The meaning of Medium

I’ve been experimenting recently with the young writing space Medium (on which my own words are gathered here). Brought to you by Twitter co-founder, Ev Williams, the potted pitch is “a better place to read and write” – and it certainly delivers in terms of interface and ease of reading.

Behind the scenes, composing on Medium takes What You See Is What You Get to an elegant extreme, with as few options as sensibly possible left to the author: you can determine your text, title, subtitle, illustrations, bold, italics, quotations, links, and that’s about it. Almost every other aspect of formatting is automatic, with acres of white space in the best modern taste atop responsive design fit for any device.

All this, Williams explains, is about creating “a beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else. The words are central. They can be accompanied by images to help illustrate your point. But there are no gratuitous sidebars, plug-ins, or widgets. There is nothing to set up or customize.”

For a writer, it’s a little addictive. I’m typing this into the back end of my own website, which runs on WordPress. The interface is functional, the options and sidebars useful and not too overwhelming. I have a fairly good idea of what my post will look like once I hit “publish.” After Medium, though, it all feels a little weighty: a series of small barriers between these thoughts and their audience that, once lowered, loom disconcertingly large when they return.

In this, Medium is a bit like Twitter: a service I struggled to “get” initially, but which instilled a feeling it’s hard to shake off once experienced. This was the feeling of hardware and software getting out of the way, leaving me free to say pretty much anything that popped into my head, or to share anything I found interesting, to anyone who might be interested.

Today, I think of Twitter as a technology that asked the world a question even its creators didn’t quite know how to answer: what will you do with this novel brand of freedom and feeling? Over the last few years, the world has given its answer: we will do more than you could have dared imagined; and if you’re sensible, you’ll follow where we lead.

Similarly, I don’t quite “get” some aspects of Medium yet. Rather than comments, it uses nested Notes alongside particular paragraphs for collaboration and conversation. It doesn’t privilege novelty in the way that blogs and feeds do, by insisting new material tops the screen.

Instead it’s about discovery, themed Collections, and helping authors find an audience. At the same time, it seems aimed at detaching individual posts from an author’s stamp of ownership and setting them loose, meme-like, into a realm of recommendations and (that strange synonym for algorithmic evaluation) relevance.

None of this has yet cohered into something I understand in the way I do the tweets snaking down another tab in my browser. But I’m not sure this matters. In fact, it might be the best thing of all: because, for all the clarity of its core experience, I don’t believe Medium’s creators have a clear idea of what it should or will look like in five years’ time either. They’re waiting for the rest of us to bring our words. And, I hope, they’ll be listening extremely carefully to what we say.

EDIT: A Twitter chat with @adrianhon following this post’s publication has confirmed one thing: we would both love to see what may end up as an extremely profitable platform find a way to pass some of that income on to its authors. Jaron Lanier’s idea of creating a new middle class based on micropayments may sound bonkers to commentators versed in digital “logic”, but something like it is a beautiful prospect: content valued not only in time and attention, but something that thus far only online giants have really seen – remuneration.

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