David Carr, media writer for The New York Times, lauds Medium, a new digital platform for quality writing by professionals and amateurs, because it allows him the flexibility to easily post his own articles. He says, “the content management system is destiny.”
That’s been the credo for print magazines as well, and it is the editor along with the design director who creates the so-called system. Although print lacks the self-publishing capabilities that digital zines provide, print zines tend to hew to practices its digital sisters might lack, such as curation, editing, proofreading, layout design, covers, publication deadlines, and paying writers as well as the artists who create each issue.
I met Evan Williams, founder of Medium, when he launched Blogger and threw an exuberant, resurgence-of-high-tech party in the early naughts. He seemed like a thoughtful person and definitely tech savvy. Not a literary type. In fact, it seemed to me, although I was an early blogger, that Blogger was a way for technical people to communicate with each other, not a platform for real writers. Many professional writers, like original Wired contributor Paulina Borsook, told me that blogging belittled their craft, which not so oddly, is the same reaction they had to a later Williams’ creation, Twitter.
Having triumphed over the verbosity of written communications by amputating vowels, definite and indefinite articles, and other unnecessary literary figments, Williams has now swung 180 degrees in the other direction by creating Medium, where words scroll like sacred rivers down screens measured by machines evaporating up to a royalty-free cloud. The articles are long by digital standards, and some of the writing is superb, by any standard.
When I was nine years old and en route to Bremerhaven, Germany, where my father was a U.S. Army bandleader, my grandmother Edith Margolin, a prolific diarist and letter writer who was accepted into Hunter College at age 15 but who went to work for a florist to support her mother, introduced me to The New Yorker. Except for a half-year sojourn in Paris and a few months in Hayfork, Trinity County, California, I have never been without what I consider this most civilized contemplation of life on our planet. The New Yorker, despite its changing editors, offers me insights into the human condition. It’s curious, playful, inventive, hilarious, surprising, and familiar, and always the writing is so beautiful that sometimes I’m incited to read the articles, not just the poems, aloud.
Would this experience transpose to a medium like Medium? No way, and here’s how I might count the ways:
The New Yorker’s cover for May 26 reflects the season – summer – and one of its articles, sports. It’s witty, original, something I might even hang up in my kitchen, and is signed by the artist, Saul Steinberg. Medium’s “cover” is a photo of a bicycle’s handlebars and bell, free clip art from the Internet attributable to no one.
Contents for The New Yorker are aggregated and listed on page 2, with short bios of the contributors listed on page 3. Letters to the Editor are on p. 5. The layout for the magazine follows a similar pattern each issue, with the same art, film, music, and television critics, and rotating book critics. Articles in the May 26 issue include an injury critical to pro golfers; why some words can’t be adequately translated; the inside history of a militia group led by a U.S. soldier gone rogue; and an analysis of the social-media savvy foreign minister of Iran.
Contents for Medium – taglined as “everyone’s stories and ideas” -- varies each day, or maybe each 30 seconds, whenever its editors post new feeds from its more than 1,000 daily submissions. Right now, my Medium screen contains a story called, “Holy shit, dude? How I accidentally lost 50 pounds in 8 months,” which was selected because it’s trending right; “Transitioning to Scala,” which is not the opera house but a program a developer used to help rebuild Walmart.ca, which is in Medium’s top 100; and “Anatomy of An Incident, or, The Story of How A Great Man Came to Open Some Dialogue on A Topic He Knows Nothing About, and We Are All Just So Grateful,” (N.B.: I left the “a’s” in caps, as copied, indicating the proofreader is a nonexistent position at Medium.) This last piece says it was sent to me because Susan Mernit, editor of OaklandLocal and working with the Knight Foundation, recommended this piece, which is kind of scary that somehow Medium – and not just the NSA -- knows that Susan is a friend and colleague of mine.
Even scarier, or perhaps more arrogant, that Medium’s algorithm would Pandorize to my tastes in literature given the literary tastes of people I know online.
Whereas The New Yorker covers the gamut of human activities and interests, Medium writers, or at least the ones who make the top 100 like Sean Hickey on “the Evolution of a Software Engineer” or Ian Firth, author of “I will never smoke again,” (and why are all but one of the writers in the top ten male?) focus on titillating a younger audience, one heavily into tech and with a male bias, and most importantly, readers with a low threshold for the act of reading.
Every article in Medium lists the amount of time – 2 minutes, 6 minutes, 3 minutes, 4 minutes, 1 minute -- its editors think it takes people to read a specific article, if a one-minute read could even considered an article. It would seem, judging by the top 100, people prefer shorter articles, although I did find one read that went on for nine minutes, probably intended for someone who just got laid off from a startup.
Decades ago, I used to spend hours reading articles by John McPhee published by The New Yorker. I still recall a spellbinding account of his building a wooden canoe and traveling through waterways with many a gruesomely difficult portage through northeastern America. I remember his rhapsodic discursions into the geology of earthquakes, which might have been a two-hour read. Who knows how long it took? Whenever I read McPhee, time seemed irrelevant.
Which might be a major difference between Medium and The New Yorker. One medium is for people who don’t necessarily like to read and want to limit their time reading. They don’t care about layout, design, the tactile experience of turning a page. It might appeal to people who drink Soylent for meals because it’s fast and nutritious, not complicated by the constraints imposed by selecting, preparing, and tasting, not to mention the social aspects of communing around the table.
Finally, there’s the old-versus-new economy disruptor of paid versus unpaid writers. Medium editor Evan Hansen, who spoke at one of the INFUSION tech lunches I host at Berkeley Rep Theater every month, did say that Medium paid well-known writers for their work as a way to attract readers to the site, but they did not pay most of the contributors, who are nonprofessionals, as in writers not getting paid for their writing.
Medium is in the business of making sure that nonprofessionals remain nonprofessionals, although I’m sure its founders would argue that attention is what their contributors really want. As for its readers, like myself, it’s a different story.