The Medium Compromise

I have been trying to appreciate Medium since it launched several months ago. I wanted to like it from day one, largely because of my admiration for Evan Williams, who co-founded the company. When a guy who co-founded Blogger and Twitter takes a stab at raising the bar on social writing, it begs my attention.

Williams’s mission statement for Medium is inspiring, if vague:

Medium is based on the belief that the sharing of ideas and experiences is what moves humanity forward. The Internet is the greatest idea-sharing tool ever imagined, but we’ve only scratched the surface of its capabilities.

Yes! Let’s share, let’s move humanity forward, let’s, umm, scratch the surface some more? When I visit the Medium site I find a huge list of article summaries with author bylines, suggesting a magazine-style format. But unlike a magazine, there is absolutely no topical cohesion. The first four articles as I write this are on the subjects of electricity demand, star-spotting the actor who played John Locke from “Lost,” and two items on the nitty-gritty of user-interface design. Yikes! This is just like the Internet: a vast repository of ideas on virtually every subject, being, I grant you, shared.

But wasn’t the internet already getting pretty good at that? Today, anyone with an internet connection can establish a bona fide, personalized soapbox with a free Blogger, WordPress, or Tumblr account. These services all provide for limitless self-expression while also giving authors the ability to dramatically customize and, to a great extent, “own” the style and structure of their expressions. Medium feels more like an effort in the other direction: to homogenize and commoditize self-expression such that each component contribution is differentiated only with a small byline, avatar and genre label on an otherwise mass-produced “Medium” experience.

In Luke Esterkyn’s high-level “How Medium Works” article he, ahem, scratches the surface of what rubs me the wrong way about Medium:

Posting on Medium […] is elegant and easy, and you can do so without the burden of becoming a “blogger” or worrying about the arduous task of developing an audience.

To me this betrays the implicit compromise of Medium’s mission: at last one can be a “serious writer” without concerning oneself with the matters of serious writing. I can see from Medium’s success that they have indeed attracted great writers, and I don’t mean to disparage even one of them for participating. But I am mildly surprised so many have chosen to donate their talents to Medium rather than publishing on their own or through a publication with a more focused brand.

Perhaps some of the authors contributing to Medium truly have no other outlet. I commend Medium for encouraging people to write if they otherwise would not, but I don’t think this fulfills Williams’s lofty mission. It seems more like a case of dealing smartly in excess supply: we have an excess of better-than-average writing, and Medium has found a means of collecting, packaging, and distributing that content.

I’m reminded of the high-quality packaged foods found in supermarkets. Some premium foods are produced at such quantity that stores are able to sell the very same products in vastly different packaging. The food that sells in a fancy, name-branded package might look the same, smell the same, but cost far less in the drab store-branded box. It’s a big win for consumers who stumble upon higher-quality products at rock-bottom prices. But they also pay a price: sifting through aisle after aisle of generic product, looking for clues of greatness. Buying, trying, and rejecting the generic crap that doesn’t meet their expectations. The premium producers pay an even greater price: a severed relationship with customers. The very ownership of their brand, which serves to build up and then defend the pride of ownership in their work, is lost when Safeway, CVS, or Walgreens slaps their logo on their hard-won success.

Obviously I’m not blown away by Medium, but I’m not writing it off. As a consumer, I’m attracted by the large amount of free, relatively high-quality content. I’m willing to sift through some generic boxes for this. As a producer, it strikes me as underwhelming and uninspiring.

My four-year-old son sometimes becomes withdrawn and quiet. I might try to coax some talking out of him, to gauge his mood. “How are you feeling?” No reply. “Are you feeling good?” No reply. “Are you feeling bad?” No reply. Finally, he might moan lethargically, using his beautifully imprecise language: “I’m just feeling a little bit good and a little bit bad. I’m just feeling a little bit medium.”