Medium, centralized publishing and the future of the blog

Medium

Medium, the publishing platform created by the Twitter founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, is winning. Large amounts of often quite amazing content pieces are published on the site every day. An impressive roster of thought leaders and entrepreneurs use Medium to spread ideas. Just look at the Top 100 list from January. The White House utilizes the service. And all this is made possible by a company that does not limit innovation to its product, but extends it to its own organizational structure. Every Thursday I publish a list with links to recommended articles. I never use Medium as a destination to find content but rely solely on RSS feeds of blogs and recommendations by others on services such as Twitter, Facebook, Quibb, This or Prismatic. Still each week my link collection contains at least a couple of articles hosted on Medium. Last Thursday that was the case for four posts. While this is not a scientific method, the tendency is clear: A lot of stuff that we all read and share comes from Medium.

This is great for Medium and in many ways even for users. There are reasons for why this platform is winning. Some of the success factors are analyzed here. However, the rise of Medium comes at a cost: The centralizing of content and the weakening of the distributed publishing structure that has made the web such a great place.

I am concerned about that there is so little public questioning of the long-term consequences that Medium’s gravitational force on writers, journalists and bloggers could have.

Let’s take it to the extreme: Nobody could be interested in a scenario in which all non-paid-for content is appearing first and foremost on Medium. A centralized approach like this means that one entity is in full control over who gets to publish what and how it is being monetized. Also, a centralized approach introduces a single point of failure. If Medium’s servers crash, all the content would be unavailable.

This is exactly what happened when Facebook went offline for an hour last month. The social network is in general a good example for the downsides of centralization: Nobody seems to really like it, but the network effects are so strong that hardly anybody manages to escape it.

So no reasonable web user and especially no one belonging to the famous 10 % of the Internet – those who create content and engage with content – can have any interest in a scenario in which Medium ends up being the only place where everybody who does not write/create for major newspaper and media brands publishes their musings. But to avoid such an outcome, people who blog and create content today need to work.

While Medium thrives, the yearly “is blogging dead?” meme goes into another round. And while even this time the answer has to be a clear “no”, which anyone who actually reads blogs will realize, there is a risk that blogging in the sense of a democratic, decentralized publishing system, might die out for real. Not because of a lack of interest in the creation of digital content, but because everybody will have moved to a few centralized platforms. Even this has been a discussion almost as old as blogging itself. But with Medium, this free, high-quality, elegant, usable publishing platform that comes with an effective built-in distribution mechanism, there is now a centralized publishing system with an allure never seen before.

Medium spoils creators, writers and readers. It makes us all a bit lazy. Traditional blogs are work. They need to be set-up and taken care of. They sometimes do not look that nice. The editing tools might feel clunky and in the way. Reaching an audience can be a struggle, at least in the beginning. Medium does not guarantee immediate reach either, but the follow feature and internal virality machine come across as superior to blogs’ own “follow feature”: RSS (to be fair, Medium supports RSS feeds as well).

But if we do not want blogging to die, we must not give in to the urge of going the seemingly easy way. We also must stop being lazy. If Felix Salmon states that “with the death of RSS, blogs are quaint artifacts at this point, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a really good new one”, then he is lazy. That he has not discovered a really good new blog lately is only because he has not actually tried to discover one. Unlike Marc Andreessen.

If too many people walk around with Salmon’s attitude towards blogs, blogs will die eventually. Then everybody will feel just fine with moving the creation of digital content to Medium, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter (in the form of tweet storms) or other centralized and closed/semi closed publishing solutions. Because, you know, “blogs are dead”. Nobody wants to be the last to leave a sinking ship. With less people actively blogging the number of RSS consumers (= the core readership of other blogs) will decrease. The communities of open blogging systems will get smaller and less active, the evolution and development of distributed blogging systems would halt.

The solution to the issue I am describing is obviously quite simple: Let’s not give up on our blogs, no matter how often some influencers, journalists, entrepreneurs or former bloggers perpetuate the myth.

Blogs are dead if we stop writing and reading blogs. Let’s not forget that while we get comfortable on Medium.

