Monday, April 29, 2013

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
Medium Team hard at work at Obvious HQ
I know 6 months seems like an eternity in Internet time, but it was only back on September 25, 2012 that Ev Williams, Biz Stone, and Jason Goldman (the original founders of Blogger, Twitter and many other web platforms) unveiled Medium, one of the latest creations from their startup incubator, Obvious.

Medium announced only a few weeks ago that they've acquired the long-form publishing startup Matter, and I have to agree with Matter's founder Jim Giles that the Medium / Matter acquisition seems like a natural fit:

"So the offer was a surprise, and we just had to think really hard about whether it was the right thing for the kind of journalism we want to produce. But actually, after spending a lot of time thinking about it, it really became clear it was. That’s partly a values thing that’s come out of our discussions with Ev over the last year or so. Medium is set up – although it’s a much bigger and more ambitious project than Matter – at heart it has very similar goals. 
Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
We both want to find a way of publishing and supporting really great writing and making that look really beautiful.
Then there’s the practicalities, which also made a lot of sense. We’re  a new publication. We have nicely growing subscribers but it’s still really tough for any new startup, and coming over to Medium means we can do a whole bunch of experiments that we probably would have struggled to do if we remained independent. We can start playing around with tweaks to our business model. We definitely have no plans to change it, but there’s lots of different ways that you can tweak the idea of selling individual articles."
Given that you are reading this post on one of the most popular blogging platforms on the planet and that you likely heard about it through Twitter (both of which were created by this team) I would imagine that you might agree with me in noting that the tools that this team builds tend to change the world.

So, like me, you may be a little curious about what all the fuss is about over Medium and want to try it out for yourself.  But of course, as is the case so often, there's a catch...

Read on for my initial thoughts and an informative YouTube fireside chat with Ev Williams...

Medium is still in public beta mode and you need an invitation from an existing member to write on the platform (though requirement this will be removed after the public beta is over).  Fortunately, I received just such an invitation yesterday.

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
Biz Stone, Jason Goldman, Ev Williams (Original Twitter Team) at SXSW - Image: Flickr / Scott Beale

The Dismal State of Status Quo Online Content Publication

I'll be doing an in-depth write up on the experience of publishing on the Medium platform at a later date, but below I've covered my initial impressions on using the service and a little bit of history on Medium and why I think it's poised to be the next evolution in content creation, collaboration, and consumption for the web.

You may already be asking yourself why we need another online content platform, especially when there are already so many options available.  At least, that is what my first thought was when I heard about Medium.  But I have to agree with Ev on a couple of key things that bother me about the Status Quo of content publication online:
  1. The tools we have now for content creation are not intrinsically collaborative.  We bloggers tend to write as lonely islands in the oceans of Internet content.  Sure we can share and communicate via social channels, but those REALLY feel like the old model of broadcasting, just given to individual people.  The collaboration may come in comments / feedback, but that's not the same thing as collaborative authoring.

  2. There is a deluge of content being produced on the web.  Some of it is great, most of it is garbage.  And it's getting harder and harder to separate the two.  The tools that we have to create and share content, being focused on siloed sole-creator publication, inherently promote a broadcast model that discourages quality and curation - leading to more and more not-so-great content being produced and distributed online.

  3. Craftsmanship matters.  It counts in Design, Writing, and basically all human endeavors because the greatest things in the world REQUIRE it.  And anyone who has ever learned to appreciate greatness can appreciate craftsmanship, even if we don't know how to define it.  But even when we're not aiming for "greatness" we can value and appreciate quality and craftsmanship and if given the choice between garbage and craftsmanship, people who CREATE will choose craftsmanship.

  4. It doesn't have to be this way.  The Internet is young and we've only scratched the surface of the capabilities we've developed.  

A Glimpse Into The Future of Online Content Creation, Curation, and Distribution

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web Medium is an attempt to address these concerns.

From Ev William's initial About Medium post:
"Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced. It’s great that you can be a one-person media outlet, but it’d be even better if there were more ways you could work with others. And in a world of overwhelming quantities of content, how do we direct our attention to what’s most valuable, not just what’s interesting and of-the-moment?
It’s not too late to rethink how online publishing works and build a system optimized for quality, rather than popularity. Where anyone can have a voice but where one has to earn the right to your attention. A system where people work together to make a difference, rather than merely compete for validation and recognition. A world where thought and craftsmanship is rewarded more than knee-jerk reactions."
The Huffington Post also had a great write up on the launch, noting that
"Williams and Stone acknowledge that Medium is still a work in progress, but outline a few qualities that, in their view, help define it. First, it's designed to accommodate people who want to post or simply hope to peruse.
Users can also work together to curate 'collections' of anything from childhood snapshots to stories, though collections can be either open or closed. Within a collection, updates that have received the highest ratings from the Medium community get top billing, which Williams calls an effort to "[help] people get the most out of their time in this world of infinite information." Williams says posting 'is elegant and easy,' though we'll have to take him at his word as that feature is currently available only to a select group of 'friends and family.'"
Ok, so here in Medium we have a platform that allows me to not only create content with the people I most respect and admire and also provides better tools for sharing curated content and filtering through the alarmingly high signal-to-noise ratio of the Internet?  Count me in...terested....

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
Ev Williams and Biz Stone with Charlie Rose
There are bound to be a few snags along the way as Medium attempts to actually execute on objectives that have so far eluded even the brightest technologists and business leaders of the Internet age.  Honestly, just articulating the notions of content curation, collaborative creation, and sharing that improves quality are difficult for me.

