/// Can Twitter co-founder take an ‘evolutionary leap’ into storytelling?
Medium, Twitter co-founder Ev Williams’s online publishing venture, has no shortage of ambition – to reinvent the blog as a digital storytelling format and match the impact of the microblogging service, no less.
Williams, who launched Medium in August 2012 with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, has said their aim is “re-imagining publishing in an attempt to make an evolutionary leap” by building a new platform from scratch that would put an emphasis on ideas, stories and collaboration. To achieve this, however, the company will have to get over several hurdles, not least addressing the confusion over Medium’s perceived strategy and business model, summed up by Reuters media commentator Jack Shafer, who describes it – while not lacking potential – as up to now being “a mystery wrapped up in a hashtag concealed by a catchy URL”.
This uncertainty has clearly not put off investors: Medium, which employs 50 full-time staff, announced last week that it had secured its first external investment, a $25m funding round led by Greylock Partners, with participation from Google Ventures and individual investors. Initial funding for the platform came from Williams’s investment vehicle The Obvious Corporation.
Perhaps this enthusiasm shouldn’t be a surprise. As well as co-founding Twitter, Williams launched blog publishing service Blogger in 1999 and Medium is, ostensibly, similar – with two key differences. Medium is designed to make publishing as simple as possible, using a “what you see is what you get” user interface. More importantly, it is designed to be collaborative. Blogs are arranged in themed collections and users can add notes to other people’s posts. These notes are found to the side of individual paragraphs rather than at the end of the post, effectively replacing comments.
Medium’s head of corporate development and strategy, Edward Lichty, admits that the company spends a lot of time thinking about how to define its offer. “Really Medium is a place to share stories and ideas to the world,” he explains. “It takes all the technology and formatting and brain cramps around ‘What should my blog look like?’ out of the picture and it is a communal place, so that stories can very quickly find an audience.” In adopting this communal approach Medium arguably takes some attention away from the individual blogger. But the flipside, Lichty says, is that this can help stories to get read more widely. “People who publish on Medium say, ‘I publish on Medium and that story got 10 times [more] reads than anything I have ever gotten on my own personal blog.’”
Lichty gives the example of Dinovember, a photo-based post from Refe Tuma, which was read 3m times in two days and led to a book deal for the writer and “dinosaurer”.
The company has hired former ICM literary agent Kate Lee as director of content, and started paying writers for one-off articles and ongoing columns. Notable commissions have included The Mercenary, a 10,000-word story by Joshua Davis released last summer. The Mercenary was produced for Epic Magazine, a collaboration between Medium, Davis and journalist Joshuah Bearman (whose 2007 Wired article about a CIA mission was adapted into the Oscar-winning film Argo), which will publish six stories on Medium over 18 months. Last summer Epic landed a two-year first look output deal with Hollywood studio 20th Century Fox. Medium faces stiff competition from long-established blogging platforms such as WordPress, which claims to power 75m sites; Blogger, which Google bought in 2003; and Tumblr, which says it powers 168.6m blogs. Another potential rival is Svbtle, a new platform that aims to simplify blogging and which fully opened last week.
Also a challenge will be establishing a working business plan. Lichty says that the platform generates “zero” revenue, drawing a parallel with Twitter’s similar lack of revenue in its first few years of existence, but expects that to change. “It is very reasonable to believe that brands will participate on Medium in some fashion. We want to do that in a way that makes Medium more valuable for readers and ideally funds writing,” he says. “There may also be a direct user payment element. Some sort of premium content or subscription.”
Shafer says he eagerly awaits the “whole package” . However, based on Williams’s comments, he expresses reservations. “Is publishing really that difficult? I don’t think so. Even I have my own personal, cleanly designed website,” he says. “So my intuition is that there is another Medium shoe to fall before we really understand it as a business.”
Given Williams’s record you would think twice about betting against it. Lichty believes it can have the same impact as Twitter and Blogger. “I am not going to be so presumptuous as to say, ‘Yes we will be that big.’ But we do think that what we are doing is fairly elemental,” he says. “Storytelling is a very powerful element of humankind. If we can improve and somehow move forward the way people share their stories and ideas, we think that can be pretty important.”
The Guardian - Ben Cardew