 

9 comments

  1. I won’t deny I’ve been tempted to use only Medium to publish my entries, but I lose the feel of it being my creation.

    The solution for me, has been publishing on both, my website and Medium(using reference to my website) to let this good quality platform growing. Actually I can’t throw away Medium because it’s not where I publish the most, but it’s where I read a lot of interesting entries daily.

  2. Not sure what the differences to services like Blogger.com, WordPress.com or Tumblr.com are in your opinion. Medium.com is a platform to publish content. It helps you with nice tools. It has a community on its own. That’s not really new. What’s new about it in my opionion is that they encourage long form content and that they emphasize sleek design. But why should that be more „dangerous“ for blogging than Blogger.com? The main distribution channel for content is the social web anyway. It’s more important than ever to reach your audience there and that means more or less Facebook and than some other places of your own choice.

    Therefore it’s more interesting for me to see that people start to post solely on Facebook. It is already „the web“ for a lot of people. It’s becoming what AOL used to be back in the day. A lot of users are totally fine with that. Facebook most certainly likes that. But that’s bad news for the free and open web that Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.

  3. Medium is in many ways much better than any other previous hosted blogging platform. I tried to explain that in this paragraph:

    “Medium spoils creators, writers and readers. It makes us all a bit lazy. Traditional blogs are work. They need to be set-up and taken care of. They sometimes do not look that nice. The editing tools might feel clunky and in the way. Reaching an audience can be a struggle, at least in the beginning. Medium does not guarantee immediate reach either, but the follow feature and internal virality machine come across as superior to blogs’ own “follow feature”: RSS (to be fair, Medium supports RSS feeds as well).”

    I think comparisons to previous hosted blogging platforms are not fully applicable because previous blogging platforms usually left a lot desires unfulfilled, which is why they often only were the first step for bloggers before moving over to a self-hosted solution.

    But Medium is in some critical ways superior to basically any blog software or platform out there. It is not the first step to serious blogging. Under the assumption that one has built a serious audience on Medium, there is little incentive to move to the antiquated feeling self-hosted blog platforms. And the lock-in effect will most likely only increase. Medium is not a modest startup trying to do a nice little publishing platform. Eventually it will want and have to own “user generated” publishing (longform and mediumform).

    So, because of all this, I see Medium as a bigger threat to the distributed blogging landscape we had so far. Which itself is suffering from a “reputation problem” (the “blogging is dead” and “RSS is dead” meme)

    If you look at social networking, there always was this niche demand for a decentralized social network. It never happened. In blogging, we basically started with the decentralized system. But if we do not pay attention, we could lose it, to Medium. To Facebook. To XYZ.

    That’s my main message anyway. That it is in our hands what happens to the distributed blog landscape.

  4. Guess it’s the old question: Who owns the data? No differences there between Medium, Blogger, Facebook or flickr.com. I just don’t like the idea that anyone has full control over my data and I have to rely on their willingness to provide functionalities like export or whatever.

    However, looking at my own usage, I seem to make a distinction between “real” work (blog posts, pictures shot with an actual camera) and “moments” like Tweets or Instagram pics. In those cases I don’t mind having less control (although I plea guilty to saving my Instagram pics via IFTTT to Dropbox :)

  5. You put Tumblr in the same pot as Facebook and Twitter—but I don’t see the difference to other hosted blogging platforms like WordPress or Blogger.com. Yes, Tumblr has its own social component, but it’s primarily a blogging platform with RSS integration. So does this come down to hosted versus self-hosted? To me that sounds similar to discussions like “buying an apartment” versus “renting”. I don’t think there’s an answer that suits everyone.

    Medium undoubtedly has a stronger lock-in and network effect. But as long as it can be used like a normal blogging platform, as long as it offers public viewing of content and RSS, I don’t think it’s too bad. They’re a hybrid approach somewhere between classic blogging and Facebook, so I think it’s sufficient to merely be cautious. To my knowledge you can export your stories, so your content isn’t locked away like it is in Facebook. It’s more like getting published in a magazine I think.

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