And as if these goals aren't lofty enough, Ev is convinced there's a new sustainable economic model for  Journalism somewhere inside the Medium experiment, as TechCrunch reported last month.

A solution to finding and creating quality web content online with collaborators you admire and respect

I have confidence that if there's anyone who is best suited for the task, it's most likely the team behind Medium.

Alex Martin from the Silicon Valley Business Journal summed up the thought nicely when he caught up with Ev Williams back in January 2013:
"In his own words on Medium’s site, he explains what it is he’s “taking away” from Medium to make it a better product:
“…anyone can have a voice but ... one has to earn the right to your attention.”
By taking away the power of the masses to determine what content is “quality,” Evan is reinstating a metaphorical “gatekeeper of information” on the platform; a gatekeeper that some would argue has been lost in the age of social media.
Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
How will the team behind this publishing medium (see what I did there?) create that kind of subjective, selective infrastructure? Evan admits himself that the answer isn’t entirely clear yet:
“Truth be told, we’re just starting the journey of figuring out what all that means,” he writes.
I trust that if anyone can make online publishing an intelligent exchange of information once again, Evan and his team at Medium can. His products have given millions of people, including myself, the means and ability to publish to the internet and made it as simple as pushing a button. Now, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to make signal rise up out of the noise.
As we walked through the courtyard of the search engine giant’s campus, Evan looked tired. But not in a bad way.
He looked tired in a trying-to-build-something-extraordinary-from-scratch kind of way.
Tired in a trying-to-change-online-publishing-as-we-know-it-(again) kind of way.
Tired in a Silicon Valley kind of way."
After participating on the site for a few weeks now as a reader and feedback-provider, I can attest to the fact that they're making progress on this mission.  It's slow and steady, but it is discernible.  One of the first things I noticed was the lack of traditional comments.

Features that separate Medium from other blogging / content production platforms

I wrote about Google+ comments coming to the Blogger platform a while back and I still think it's a substantial improvement over the previous system.  But after using the new Notes feature on Medium, I feel like even the new Google+ system feels old and archaic.

Notes is one of the features released at launch that is core to the Collaboration tenet of Medium.  Essentially, Notes allows members of the Medium community to comment not just on the article as a whole, but on specific sections of content.

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web

The key user interaction is to click the "Add Note" button and enter your input near the text upon which you're interested in commenting.  You can also highlight snippets of text to target your comments even more granularly, as shown in the animated graphic below:

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web

The key concepts that separates Notes from traditional blog comments are

  1. Notes are designed to focus on a specific section of the text, prompting direct feedback and a constructive conversation around a specific portion of the content.  This discourages "me-too" and "great-post" feedback, and encouraging actual suggestions that might improve the content.
  2. They are private by default, and only you and the Author can see them when submitted.  The Author of the post can choose to Reply, Make Public, or Hide the note, after being notified of its submission via email or twitter.
As a result, on Medium the default mode of conversation becomes a two-way dialog between the author and people who actually have something constructive to say about the content.  Innovative, I know.

Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web

But Medium is still releasing new features, the most recent of which is the Pre-Publish Collaboration authoring mode announced on April 10, 2013.  

After creating a new article and saving a draft, Authors are presented with a new button - "Invite Collaborators."  Clicking this button reveals a link to a secret draft version of the post that can be sent via email to anyone you're interested in inviting to collaborate on your content.  

They're able to use the aforementioned Notes feature to leave feedback and engage in a dialog on the content, and when the article is published, all contributors who collaborated on the post with you get a special mention in the "Thanks To" section of the post.  

"It’s interesting to watch Medium evolve, as we know that Williams has come from creating Blogger to shoving Twitter into the mainstream. It looks like all of the little things that Blogger never had as a publishing platform are now being put into the Medium product.
Video Interview with Ev Williams on Medium - the next evolution in the way we write, share and consume content on the web
Image Courtesy of TechCrunch
The interesting use case for something like this is when your friends take a look at your posts and catch some typos, or perhaps a link that doesn’t work. Instead of firing off an email to you or an instant message, you can see notes in-line and then take action on them before or after you’ve published. You really get a sense for how useful this is once you see notes dropped into your own posts...
Imagine being able to write an article together and then publish it, which is something that you can’t do on any other competing service. I wouldn’t mind trying it out. Nor would I mind being able to launch a note into a new post, giving that person the credit for sparking a new idea for me."

The Internet could be a place where great quality content is created collaboratively by insightful people, will you help?

It of course still remains to be seen if Medium can execute on their mission to enable content creators to create better things together, but as Fast Company points out in their latest coverage, they certainly seem to be doing a fantastic job so far, even if they're not the only players attempting to tackle this challenge.

I'm excited to see how Medium develops and I'm thrilled to have a chance to play a part in that process.

Let me know if you're interested in joining and I'll invite you to collaborate on one of my posts (you get an invite to join when you're asked to collaborate by an existing member, at least as of now...).  Just leave a comment below or contact me via LinkedIn and I'll get your contact info and send the invite over.

If you'd like another in-depth look at Medium, there's a really great post over at the Neiman Journalism Lab blog on 13 Ways of Looking At Medium that I heartily recommend.

And here's the fireside chat from this year's LAUNCH 2013 Conference with Ev Williams where he discusses the goals and objectives of Medium.