Ev Williams is in large part responsible for the social web. He co-founded Blogger and helped popularise the idea before selling it to Google. He co-founded the 'micro-blogging' product that spun out as Twitter, and became the CEO there before founding Medium. Medium feels like Blogger for the modern web, with a peerless content management system that renders copy beautifully across any device.
All of which is to say that Ev has the kind of experience of building and running web-based media technology companies that is very hard to equal. And he thinks something is rotten in the state of it:
"It's clear that the broken system is ad-driven media on the internet. It simply doesn't serve people. In fact, it's not designed to. The vast majority of articles, videos, and other 'content' we all consume on a daily basis is paid for - directly or indirectly - by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period. As a result, we get ... well, what we get. And it's getting worse."
Commercial media is, by its nature, biased towards business: it wasn't designed to serve people but rather to serve them up to advertisers. The media industrial complex exists to aggregate attention and sell it to advertisers. So far, so obvious. Ev arguably helped more people than almost anyone in history get their 'content' into the world but has realised that someone has to pay the bills.
A medium is that which transmits content - but Medium would like to remind you it is not a medium. Kate Lee, head of content development, says: "It's not correct to think of Medium as a publication; think of it more as a platform." Facebook cleaves to the same language, divesting itself of responsibility for the content that flows through it. In technology terms, a platform is something that others can build on. Medium is a publishing platform for online writing.
The challenge that Ev speaks of is inherent in this model. A platform lets anyone use it, the social media chimera of free access to audiences. So we have two vastly different advertising models operating online: the platform and the network. Platforms want to host everything, networks aggregate sites across the web and serve ads to the tracked audiences regardless of content. The network model is the underlying engine of the fake news industry.
Since the US election, activists like Sleeping Giants have been pointing out to brands that their ads are running on hate sites and asking them to stop, and to be more conscious about where they spend their money. Buying audiences cheaply on hate sites says very clear things about your brand's priorities and consumers have just begun to challenge the idea that ads and content can be considered separately.
The problem for the platform model is that a consumer would need to consume ongoing content streams from every brand they buy or consider brands as publishers, all creating content to earn some attention, creates a huge increase in the competition for that attention. At the same time, many of the most popular content creators for younger audiences are influencers like PewDiePie - a one-man band of agency, medium and publisher that sits on the platforms.
Advertisers en masse responded to the challenge of increased channels, content and clutter by making exponentially more of the same. There is a finite amount of attention and an ever-increasing amount of content seeking it. So, an ad product on Medium, which is mostly used for open letter/press release mash-ups and think pieces, pushed more of the same onto their users for advertisers. There's perhaps not enough meat in that meal.
As more content is created by church and state, trust in content overall continues to go down, and tolerance for consuming more branded stuff does too, which is why so much native advertising is poorly signposted. If the content comes directly from brands, since a brand's only interest is in your wallet (not your edification), eventually no one will trust or consume the content. Then we'll wish we hadn't broken the ad-driven media system, as audiences will get ever more elusive.
Advertising as we know it today is a function of the media industrial complex. The age of platforms may supersede it, but it will first need to rebalance the value equation between creators, consumers and commerce.