When Medium launched in 2012, the BuzzFeed-ification of content and content business models hadn’t quite hit. Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone wanted to build a beautiful, easy-to-use platform for very good writing on the web, but the idea seemed naïvely optimistic; wouldn’t writers choose to publish their work where the audience was largest and the paycheck most lucrative?
Nearly three years later, the state of the digital media business is in chaos. Social distribution in the form of Facebook and Twitter has all but replaced search and homepages as the most critical means of content discovery and distribution. Publishers and advertisers have leaped across the firewalls that once kept them separate, joining forces to create new types of content and marketing. Programmatic advertising, which relies on software to aggregate and sell audiences across sites rather than selling ad space on a specific publication, is on the rise.
This idea that anyone shows up to any conversation and injects whatever they want is a bad idea. We chose to prioritize audiences feeling safe. Ev Williams
Yet over the same period of time, Medium has grown to a robust 25 million unique visitors (self-reported) each month. (For comparison, that’s roughly the same as the British newspaper The Guardian.) Although it has tried a few experiments with advertisers, Medium has not yet turned its attention to how to make money. Its assumption is that once the content exists, opportunities will follow.
Instead, Williams, who is CEO, has focused on making the best tools possible for writers and readers. Consider Medium a case study for quality in the digital age; Williams has been able to achieve this growth entirely by giving both writers and readers more of the tools and the products they want, without yet sullying these efforts with money-making endeavors.
Last week, Williams and I met at Medium’s New York office for a wide-ranging conversation in which he shared some of his biggest lessons to date on trying to create a venue for quality and civility in an age of clickbait. A few of his most important takeaways:
1. Metrics don’t tell you what you need to know most
The number of people visiting Medium and the amount of time they spending on the site are growing. Comscore reports the company has seen an 80 percent spike in visitors in the past year. Williams prefers to call out the total time Medium visitors spend reading, a metric he calls “TTR.” Since 2012, visitors have spent 1.5 million hours reading on Medium. Williams says unique visitors, the standard metric cited by online publishers to gauge the size and value of their audiences, is “a highly volatile and meaningless number for what we’re trying to do.”
The goal, according to Williams, is not to get the maximum audience for a piece of writing, but the perfect audience. Whether you want to publish a post announcing a job change to several hundred business contacts, as I did last August, or you want to publish a feature on Snapchat’s security team to a mainstream audience of tech enthusiasts, as tech journalist Steven Levy did recently on Backstory, Williams wants to guarantee you find exactly the people you’re looking for. “Eventually we want to get to, ‘If you publish on Medium, you’ll get maximum efficient audience,’” he says. The existing metrics don’t do much to show progress toward that goal.
2. It’s harder than you think to help people talk to each other …
Like most websites in 2015, Medium becomes more interesting when users link it to their social feeds. Williams calls this “the people layer,” and he’s trying to design the social experience on Medium to allow authors and readers to engage each other in meaningful ways around the posts. Some of these actions, like the “recommend” button or the “response” section after a post, mirror other publishers. But Medium allows readers to make comments to the author directly in the text as they read. The comments show up in the margin, and authors can choose whether to make them visible to the broader audience. This offers the author protection Williams find important, encouraging her to be more vulnerable.
A few weeks ago, Medium added the ability to highlight portions of text, one of Williams’ favorite features to date. “I compare it to the difference between giving a very abstract compliment versus a specific compliment,” says Williams. “To see what people are highlighting is valuable and makes you feel good as a sharer.”
3. … but it’s easier than you think to help people be civil to each other
People get attacked on Medium, just as they do all over the web. But it happens “much much less,” says Williams, “both for audience and architectural reasons.” Early on, Medium introduced comments that appear in line. “Because authors have to flip the switch to show them, there’s less motivation [to flame writers] because you can’t do it publicly,” says Williams. Medium also has a response feature that allows readers to leave comments at the bottom of the post; comments aren’t made public unless the original poster approves it.
4. The key to civil conversation online is getting your social tools right
Williams compares conversing on the Internet to conversing in real life. “I like having dinner parties, but I don’t leave my front door open when I have dinner parties and say to whoever walks by [come in],” he says. “That’d be great, but that’s not the world we live in and the Internet, if it ever was that, is not that today.”
Williams is investing in building the right controls to make sure Medium’s social features amplify useful conversations while downplaying haters. “This idea that anyone shows up to any conversation and injects whatever they want is a bad idea,” says Williams. “We chose to prioritize audiences feeling safe. That’s why we structure notes the way we do, even though there’s a little bit of friction.”
The friction Williams identifies is the lag time involved in waiting for an author to review a comment and decide whether it can be posted publicly. If Medium were optimizing purely for traffic or engagement, the publisher would want comments to appear in realtime in order to keep the readers engaged with the post longer. Says Williams, “The point—that you can’t get attacked—is something we’ve thought about from the beginning. We’ve tried to create a place where you can speak your mind and feel safe, and at the same time create a place for intelligent public debate.” Users can turn comments off entirely, and starting soon, they’ll be able to block readers who are abusive.
5. One word: platishers
“Platishing” is the term Williams uses to describe the hybrid business Medium has become. It’s a software platform on which writers can easily publish just about anything. But it also produces five publications on that platform, including the general interest Matter (“A magazine for a generation who grew up not caring about magazines”), the music `zine Cuepoint , and the tech pub Backchannel . “There’s no controversy internally or struggle existentially about what we are. My expectation was always that people will get over this dichotomy,” he says. “That’s what digital things do in general. They blur lines.” As examples, he mentions Snapchat and Apple (“A platform, or a publisher?”).
The point of the publications is to experiment with how professional publishers can use Medium. “We want Medium to be the default platform not just for individuals and organizations who aren’t in the publishing business,” he says. “We want it to be a great alternative for those who are professionals, whether it’s the next Nate Silver or someone from the traditional world saying ‘I want to start my own thing.’” In fact, a spate of editorial types are doing just that. The most developed is Midcentury/Modern , a collection of stories for baby boomers created by author Debbie Galant, that has its own URL published on the Medium platform.
6. People write more when they start out publishing to smaller audiences
Writers want to be read. Williams says they’re starved for audience. “Attention is this valuable and scarce commodity,” he says. “But the fear of an audience can have a chilling effect.” He thinks a lot about how to help writers feel safe enough to express themselves, first by writing for smaller audiences, and then by reposting their thoughts to a broader audience once they’ve gotten some feedback.
Williams is experimenting with this at Medium. The company has always kept an internal blog on which all 90 employees can post project updates, thoughts, and suggestions. Last fall, Williams suggested republishing some of these musings as public posts on Medium. “While reading it, I realized a lot of this stuff is super-funny and smart and would help those who care understand what we are doing,” he says. They’re now included in a collection called “Inside Medium.”
There may even be a future business opportunity for Medium in creating enterprise products that allow companies to broadcast internal posts to a broader audience. “It would make a lot more companies more transparent and authentic,” he says.
7. The written word is the most powerful form of media
Unlike nearly every other big web publisher in 2015, Williams doesn’t have big plans for video. “Medium should be the best platform for sharing stories and ideas and those could come in any form, but we haven’t invented anything new or valuable to do in video.”
Partly, that’s because Williams is a purist about writing. “Video is incredibly powerful and influential, but not for the average person. The still image has it for accessibility but not for influence. It’s the very, very, very rare photo that actually conveys idea or meaning,” he explains. “The written word is the most accessible yet powerful form of media there is.”