Yesterday, my Twitter feed was lit up with outrage over a post on Medium in which the writer, Michele Catalano, described an unexpected visit from men with badges and guns after she and her husband had Googled “pressure cookers” and “backpacks,” and her son had read news stories about bomb-making. (At this point, I’d like to welcome the NSA as new readers of PandoDaily.)
In a time of hyper-sensitivity over who’s watching us and when, it had all the right ingredients to trigger dismay: heavy-handed surveillance, domestic disorientation, violation of peace and privacy, and the blunt instrument of a police state being brought clumsily down upon an innocent family.
But Catalano unintentionally left out a crucial detail: Later, the family found out via the police department that the searches were also related to things her husband looked up at his old job. As Gawker’s Adrian Chen reported, the police were actually responding to a tip from the man’s former employer. There’s still, if you ask me, cause for concern in that scenario – but it’s not such an alarming headline-grabber as it initially was.
Soon after Chen’s revelation, a discussion among media nerds broke out on Twitter questioning the degree to which Medium, a publishing platform, is editorially responsible for the post. Should it have gone over the writer’s head to correct or update the post? After all, it had selected and promoted it in order to bring it more attention.
Medium’s response was unambiguous: “We are a platform,” the company tweeted. “Any changes to an article are up to the author.”
— Medium (@Medium) August 2, 2013
By definition, of course, that is correct: Medium is a platform, a host and distributor of messages. For writers, it offers tools and distribution. For readers, it offers a nice reading environment and content discovery.
But there are some blurred lines. For a start, Medium commissions some of its content – a move that is likely intended to ensure a steady flow of quality writing on the platform, and to attract more readers to the site. In the cases for which Medium solicits and then pays for work, it’s fair to ask whether or not that means it is on the hook for ensuring that work meets a certain standard of editorial integrity. If Medium pays, say Thomas Friedman, to write about the sharing economy (please, Medium, never do that) and then finds that Friedman calls Airbnb a car-sharing service, would it just let the mistake stand?
Medium has also invited confusion into the equation by appointing “editors” to its team. For instance, Evan Hansen, formerly of Wired, holds the title “Senior Editor” and is in charge of science and technology content. Hansen’s role might merely entail editorial direction, commissioning, and curation – but the “editor” part of his title is offputting for people (like me) who are used to such roles involving the oversight and shaping of actual copy.
The distinction between platform and publication is further muddled by Medium’s acquisition of science-and-tech monthly Matter, which is very much a publication, complete with commissioning editors and a subscription model. If Medium is a pure platform, what business does it have in owning a publication that presumably has its own strict editorial controls? It’s not that the two can’t happily coexist under the same banner, but it does add a layer of complication to Medium’s attempt to say it is hands-off in the editorial process.
Before starting Medium, Evan Williams started Blogger and Twitter. Both those services are very clearly platforms – neither service pays for posts or tweets, neither has editors responsible for generating content to be published on their broadcast platforms (if you don’t count Twitter’s lite content marketing efforts, such as its annual year-in-review projects), and neither has acquired a content company such as Matter.
With Medium, Williams has taken a different approach, likely with the good intention of making the service an even more friendly place for writers and readers. The technology is in itself agnostic, but there is considerable ambiguity in the human structure erected around it.
The upshot is that readers should always take a “buyer beware” approach to reading content on Medium. When assessing the authority of a post, it’s more instructive to look at the byline than at the imprint.
That word of caution should be obvious for any reader, but Medium has to play its part in beating us across the head with it. It has some clearing up to do. It needs to get the message across that even though it sometimes appears to endorse some content – by promoting the posts, juicing their distribution, and, in some cases, even paying the writers – that doesn’t mean it is vouching for its veracity. It would help, also, if the company tweaked the titles of its editorial team so it was clear that those people are responsible for direction and curation rather than actual copy-wrangling. And it should more clearly explain how Matter fits into the overall scheme of things.
We’ve already seen Tumblr and Facebook stumble in attempting to blend the worlds of platforms and publications, and the lesson is clear: the two don’t work together. Medium must know that. Now it has to prove that it does.
Update: Medium’s Evan Hansen responds in the comments:
Editors at Medium do work some on copy, we provide feedback for both commissioned and uncommissioned work and in some cases thorough line edits. We’re currently running a series of experiments to test out various models for putting commissioned writing into an open platform. We’re gathering info and we’re prepared to evolve as we learn more. It’s easy to declare all this a failure in advance and argue against trying anything new. But I’d say it’s premature to say exactly where all the lines need to be drawn (I’ve been here about 4 months). That’s OK. Experiments are most interesting to try when you’re unsure what’ll happen.