June 5, 2020

Medium is Evolving

From MediumFrom Medium

After what felt like a long period of stagnation, the engine of change at Medium is up and running again.

Within the past few weeks, we’ve seen a huge clean-up of the article view to remove the much-maligned distractions, an entirely overhauled response experience on the web, and a significant upgrade to the newsletter experience that signals a desire to begin competing with the likes of Substack.

For those keeping score, this means that Medium now offers writers the following tool kit:

  • A free platform for sharing their work with an embedded, engaged, and interested audience (with all the associated SEO benefits of this reach)
  • The best web-based article editing experience I’m aware of, and the ability to publish from popular writing apps for those of us who prefer to write in a native app environment
  • The ability to operate either as a personal profile, a customizable publication, or both
  • The ability to offer a newsletter subscription for readers who prefer to receive updates via email
  • The ability to monetize writing in a way that feels less expensive than the one-fee-per-writer model that’s seeing many Substack publications charging more than your average national newspaper
  • The ability to submit your work to publications, opening up an easy avenue for building a bigger audience
  • The opportunity to have your work curated by the Medium editors into topics, which can dramatically boost your reach
  • The total absence of any fiddling with CMSes, plugins, servers, hosting, DNS issues, and other bugbears of running your own web presence

And, to balance things out, we can point out the downsides too:

  • User publications (as opposed to the Medium-run ones) still haven’t regained the ability to have custom URLs
  • You have no control over the look of your articles, beyond a few formatting options and some additional customizations available to publications
  • You have no control over the curation process
  • Your writing exists within a network that includes other writers, so it’s not all about you
  • The iOS app is pretty terrible from a writer’s perspective, with inexcusably poor keyboard support

Then, of course, there’s the whole philosophical angle of closed platforms vs the open web. This is a bit of a debatable problem, though, since both open and closed systems present the same challenges to discovery and reach—just in different ways.

Ben Evans—called this out years ago:

You can rely on being on the web, but then you have to tell people your URL, or in Google’s index and people have to search for you, or in Facebook and people have to share and to signal to Facebook’s filters that they want to see you. If Google or Facebook have arbitrary and inscrutable algorithms, so do people’s impulses and memories, and their decisions as to how to spend their time. That is, the open web has the same underlying problem as a closed propriety discovery platform - it’s just expressed in a different way. More stuff is created every day than you could read in a lifetime - there’s always going to be a filter.

All of this to say that I’m glad to see Medium ramping up their releases again. I’ve made no secret of my admiration for the product and team over the years, and with the media landscape in such flux these days, I’m happy to cheer on any efforts to make things better for readers and writers. Especially when the monetization model benefits both writers and readers (unlike advertising-based approaches).

While I continue to blog primarily here, on my own platform, I always encourage new writers to consider starting on Medium.

It’s all well and good to launch a new blog on an entirely self-hosted, self-built, and self-sustaining system…but even setting aside the needless logistical hurdles, getting any traction is going to be a hell of a slog unless you have friends in high places or an existing audience.

If the philosophical thrill of independence is crucial to you, then go forth and conquer. But if your primary concern is writing, and you’d rather do more of that than worry about anything related to how that writing goes from brain to internet to reader, then you can avoid putting unnecessary roadblocks in your way by working on a platform like Medium, Substack, etc.

Speaking of Substack, newsletters have re-emerged as a panacea, probably because the most reliable way to get things read seems to involve sneaking them in alongside communication that usually can’t be ignored: email.

It seems to me that this only kicks the problem a little further down the road, though; eventually, our inboxes will be overflowing with newsletters the way our social media and RSS feeds once were.

Dare Obasanjo recently pointed this out on Twitter, saying that newsletters are just blogs you get in your email client.” They are—and I’m not sure the email inbox is a better place for them.

Personally, I enjoy RSS as my own curated feed of blogs (occasionally bolstered by the curation of those I follow thanks to link posts), and then I do the rest of my reading on Medium and Apple News+, both closed platforms and yet both excellent sources of new and unexpected things to read.


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