Ev Williams’ Medium is Blogging for the 9%

What is Medium? I get asked this question frequently. Not by people who write on Medium, or people who read Medium, but by people who feel like their professions might be impacted by Medium. Namely the media industry, investors, content marketers and professional writers. Evan Williams’ involvement is certainly part of the intrigue but I don’t think fully explains the interest. Rather the desire for explanation comes from a series of seeming contradictions that left people trying to define something still evolving in front of them. A publishing tool, but one which pays some of its contributors. A technology company, but one which hires editors and agents. An agnostic platform, but one which heavily promotes showcase content. Medium is a platypus!

Recently though I’ve settled on how I describe Medium: it’s a magazine created by the 9%. I know, that’s not really clear without explanation. Let me start with the 9% piece first.

There’s an internet rule called 1%-9%-90% which states 1% create, 9% comment/interact/curate, 90% consume. Let me borrow this construct and apply it specifically to web publishing:

  • WordPress is for the 1%. There are content creators who want their own dry piece of land, a full featured CMS and total control over their blog. I am one of these people. These folks also are happy to deal with their own content promotion and try to build an audience. They construct their own themes and topics to write about, and most of the content is original to them.
  • Medium is for the 9%. These people want to write but don’t want to maintain a blog (hence the publishing tool and centralized namespace). They sometimes need inspiration or to feel like part of something bigger (hence collections). They aren’t focused on driving their own traffic (hence promotion). They don’t want to blog daily or necessarily establish an ongoing readership. They like feedback (hence comments) but don’t want to get into flame wars.
  • Tumblr is for the 90%. The masses want to collect, comment and republish other people’s assets. They use Tumblr to express themselves. They’re part of a community and the content they create gets pushed and reblogged via Tumblr Dashboard. Most of the content is not fully original (that’s not to say there isn’t unique content on Tumblr or that the remixing itself isn’t highly creative, more so that if you look at Tumblr in its entirety – not just the popular hipster urls – it’s a lot of YouTube videos, imgur pics, etc. Not a judgment).

Succinctly, Medium occupies the space in-between WordPress and Tumblr. A creative space that’s less complex than a CMS but more geared towards writing original medium-longform content than Tumblr.

For consumers, Medium is a magazine. I don’t think the Medium team has accomplished this yet but that’s the metaphor they hold in their mind. Collections of thoughtful content based on your interests that is somewhat evergreen (notice their lack of emphasis on publish dates). The homepage increasingly serves as your personalized table of contents and even as you finish one article, they’ve preloaded the next for you. The design is clean and page like – consistent white margins, single column text.

While I’m not really in the 9% creators (I do publish occasionally on Medium but find http://www.hunterwalk.com to be more fulfilling), I am in the 100% that enjoy reading Medium. That said, the “contradictions” highlighted earlier create a veneer that leaves the service a bit more amorphous than it otherwise should. When it feels like it doesn’t know what it wants to be, it prevents me from emotionally attaching to it.

Why? Because it does matter to me whether some content is paid or volunteered. I feel like I don’t want to get too excited about a writer on the platform who is paid because their content will only continue along with the dollars. I want to attach myself to voices that would have previously gone undiscovered and unrecorded (the 9%), not writers who are effectively freelancing on Medium (the 1%).

I’ve also found myself disappointed when I encounter content that’s poorly written or crude or cliche hipster pageview grubbing. My reaction is “who let this on to Medium!” I’d never say that about a YouTube video or a Twitter account or a Blogger site. My assumption is that those are just tools where anyone can publish. But Medium is different – it’s not a fully open platform so I’ve imbued the http://www.medium.com/ URL path with a notion of editorial vetting. Because if they want to be a publication, that’s what I’d expect – someone did the filtering for me. But if they want to be a platform, and anything can occur on a Medium URL, then I’m forgiving but also will wait for the good stuff to rise up to me from my social graph, rather than build an ongoing visitation habit to Medium.com.

It’s like I want to decouple the publishing tools from the periodical. I want the Medium.com URL namespace to mean something. Let anyone use the tools and push content to a different central URL namespace, but let editors and algorithms turn my Medium into something which is reliably good for my tastes. Each time I click on a Medium URL that doesn’t interest me, it pushes me away from Publication and towards Platform – each of which has different cognitive expectations for me.

I don’t know whether these feelings are strangely my own but the Publication vs Platform distinction still gets in the way of me embracing Medium as tightly as I want to despite reading more and more good stuff on there each day. Having published on Blogger for 10 years and Twitter for 6+ I’m content to trust in Ev that the team may eventually have an even better answer than I do for “What is Medium.”

Disclaimer: I’m on WordPress Board of Advisors and friends with many Automattic folks. I’m friends with Ev and other folks on the Medium team. I know nothing about the future roadmaps for either company.