If you were to assign to anyone the task of building the anti-Twitter for online publishing, probably your best choice would be to pick one of the creators of Twitter. Who could understand the underlying systems, psychology, and technology of the service better than Evan Williams?
So when considering Williams’ latest venture, Medium, it’s instructive to pick up not only on the similarities it shares with Twitter, but also the ways in which it is consciously pitting itself against what was once referred to as a microblogging tool.
While Medium shares with Twitter an impulse for democratizing media by way of accessible publishing tools and through harnessing network effects, the two services are in some very important ways polar opposites, a fact that is becoming clearer as the new writing platform evolves.
Yesterday, Williams announced the launch of collaboration tools for Medium, allowing writers to seek input from other people before publishing their articles. The system appears to be an elegant way for writers to incorporate editing advice from their peers without having to leave Medium’s minimalist content-management system. It’s as if Medium has re-designed the collaborative editing tools offered within Google Docs and incorporated them into WordPress’s CMS for on-the-go editorial fixes – except it’s all done without the clutter or distractions of either of those services. (I can’t comment any more on the user experience, because I’m not one of the few people who have access to the backend as part of Medium’s controlled beta.)
The advent of these collaboration tools, which are among the first features launched for the platform, shows that Medium is serious about encouraging quality writing. By facilitating a contemplative approach to content creation that emphasizes an editing process, Medium promises to tread where Twitter tramples. While Twitter’s tech, character restrictions, and immediacy effectively encourage impulsive statements and outbursts, Medium practically insists on thoughtfulness and deliberation. One gives you the quick and dirty, the other gives you the considered and clean.
Medium carries that ethos into its recommendation engine, which determines which content to highlight based not on who has the highest follower count or best Klout score, but, as Williams has explained, on “whether or not a post appears to have been read (not just clicked on).” Also, rather than relying on sheer numbers of clicks on the “recommendation” button that sits at the bottom of every post, the system also takes into account the ratio of readers to recommenders. So, while Twitter is so much of a popularity contest that people think it’s worthwhile to buy fake followers with real money, Medium sends the message that who you are doesn’t matter – what’s more important is what you write. By giving writers the tools to show off the best versions of themselves, Medium thus discourages the Twittery RT-hunting behaviors that can give rise to outrageous comments and petty pissing matches.
In a further attempt to distinguish itself from the roiling waters of Twitter – and to find quiet eddies in a roaring river of online content – Medium is also taking the opposite approach when it comes to chronology. Recognizing the value in older content by organizing its content by collections and interest levels rather than sorting posts in reverse chronological order by default, Medium shows that it is not obsessed with the new. Unlike Twitter, it is not slave to the nownownow.
Medium is only nine months old, and it is moving slowly. Its collaborative editing and notes tools are the only major user-facing features it has so far released. As a publishing platform, it still has much to prove. But as Medium develops, it becomes clearer that it is, in the most important ways, the antithesis of Twitter. That’s good news for writers and readers, all of whom ultimately suffer from the frenetic demands of by-the-minute publishing schedules, which are corrosive for quality content.
If Evan Williams can use his knowledge of what makes Twitter great to help Medium capitalize on the things that make Twitter a grind, it’ll be good for both platforms.
[Picture from Teehan+Lax, "The making of Medium"]