Between downtown San Francisco and the new Twitter offices six city blocks to the west, things get sketchy. There is a strip club, a budget motel with weekly rates and, on the gentrified edge of this no-man’s land, the offices of Medium, the new venture of Evan Williams, one of Twitter’s co-founders.
Williams is a contemplative 41-year-old Clarks, Neb., native turned billionaire, at least on paper, as of Thursday when Twitter went public. If Twitter redefined the frontier of communications, Medium is trying to reclaim some of the lost territory.
Broadly speaking, Medium is a blogging platform, meaning it’s a place for people to write and read posts. And Williams, as its CEO, hopes that it will allow thoughtful, longer-form writing to flourish.
Williams frankly acknowledges that the medium of Medium is not new. In fact, he says he’s reaching back to the notion of blogging — once du jour — because, in the frenzy to build social communications tools, something has been left behind: rationality.
“In the early days, I bought into the idea that the Internet would lead to a better world, that the truth was out there and that we didn’t need gatekeepers,” he said. The idea that he and many others embraced was that an unfiltered Internet would create a democratic information utopia.
“Now,” he continued, “I think it’s more complicated than that.”
Medium is Williams’ version of a gatekeeper, albeit one that relies heavily on technology rather than human expertise or taste. While it has some editors soliciting and promoting some content, the bigger idea is to use algorithms to help identify blog posts that readers consider valuable and to bubble them to the surface.
He’s carrying out ideas he toyed with in his first big commercial venture, which was called, simply, Blogger. He sold that to Google a decade ago, begetting his first millions. Now, he is joining the mini-movement to celebrate long-form expression at sites and apps like Longform, Longreads and the Verge.
The oddity is that Williams helped found Twitter, which is to long form what snacks are to dinner: sometimes a prelude, often an appetite killer.
The short-burst culture has eaten away at the very definition of “long form.” Many articles in Medium, for instance, are hundreds of characters longer than a tweet but tens of thousands fewer than something you’d find in, say, the New Yorker.
And some see little evidence that people want to consume anything that takes much time.
“I see a diminishing audience for long form of anything,” said James Katz, director of the division of emerging media studies at Boston University. “The riptide of society is heading the other direction.”
For his part, Williams said he was disturbed by the swelling cacophony of information that makes it easy to be overwhelmed and hard to know what to trust. Good information, he said, can lose out, and, as he described his new mission, “I want to give rationality a fighting chance.”
“I’m an eternal optimist,” Williams said. “But I’m a more realistic optimist than I used to be.”
He traced the evolution of his thinking by describing an epiphany he had this year. In preparing a speech, he revisited his career’s early days. The exercise made him realize that the Internet wasn’t changing the world as he had once idealized, but that it had come to be little more than a “convenience.”
He’s backing Medium along with two business partners, Biz Stone and Jason Goldman, both formerly of Twitter. Medium, which started in 2012, has around 40 employees and, last month, started letting anyone write for it. A few writers are paid, with their work solicited by a small editing team, but most are not.
Much ballyhooed by Medium is software that allows “collaboration” among writers by letting them share posts privately before publication, in pursuit of suggestions or edits. Posts then appear in collections, or channels, like “Adventures in Consumer Technology,” or “Best Thing I Found Online Today.”
He wants to see better journalism emerge on the issue of climate change, asserting that views have been manipulated by an avalanche of lies coursing through the Internet. But what’s to say that a mathematically mediated site — basing quality on reader attention — will elicit the truth? Maybe readers will pay more attention to what he considers distortions or garbage.
“It’s an effort to add nourishment, but I can’t claim I’ve figured it out,” he said. Nor has he yet figured out the business model. “We’ll see,” he said about how the site would make money. For now, it has no advertising.
Medium is experimenting with a subscription model, building a small site with a paywall, but mostly to see how the model works, he said. He declined to say how many people were using the site.
It would be foolish to underestimate Williams, given his repeat successes. But the context of the times may be inhospitable. Lee Humphreys, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Cornell, notes that mobile devices, which tend to work best for short bursts of information, are becoming the primary way of communicating for more people.
Williams, undeterred, doesn’t think that short bursts and long-form information are mutually exclusive. At the same time, he said, he doesn’t expect to get away from the cacophony, including misinformation.
“I don’t think we’ll avoid the madness of the crowd,” he said. “That’s OK. We want to create the potential for great things to be created and found.”