now.

The YouTube model is revealing, too, because it sets up two kinds of Medium readers. Some people go to YouTube to watch a one-off viral video. (Read: an especially popular essay.) But many of them go to watch their favorite YouTube stars, video bloggers with whom they’ve developed long, intimate relationships over time. To run a YouTube, you need well-recognized authors, working over time, with audiences all their own. You need bloggers.

In other words, Medium’s leaders need things from Medium to regularly travel around the web. But they also just need people to travel to Medium, regularly. And they want the new blogging engine to do that.

Some questions, though:

I’m serious here: Medium is now a place to post text of varying lengths, where it will be arranged chronologically by author and presented in a central homepage feed. Is it just Tumblr for rich people?

Is there a place for blogging online in 2015? Lots of people — mostly, people who were around for the first blogging boom — seem to think there is. And I too, a lowly twentysomething, pine for days of less centralization. As I wrote a few days ago, in a New Medium-style short post, “I still find the idea of a diverse blogosphere — arrayed across tens of thousands of URLs, with sites organized by author and shaped by distinctive interests — really, distinctively, unavoidably cool.

But is there a place in the web ecosystem for this kind of writing anymore? And is the cost of using Medium, which will centralize writing and create a kind of publisher/publishee power inequality, worth the ease? What will happen when widespread abuse comes to Medium, the way it’s come to Twitter? And social media companies have proven tremendously malleable, product-wise, to the desires of other companies — will Medium be the same? What does a piece of advertising look like on Medium anyway, when the line between journalism and PR on it is already so thin?

This has import beyond just one rich startup from a distinguished lineage. Remember that first question: What is web writing in 2015? Is it still based on the author model? If you enjoy watching a writer’s mind work over time (or you enjoy having that freedom as a writer), is there still a way to do that? Or is the writer’s-voice-driven Internet over, forever, everything’s atomistic now and it’s no longer possible to scrape an audience together that way even if you want to?

Medium’s new product bets that there’s some juice left in the old voice-driven web. It’s a testament to how much the Internet has changed that I can’t tell if that’s a solid tactic or middle-aged nostalgia.

When media people approach Medium, we ask these kinds of questions: friend or foe? Advertisement or editorial? Publisher or platform? We still care about that old writer-driven web, though, and Medium seems to talk the same talk, so we keep coming back to it, asking the same sorts of questions again and again. But maybe Medium is so vast and deep that you can look into its white fathomlessness and see anything you want, see every color at once, when there’s really nothing there at all.

This post was also published on Medium.com.