Three-hit wonder: A co-founder of Twitter is betting he can revolutionise digital publishing once again
A co-founder of Twitter is betting he can revolutionise digital publishing once again
FEW feel as conflicted about the internet’s descent into glib, 140-character tweets as Evan Williams. As a co-founder of Twitter, he has profited handsomely from the social-media firm’s rise and remains its largest shareholder. Yet now his main project is to ensure that serious-minded, long-form prose will offset the torrent of tweets, often penned by twits.
Mr. Williams's latest venture, Medium, which launched in 2012, is a clean, elegant-looking destination for essays, open letters and “big think” pieces. It is trying to become the central hub for writing by the public at large, as YouTube is for amateur videos. Journalists, business executives and heads of state, including Barack Obama, have all published on Medium. When Amazon disagreed with a New York Times article on the e-commerce giant's apparently brutal work culture, a senior executive from the firm wrote a long retort on Medium. Small papers and digital-media firms, such as the Pacific Standard and The Ringer, are using it to publish content.
As in Hollywood, it is easier to sell a sequel in Silicon
Valley. In 1999 Mr. Williams co-founded Blogger. The startup helped popularise the concept of blogging and the word itself by making it simple for people to post their musings without needing to code. After Google bought the company in 2003, Mr. Williams worked on a podcasting firm called Odeo that ended up launching a text-messaging service, which became Twitter. “Anyone who has changed the world twice, I would bet on a third time,” says Jeff Jarvis, a professor of journalism at City University of New York.
Some venture capitalists have done so: they have joined Mr. Williams in financing Medium to the tune of $130m, valuing it at around $600m. Investors hope that Medium will be able to rival Facebook as a place for personal commentary and news discovery. “The world needs a hedge to Facebook,” says Kevin Thau of Spark Capital, a venture-capital firm that has invested in Medium. (That view will have been boosted by a recent controversy over the social-media firm's censoring in Norway of an iconic photograph of a naked girl in a napalm attack during the Vietnam war.)
The site certainly is not Facebook: Medium's sleek, minimalist look is heavy on blank space and has raised the bar for reading on the web. Users like its features, such as the estimated time an article will take to read, and one that shows which passages were highlighted frequently in an article, though Mr. Williams himself has some criticisms. “We were a little too precious about the design, engineering and who could write on the platform,” he says, admitting that he probably rolled out new features too cautiously early on.
Medium has only just begun experimenting with how it will make money. One option is to take a cut of the subscription fees charged by publishers on its platform. So far it is working mainly with small firms, but eventually some bigger newspapers and magazines could sign on. Medium also has plans to make money by means of sponsored advertisements, where companies pay to promote posts they have written.
Yet to build a large advertising business, it will need many more readers. With 30m monthly users and a reputation cultivated mainly among coastal, tech-savvy elites, Medium is a long way from the scale of a Twitter, which has more than ten times as many users, let alone a Facebook, which has 1.7 billion.
For John Battelle of NewCo, a digital publisher that posts articles on Medium, the big question is whether the site's focus on lengthier prose leaves it vulnerable to short attention spans. Elsewhere online, stories are increasingly told with images, emojis and videos. Mr. Williams remains optimistic. Having trained people to express themselves in short, snappy quips, he believes they still have a “hunger for substance”. This may be true, but whether it makes for a thriving business is an entirely different question. Plenty of newspaper and magazine bosses can testify to that.