Two years ago, Clive Thompson was duped by an erroneous Wikipedia edit. On the day Yahoo had announced that former Googler Marissa Mayer would ascend the throne as CEO of the struggling company, Thompson visited her Wikipedia article and discovered, much to his shock, that Mayer had five biological children. This fact, he later realized, was false. But rather than filing it away as an interesting anecdote that proved the unreliability of Wikipedia, he tracked down the user who had corrected the entry and, upon interviewing her, came to the exact opposite conclusion. In a post uploaded to the blogging platform Medium this week, he explained how the speed with which an error was scrubbed clean is proof that a collaborative network of millions of editors ensures increased trustworthiness on the encyclopedia.
It was just the sort of post that, in the mid 2000s, he might have written and published to Collision Detection, Thompson’s personal blog. With its small but loyal readership, Collision Detection was his repository for the assorted curiosities and niche interests that didn’t make it into his long feature articles for outlets like the New York Times Magazine and Wired. But something happened as the journalist neared the end of the decade; he started blogging less.
“I used to blog two to three hours a day and now that time is spent hanging out with my children,” he told me in a phone interview. “And then I started writing a book and that just killed my time.”
But there was another entry to Thompson’s life that may have had the largest effect of all: Twitter. Suddenly, he and millions of other people who would have otherwise uploaded their thoughts to blogging platforms had a quick, easy medium with which to broadcast. “I noticed that all these people who had blogged a lot during the mid-aughts, they started only blogging intermittently, like maybe an essay once every couple months,” he said. “And I talked to them all about this, and they all said the same thing, that Twitter is the place where you could be like ‘here’s my one thought’ and then link somewhere. I no longer needed to write a one-paragraph blog post about it, and Twitter scratched that itch and gave it a larger audience than it might have had.”
This reminds me of Anil Dash’s excellent 2012 blog post, “The Web We Lost.” In it, he describes a time in the not-too-distant past when most of the web’s writers published to their own blogs and websites, websites where they had complete ownership and control of their content. “A decade ago,” he wrote, “Technorati” — a blog search engine — “let you search most of the social web in real-time … with tags that worked as hashtags do on Twitter today. You could find the sites that had linked to your content with a simple search, and find out who was talking about a topic regardless of what tools or platforms they were using to publish their thoughts.” (It’s worth nothing that the day that I write this, Google has reportedly shut down its blog search engine, which had eventually supplanted Technorati. I don’t blame them; blog search became pretty anachronistic once the blogosphere merged with the rest of the web.) Much of the blogosphere back then was made up of independent writers who often served as a welcome reprieve from the mainstream media. Most journalists considered “blogger” to be a pejorative term, and the blogosphere held a counterculture vibe that faded as nearly every major news outlet began to launch its own blogs.
It makes sense that so many abandoned their blogs for Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. These platforms offered an extended network where your writing actually had the opportunity to be read and commented on. Publishing a blog post on your personal blog sometimes felt like launching it into the ether. Unless you wrote every day it was very difficult to amass an audience. Many bloggers complained of burnout or wrote posts apologizing for lengthy hiatuses. With Facebook and Twitter you had none of that; you could go several days without posting and then have a network of friends and colleagues waiting to engage with future posts.
But by migrating to these platforms, we gave up much of the control of how our content was presented. We couldn’t hyperlink and we couldn’t arrange photos within text. With Twitter we couldn’t even write more than 140 characters, and though this can be a good thing in some respects, many ideas deserve way more space than a sentence or two. Facebook has always had terrible internal search functionality and is pretty much a black box to outside search engines like Google. The blogosphere, while still flourishing in some ways, has seemingly become the domain of professional writers and corporate media companies. It’s rare that I find myself wading into the WordPress.com and Blogspot ghettos where the web’s remaining independent bloggers still reside.
So imagine my surprise when, a few months ago, I discovered that many of those bloggers I read regularly in the mid 2000s would begin blogging at Medium under the banner of a group blog called The Message. There were 12 writers on the initial team, and they included Clive Thompson, Anil Dash (who, in addition to publishing a popular blog, was the first employee of Six Apart, the inventors of one of the early blogging platforms), Andy Baio (of Waxy.org fame), Kevin Kelly (the founding editor of Wired) and Danah Boyd (who began blogging in 1997, before the word “blog” even existed). The group screamed out “2006 Dream Team” so much so that I half expected John Gruber and Jason Kottke to be listed among the authors.
