Protecting the web as a democratic medium

Stylised Medium logo

I love the web. It is the most important communications tool there has ever been. It democratised access to information like nothing before. It is precisely the web’s openness that made it thrive.

The web opened up publishing to everyone. That is its beauty and its power. It has demonstrated the power to bring to their knees powerful firms and even industries. Being heard is no longer just for the privileged.

But the web has created its own powerful players. Despite the fact that it is easier than ever to set up your own stall and publish from there, many still choose to entrust their content with someone else. It is easy to understand why.

Running a website is hard

Even though it’s relatively simple to set up your own website, it still requires a bit of commitment and expertise — or at least a willingness to learn.

I have always taken pride in designing and running my own website. I feel I ought to really, given that my day job is to run a website. Doing anything else would feel like cheating.

But a recent experience has made me come close to questioning that wisdom. I was trying to move hosts so that I could more easily maintain the websites I am responsible for. In addition to this site, there are a few others I run for family, and a few old personal blogs that I am now archiving. The process has been bumpy.

Running a website doesn’t get any easier, and it requires real expertise. The complexity increases over time.

For instance, we have to be ever more vigilant about security. Getting found on search engines can sometimes require so much expertise that there is an entire sub-industry dedicated to it. Content farms get infinite numbers of monkeys to hit upon new ways to write clickbait and create shareable content.

Coming up with a good design that is usable and accessible isn’t the work of a moment either. Legislative requirements are increasing in number and burden.

Doing it yourself is in danger

Take, for instance, Google’s current push to encourage more websites to take up HTTPS. It was once only a worry for particular types of websites handling sensitive personal data. Now it has become the latest in a long line of headaches that small website owners must attend to. Even big websites like Wired have found it difficult to make the transition.

In such an environment, doing it yourself is no longer such an attractive option. The barriers to entry are increased. If someone like me finds it painful, and a big publisher like Wired goes public to describe the difficulties it has had, what hope is there for an ordinary punter with no experience or expertise?

It is worth saying as well that buying an SSL certificate costs money. That is on top of your hosting package, domain names, softwareand anything else you might need to pay for to get your website up and running. No longer can you pay £5 a month for cheap and cheerful hosting, install some free software and expect it to just work.

Nowadays, setting up even a small website requires you to part with more than just pocket money. Perhaps more significantly, it requires quite a large investment of time as well.

When the message is on Medium

I have watched with interest the ever-increasing popularity of Medium. Although I have not ever been tempted to move to Medium as my main publishing platform, it’s easy to see why others are.

Put simply, you don’t need to do it yourself. Someone else has already done it all for you.

Transforming how people write

It is quite incredible that Medium in particular should be attracting so many writers, when services like Blogger and WordPress.com have existed for more than a decade.

But hats off to Evan Williams. He has managed to transform the way people write on the web three times in a matter of 15 years. First he created Blogger. Then he was heavily involved in Twitter. Now he is at the helm of Medium.

In a recent interview with BBC News, Evan Williams outlined his vision for the future of the web. That vision appears to be for the web as we know it to be gone.

Williams predicts, and is banking on, a time when it’ll be largely pointless for media companies to build and maintain their own online spaces.

“I think publishers who are experimenting with Medium are seeing a world where it’s not about having a website.

“There are not going to be tens of millions of websites that lots of people go to every day…”

The dangers of entrusting your content to someone else

But why should big media companies — or even independent individuals — be giving away their content to another company?

Web users have been bitten before by giving one company control of all their stuff. When Google killed off its (niche but well-loved) Google Reader service, it almost may as well have killed off RSS itself.

You can even think of services like Geocities. While few people shed tears over its closure, the fact remains that a huge archive of the web’s early content was obliterated by one. It was a decision made high up in Yahoo by people detached from the product and thinking about their bottom line over the integrity of their service.

The list of content publishing sites to close down is long. Very long.

So while services like Medium can serve a vital role in helping people publish easily and quickly, I am uneasy about it. It has the potential to undermine the very strength of the web.

The strength of the web was that it fostered an incredible do-it-yourself culture. Individuals for the first time could have real influence. By giving that influence away to websites like Medium — as well as the likes of WordPress.com and even Facebook — it feels like a lot of that progress is being undone.

My own experiments with Medium

I have seen people say that it is worth publishing on Medium because it gives you more exposure. Well, I have tested that out for myself, quietly. For the past few months, everything I have published on this website has been cross-posted on Medium. The result? Almost no-one read those articles on Medium.

(And before some cheeky so-and-so butts in here and suggests otherwise, I will point out that significantly more people have indeed read those articles on this website.)

Sure, I didn’t promote the links to those articles on Medium. Maybe if I did, they would have run like wildfire and I would be an internet sensation by now. But I don’t imagine so.

Fading novelty

The novelty of reading articles on Medium was appealing at first. It is true that the pages look beautiful (even if they are rather bloated for what is the most basic function of the web – displaying text). And the early adopters did post some high quality content there.

But now my eyes roll as I see yet another Medium article with nothing to set it apart from the literally millions of other pages on the web. Nowadays a Medium article is less likely to be thought-provoking, and more likely to be yet another tortured listicle, painfully trite observations about UX v UI, or an earnest 10,000 word essay about whether journalists should learn to code.

Sure, the same could be true of any other publishing platform on the web.

But my point is that surely on the web — of all mediums — we should be striving for independence. Independent thoughts, independent of platforms.


Some more interesting takes on Medium:

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *