Medium Difficulties

reflecting-reality

Originally published 12th June, 2013 on Critical Hits

I have spent the past eight months building a company. I didn’t even realise until I was listening to a podcast interview with Chris Dahlen by Eric Brasure, about the founding of Kill Screen. Five out of Ten started as a fun indie publication, but it quickly became a brand. Suddenly I needed a workflow. Design consistency. A style guide. A mantra! All kinds of scarily serious stuff I just hadn’t thought about when I started work on the first issue. At Split Screen I had friends and fans; now there are customers, employees, responsibilities.

Thinking about all of that has highlighted the importance of a brand. I want Five out of Ten to be a mark of excellence: a publication that has great writing, beautiful design. A product made by people who care about their work. A place to champion the values we cherish, where previously muffled voices can be heard. Something that you may not always agree with, but you will always respect.

More simply: a magazine to love.

Whenever alternative publishing platforms come up, it makes you stop and question if you’re doing the right thing. Recently, some of my writing friends have been getting excited about the new website Medium. A better place to read and write things that matter, says the blurb on front page. Dive a little deeper and we see that Medium is essentially a blogging platform: users post like they would on Tumblr or WordPress and content is curated into silos of information that can be promoted on the front page. An important difference is that posts on Medium can be collaboratively worked over by a team of professional editors.

So far, so interesting. The editor of Unwinnable, Stu Horvath, has been working for Medium and as a result several of its big-name contributors have been writing there over the past few weeks. I also spotted Alex Hern from the New Statesman posting there as well. But I can’t escape the one question I’ve had ever since I heard of Medium: why? Why would you choose to post content here? I understand that Stu is working there because that’s his job, but what about the rest of the contributors?

Is Medium “a better place to read and write things that matter”? The front page is an unholy mess of topics, and curated collections like this roundup on WWDC are a crap shoot of hastily written ideas that should have remained a stream of tweets. As for the editing… anyone who starts an article with “So” needs so much more than a few taps of the Delete key.

But there is something more important going on here beyond a shiny new content management system. Whenever Jenn Frank writes an article on Unwinnable, it’s a Jenn Frank piece. When she writes an article on Medium, it is an article on Medium. Your own page has less personality than your Twitter page: this is great for Medium, because it establishes a brand identity for them, but it isn’t great for writers. It strips individual identity with the promise of exposure, but what good is that exposure if no one remembers you? I like that we have sites with different personalities. Some popular, some underdogs, some king for a day depending on the flow of social media. It’s this richness of possibility that can support different sites like The Ontological Geek and Pixels or Death without insisting they all use the same gigantic serif font.

It is really important for writers to ‘own’ their writing: if not in terms of copyright, then at least in it being an extension of their personality. Writing without personality is boring to write and boring to read. Great columnists are there because they are great individuals, not because they fit the style of their parent publication. EDGE publishes all writing pseudonymously except for their regular columnists, because personalities draw in readers. One of the key things about Five out of Ten is that we want the author’s personality to come through (although we now enforce British English for stylistic consistency) and we put their faces right on the front page to emphasise their ownership, not to mention their investment in its success. We also give them the full rights to their work, because it’s the right thing to do – no pun intended. By putting everyone’s writing into one omniblog, as with Medium, we run the risk of homogenising it and losing those little flecks of personality. I’d argue that has already happened based on what I’ve seen.

Medium promises revenue for its writers, but I am unsure as to whether they’ve implemented this yet (my account doesn’t have the ability to post) and it would be unfair to complain about a work in progress. This is potentially great, but it’s also another way for companies to syphon off a cut of the money that would be better given to starving artists. It is as undesirable to be tied to Medium for payment as running a shop through Amazon or eBay. It would be unwise to put all your eggs in one publishing basket, especially in this age of financial uncertainty. What if Medium get bought by Google or Facebook? What happens to your revenue then? What happens when they open the doors to everyone and the signal to noise ratio increases? How will we be able to tell the difference between a sponsored Mountain Dew post and actual games journalism? There are too many outstanding questions to hand over our work like this.

It is difficult to monetise a blog – that’s one of the reasons I think writers and indie publications should club together rather than fracturing – but it is even more difficult to rely on something in which you have no say. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram change their rules, and we are welcome to comply or leave, but leaving undoes the hard work of gathering an audience. We content creators need to take ownership, not just of the writing itself, but of our own salaries and destinies as well.

While writing this, I was reading the Apple webpage on their product philosophy, and was drawn to this section:

This is it. This is what matters. The experience of a product. How it makes someone feel. When you start by imagining what that might be like, you step back. You think. Who will this help? Will it make life better? Does this deserve to exist?

Medium is yet to justify its own existence. Who will this help? Will it make life better? Magazines and websites are more than just a medium for thought. They are brands, products with personalities. People.