But as I began to read the blog and then later spoke to Evan Hansen, a senior editor at Medium who was the initial instigator behind The Message, I realized that it was more than just an arena for early 21st century Web 2.0 nostalgia, but part of Medium’s larger goal of bringing back the web we lost. “I think people do miss the longer stuff,” he said in a phone interview. “And we kind of walked away from it and went into the shorter, more disposable media, and we lost something along the way. I think that Medium is capitalizing on that feeling. The place for longer writing has been lost, so we’re creating that again.”
Hansen is a former editor of Wired, and he left the magazine in 2013 to join the tech startup and serve as kind of the A&R — artists and repertoire, a music industry term for the person responsible for finding new talent. “You go out and find interesting places and bands and sign them to the label,” he said. “That’s a big part of my job is finding interesting people we can bring into the Medium fold.”
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The idea for The Message bore out of the observation that Medium had a somewhat unique commenting system that very few users were capitalizing on. “We launched a collaboration layer a long time ago where we could share a link to a draft layer and people could comment on it,” Hansen explained. “You could get feedback before you publish it. It was a cool idea, but we weren’t seeing a ton of engagement around that, so I thought what if we could create a model for people so they could see what it looks like when we create a collection with a bunch of your friends or people you respect.”
Rather than compiling all the comments on a story at the bottom of a piece, Medium allows you to annotate by paragraph, making it easier to respond to specific points within a post. On an Anil Dash post on the nature of what’s considered public information, for instance, a commenter was able to nitpick a particular paragraph where Dash asserts that you’d be able to legally park a drone outside someone’s window. All comments go immediately into moderation and the author chooses which to make public. “It has scale issues,” Thompson admitted. “If I had a thousand people commenting, I wouldn’t have time to curate them and I’m not even sure how you’d visualize [the comments]. They’d just be spilling off in the distance.”
The collaborative nature of The Message is one that its creators hope will spread to other group blogs run on the platform that aren’t authored by professional writers. The overarching goal is that eventually, through a network effect, you’ll see communities sprout up with vibrant conversation, similar to what you used to see more regularly on group blogs that coalesced around certain topics and specialties. “We kind of anticipated a best case scenario and worst case scenario,” said Hansen. “Worst case is everyone kind of ignores each other and it kind of dies out of atrophy. Best case scenario is that people really build off each other and create these deeper conversations and ties, and it’s really gone in the latter direction.”
So what will lure users away from their Twitter and Facebook havens to return to a more robust blogging platform like Medium? Well, for one, everyone who uses it reports that the underlying CMS is a serious advancement of the technology, both in how it allows you to present information and ease of use. “The Medium CMS produces really good looking stuff,” said Thompson. “You look at it and it feels like a reading experience. It has nice typeface, really ample white space, and it makes it easy to design something beautifully.”
But Medium’s success or failure rests on whether it can ultimately create a network effect for its users so that it eliminates the problem that other blogging platforms have faced. That is, if I write something, will anyone actually read it? The more people you get on the CMS, the greater chance a user will get other people to subscribe to his feed, and then he has a reason to keep coming back. Facebook achieved this network effect through exclusivity — starting with only allowing in Ivy League college students and then slowly branching out. Medium is trying to attract users by hiring professional writers who produce high quality, beautiful content with the hope that readers who come to consume the media decide to stick around long enough to create their own content.
Whether this strategy will work is unclear. I noticed when clicking through posts on The Message that comments were sparse (one thought that occurred to me is that many people might not realize you can comment on paragraphs, given that you have to click on a rather small icon to see existing comments). But regardless of whether The Message or other professionally-curated blogs on Medium do attract a wider user base, I’m enjoying reading the writers who brought so much interesting content to my RSS feed nearly a decade ago. I have no doubt that social networks like Facebook and Twitter deserve much credit for bringing millions of people into the collaborative web, but the golden days of Web 2.0, when the blogosphere was a Wild West of pajama-clad bloggers, will always be an era that I’ll miss.
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