Medium Eats the Web

Medium Eats the Web

Much as I’ve tried over the years, I remain skeptical of Medium. Here’s me, two-and-a-half years ago, on the company’s then custom of paying name freelance writers to publish on the site:

What if I told you you could be published alongside writers from (but not in) The New Yorker for the low low price of free? In a nut, that’s Medium: a slick, magazine-like publishing and reading platform that writers should be so lucky to contribute to.

The paid writers bring their clout to Medium, the platform, in order to convince unwitting writers that they should contribute to Medium, the magazine, for free. The paid authors are thus pied pipers of a sort, luring not the readers but the writers out of the web and into Medium.

Now Medium has gone beyond bringing writers into the fold and has started subsuming whole websites. This week site introduced Medium for Publishers. Sites can bring their own domain, logo and content into Medium. In exchange you get a Medium-themed site built to be fast on mobile and access to “[a]n engaged network of millions of readers,” all for the unbeatable price of free. Not only will you not be charged for hosting the site on Medium, but the company is opening up a few revenue streams as well:

  • Promoted Stories (basically a #branded nom de guerre for “Native Advertising”)
  • Creative Partnerships (some word salad diarrhea that I think means “Advertorial” but I can’t quite tell)
  • Member-Supported Publishing (a paywall made simple)

I dare you to try and make sense of Medium’s explanation of Creative Partnerships. “Medium’s Creative Strategy team works with the brand to set a campaign vision, ideates the content, and coordinates production.” If you can swallow the word “ideates” and keep it down you’ve got a stronger stomach than me. That said, Medium promises “[t]hese opportunities are completely opt-in,” so let’s just pretend they don’t exist.1

I found out about Medium for Publishers the other day when Neil Miller tweeted a big update about his site, Film School Rejects. They’re moving over to Medium. Here are the reasons Neil gives:

…it breaks down to a few important points:

  1. It’s going to be a much nicer experience for our readers.
  2. The site will be free of annoying banner ads.
  3. We’ll be able to continue to operate independently, pay our writers and grow our audience.
  4. The site will be insanely fast.

As he explains the previous Film School Rejects loaded in 15 seconds, but on Medium it loads in a mere 2. I gave the old site a test using Pingdom’s speed tester and got about 5.5 seconds with a whopping 793 requests and 7.4 MB.2 Testing the same article on Medium: 1.13 seconds and a mere 40 requests totaling in 820 KB. Definitely a step in the right direction.

I think Neil’s experience and reasoning is what’s going to attract a lot of publishers to Medium. Having a slow-to-load site dependent on disruptive banner ads has long been a mainstay of web publishing, especially for upstart sites like Film School Rejects. To make a living, sites often made a deal with the devil, trading load times (and often good taste) for diminishing returns on ad impressions.

Web advertising has been severely broken for years. There are other ways for a publication to make money, but it’s hard to find something that works at your scale.3 I’m glad Film School Rejects’ banner ads have gone the way of the dodo (and I wish Neil and FSR’s stable of talented, thoughtful writers nothing but success at their new home), but it’s possible they and other publications are making a deal with a different kind of devil: Medium.

My original problem with Medium, that they used the stature of their paid freelancers to lure in writers on whose backs they could build a platform, has now been extended to whole publications. Instead of prominent writers it’s prominent publishers, namely Medium’s game-changing whale, Bill Simmons, that attract others to bring their words inside the Medium tent. Today, anyone can start a publication on Medium, but only some of them will be able to earn revenue from it.

The “Promoted Stories” ads look to be the main way sites, like Film School Rejects, will make their money. I called them “native content” earlier, and they’re by far the most native of content one can imagine. If I understand it: imagine a Medium publication that’s run by a brand. Brands can buy placement in other publications, advertising their newest content.

The initial placement of Promoted Stories will be in the footer of posts in participating publications, who will receive the majority of the associated revenue. As we develop Promoted Stories further we may offer additional placements.

It’s a different kind of banner ad. More discreet and faster loading, yes, but when you land on the brand page it’s going to look…exactly like everything else on Medium. If a reader is confused as to whose site they are reading, it’s working effectively.

As far as I can tell, the only way a publisher ever has to “pay” to be on Medium is when they charge readers for a membership. Over $10 per month, Medium keeps 20% of any subscription revenue.4 Otherwise, publications pay nothing except to keep up their domain. I bring this up because it looks like those “Promoted Stories” are Medium’s raison d’être, the company’s main source of revenue. Publications are just the delivery mechanism.

On a very basic level, I find Medium’s design bland, and in fact much more boring since they changed their editor last year. I wouldn’t be able to make something as rich as my “Digging Into The Dissolve’s 50 Best Films of the Decade So Far” anymore. While publications can bring a logo and choose a color scheme (as far as I can tell you get one color, which accents your header and links), the rest of the site is straight Medium style. I feel like whoever came up with the idea that all sites should look alike was in thinking jail.

Diversity of design is part of what makes the web great, but this isn’t just a matter of taste. The oft-repeated Steve Jobs quote, “Design is how it works,” is as true in publishing as it is in any other field. Close your eyes and think of Sports Illustrated or The New York Times, then imagine both with their designs stripped away to nothing, just a pile of black letters on white background. Would they be the same? Would the Financial Times be the same without its light salmon background, or Daring Fireball without John Gruber’s #4a525a? Maybe, maybe not. The design of a site says a lot about what’s on it. Medium asks you to throw all of that away and look like every other publication on it. That’s a big ask.

The question will be how much of the voices of the publications will be able to break through Medium’s own towering identity. Right now if you go to a story on any of the newly announced publications, like The Awl (whose most recent story on Medium is almost a year old), The Bold Italic, Monday Note or Film School Rejects, and scroll a bit down the page, they all look the same. They all look like Medium.

Today it seems like every major tech company wants to eat the web. It’s not enough to have devoted users; you have to be the Internet for people. Medium’s goal here is to become the place where writing on the web exists. They’re off to a great start. I just think publishing can be so much more than what Medium thinks it is. The only way to explore that is off Medium, on the web.

  1. I’ll note, though, that it’s important to know who you’re getting into bed with before you ideate some content with them. ↩︎

  2. In the interest of full transparency, here are the results for my previous article: 1.95 seconds to load, 45 requests and 708 KB. I could strip a lot of that out, honestly. It’s just words! ↩︎

  3. Me? I’ve tried different types of ads over the years, usually in a single sidebar block. Maybe I’ll bring ads back; probably not any time soon though. Of course, if you wanted to slip me a few bucks via PayPal or Square Cash I wouldn’t object. I’m lucky in that I don’t have anyone to pay. The candler blog in its current incarnation is just me. ↩︎

  4. Under $10 per month, you pay a sliding scale of credit card processing fees which are waived for the first 500 subscribers; as far as I can tell Medium keeps none of this. ↩︎