Not that long ago, if you decided to write something — an essay, perhaps, or a piece of fiction — your choices on what to do with it were fairly limited. If you knew someone at a specific publication, you could try to convince them to run it, or you could post it on your blog. Now, your choices have expanded dramatically: you could send it to the Huffington Post (s aol), or to Forbes, or to LinkedIn (s lnkd), or post it on your Facebook (s fb)page or blog, or use any one of a number of other new platforms like Medium, which has been gaining a lot of momentum lately. If anything, there’s almost too much choice.
I started thinking about this recently when former YouTube staffer Hunter Walk noted that he had been seeing more and more content in his Twitter stream coming from Medium, the new publishing venture from former Twitter CEO Evan Williams. It struck me that I had also been seeing a lot — and not just from unknown writers, but also from established media types such as Felix Salmon, a finance blogger at Thomson Reuters, and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis.
How do you decide which platform to use?
Like Jarvis and Salmon, both of whom have multiple outlets for their work (Salmon has a Reuters blog, his own website and a Tumblr blog), many of the writers I saw on Medium had other avenues if they wanted to publish something. So why put it on Medium? Others have been taking part in the LinkedIn Influencer program, which has been reaching out to prominent players in a variety of fields and asking them to write what amount to blog posts or columns for the platform, and has turned its LinkedIn Today feature into a kind of web magazine.
Much of the increase in content at Medium appears to have been driven by the efforts of Kate Lee, a former literary agent who was hired last year, and has been asking writers (including Jarvis, whom she used to work with as an author) to write for the platform. Medium has also been commissioning and paying some writers — although the company won’t say exactly how much of this it is doing. Williams has said the model for what he is trying to do is the magazine, and that he wants to provide a “beautiful space for reading and writing.”
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what I would do if I didn’t write for GigaOM and paidContent and had something important that I wanted to say. Would I put it on my personal blog, which gets hardly any traffic? Would I send it to Medium (which for now is invitation only) or approach LinkedIn or the Huffington Post? Would I try to publish my own magazine, using tools like 29th Street? Or would I just post it to my Google+ or Facebook page and hope for the best? I honestly couldn’t come up with a definitive answer.
Solving the discovery problem
I asked Salmon why he has been writing on Medium, and he said he was planning to respond in blog form (his response is here). I also asked Jarvis, who already has his own popular blog called Buzzmachine and a fairly high profile in media circles, why he chose Medium for a recent post on the dangers of sponsored content, and (in addition to mentioning his existing connection to Kate Lee), he said:
“I am impressed with the elegance of Medium. That affects how I write, I’m finding. The platform demands more polish, I think. Also, some things fit there; some don’t, though I’m not sure how I’d define the difference. I have immense respect for Ev Williams et al. Anybody who has already changed our world — and the world — twice deserves serious consideration as he does it a third time. I figured I had to use Medium to understand it.”
Part of what Medium offers is what Jarvis mentions: it is extremely well designed, including the text editor that writers use (if you want an inside look at the building of Medium, there’s a great presentation from design firm Teehan + Lax on that), and also has an interesting in-line commenting feature. Others have mentioned the network effects of having their content on Medium, and contributors to LinkedIn’s Influencer program have mentioned the same thing. In other words, they both help to solve the “discovery” problem.
The future of the magazine?
In the end, this is what all such platforms have to bring to the table: the downside of the personal publishing revolution and what Om has called the “democratization of distribution” is that we are all swimming in a never-ending sea of content. We can rely on tools like Twitter and algorithm-driven recommendation providers like Prismatic to find what we want, but there’s also likely a place for a “curated” collection of great content — or what we used to call a magazine.
It will be interesting to watch the evolution of these new “magazines” like LinkedIn Today and Medium. For writers, at least, having a multitude of options is better than not having them (although it may decrease the price they are paid). But traditional magazines have been struggling to find ways of monetizing their content and while these new players may have less pressure right now, eventually they will run into the same quandary: How do you support all that beautiful writing?
Do Medium and LinkedIn and other platforms eventually become more like literary agencies, representing authors who then do book deals and bring in revenue that way? Or do they rely on other aspects of their business — as LinkedIn does — to carry the freight for their creative pursuits? And does this broaden the market for good writing, or cheapen it, or both?
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / pio3