I listened to a podcast interview between Evan Williams and Jeffrey Zeldman yesterday. It had a few bits about Medium, which is his new startup. I am interested in know what his thinking is on this — as we’ve been exploring the same territory for a number of years, and his ideas are always worth a listen.
Here’s the executive summary — he is exploring a niche that exists. Sometimes you wonder what a designer is thinking, that they’re exploring something that no one wants, but not in this case. People will want what Medium does.
Now to the bullet points.
1. It’s a hybrid, at the intersection of blogging systems and commenting systems.
2. You don’t have to create a blog. This can be a huge barrier for some people. People who have something to say but view creating a blog as making a commitment. Technically they’re not right about this. Creating a new blog is no more complex than creating a new word processing document. But there’s a psychic overhead that stops a lot of people. I know this because I’ve been evangelizing blogs for many years. A lot of people feel this commitment and it stops them from contributing.
3. Like Twitter, this product is a simplification of what came before, a narrowing, and a focusing, but it’s still wide open. Zeldman kind of got tripped up by this, but Williams was very clear. Users can create new buckets or collections and call them anything they want. A bucket is analogous to a blog post. Then other people can post to it. That’s like a comment. But it doesn’t look like a comment. It’s got a place for a big image at the top. It looks much prettier than a comment, and much bigger. Looks are important here.
4. There’s no way for a user to control CSS or provide a template, or even choose a template from a library. This would make the product more complex. Not sure what their plans are here, but whether they offer these features will play a big role in defining the service.
5. It’s closest to Tumblr right now — another product that occupies the space between full-blown blogging like WordPress, and ultra lightweight blogging in Twitter. Clearly Twitter is moving more towards Tumblr. If Medium adds templates and CSS they will be aimed squarely at Tumblr.
6. Also not clear is how much portability users will have. At this point they offer beta users a way to download the contents of their site. This doesn’t make it possible to use it as an editorial system for other environments, or the other way around, to use other tools to author content for Medium. There’s no doubt Ev understands the opportunities here. Blogger had a pretty complete API as did Twitter. But in Twitter, everyone got burned by the API, including the company (though to a much lesser extent than developers) so my guess is that Ev’s new company will be more conservative about interfaces than his previous ventures.
7. The editor has some nice touches. The biggest one being that the rendering styles apply in when you’re editing, so it delivers a level of WYSIWYG that previously I had not seen in browser-based editors. This will be a highly valued feature. This is the sizzle of Medium, along with the very easy to read template they use.
8. The more I understand about Medium, the more trouble I have seeing how it co-exists with another Williams startup, Branch. It seems like they’re both camped out in the same space betw blogging and Twitter. That as the two products evolve they will keep colliding with each other.
9. They just hired a Director of Content, a former agent in the book publishing industry. Very curious. I guess that means famous authors will submit chapters from upcoming books and allow regular folk to attach our own writing to this stuff. Analogous to getting Oprah on Twitter? That could give Medium a very short honeymoon with the early adopters that make these kinds of services grow.
10. This is yet another company that compensates its employees without compensating the content creators. Although clearly there is a class of creators who may receive compensation (see the previous point). Personal comment — this makes me reluctant to participate. I appreciate getting early access, and I have posted a few items to the service to better understand how it works. But without a fair balance between the valuation of all of our contributions, I can’t continue, or recommend that others contribute. I’ve always been on the outside of Ev’s creations, putting creativity in while he and others take the dollars out. It’s fun for a while, but then it gets old. The Internet and the web weren’t designed this way, and I keep waiting for one of these services to build something that doesn’t have this very tilted posture. That would be harder, but much more significant.
11. Maybe the biggest point he makes in the podcast is his view that Medium should be seen as if it were YouTube for writing. We all understand what YouTube is. Is YouTube-for-Writing a niche? Not sure. Video obviously has special needs regarding bandwidth. And those issues don’t exist for text. But aggregating them all in one spot has advantages. But it’s possible to do that without capturing all of it one company’s servers.