Toward a more relational Medium

Last week we announced Medium’s new mobile app and started rolling out the beta more widely. (If you have the current Medium app, look for a prompt to opt in.)

This app is the result of months of work from a stellar team and represents some dramatic rethinking of our mobile reading experience — and, in fact, Medium in general. It’s also unlike any other mobile reading experience I know of. Personally speaking, I already read a lot of Medium (hazard of the job), but with this app, I read even more — and, most importantly, I read more from the people I’m most interested in. I’m pretty sure that will get better and better as the feedback loop kicks in.

Why are we making this change? To be clear, our old app was fine. In fact, hundreds of thousands of Medium subscribers (and millions of users) use it regularly, and it drives a large part of our business. But we think there’s something much more interesting to do. (And don’t worry — if you’re a lover of the old app, this new experience will be opt-in until we are hearing from users that we’ve gotten it right. We’re still tweaking.)

So what’s different? As Russ wrote, instead of starting with an algorithmic feed of stories, the new app is “reoriented around following — so that readers can be sure they’re not missing anything from writers they love, and those writers and publications can more actively engage and grow their audience.” That doesn’t sound revolutionary, but there’s a bit more to it.

I want to write here about some of the ideas behind the app, which will also give you some idea of where Medium is heading more generally. (Separately, over on the Medium blog, I offer some more concrete upcoming stuff.)

XKCD comic
XKCD comic
From XKCD

Among other ways, the internet has changed media consumption along a spectrum that you might call relational to transactional. Think of (or imagine, if you’re not old enough) when you got your morning newspaper or your favorite magazine and read articles because they were in that newspaper or magazine. Sure, you didn’t read all of them, but what you read was very heavily influenced by where it came from. You picked the source first and then you picked the articles. You built affinity and trust for the sources (publications) you liked best, which read to repeat reading and/or subscription. In other words, you had a relationship of sorts with them — and, perhaps, with many of the writers in them, as well.

In contrast, it is much more common today to choose to read something before you even know where it came from, based on the headline. Sophisticated readers will pay attention to the source, but there are too many (down to millions of individuals) to be familiar with or have a point of view on.

Navigating from homepage to homepage — the digital equivalent of picking up a magazine — feels very antiquated and inefficient when the headlines can all be aggregated and presented to you, personalized. Or, depending on your need, when you can search for a specific topic and be led directly to a reasonable set of answers by the authority of Lord Google.

I’m not saying this is bad! Efficiency is great. And it’s also the inevitable result of the explosion of outlets (down to the individual blog) that the internet has enabled. The relatively limited number of outlets and the gatekeepers who controlled them in the pre-internet world let a very small number of perspectives be heard.

Also, a relationship is not always what you want. Sometimes you just want to fix that thing on your computer, and it’s pretty great that you can search for it and someone in the world has figured it out and shared their knowledge. In that case, an information transaction is perfectly sufficient. Personally, I miss getting my thick copy of PC Magazine in the mail every month, but for lots of the information we seek, things are way better now.

That said, a purely transactional world has a ton of downsides. If affinity for source was totally removed from the equation, you would choose what to consume based on its packaging alone — which, for articles, is the headline + image. It’s easy to see where that leads. It’s fine for lots of fact-based issues, like fixing your computer, but for less-directed consumption, it rewards a certain type of content…

Grid of images and headlines
Grid of images and headlines
When publisher names are removed from content choices

Consider television as an analogy. Different consumption modes drive different content. If you’re flipping through channels, you’re not going to stop at a show where you need to have watched the 12 previous episodes to appreciate. Or even the whole episode. The worst of TV today (and there’s still plenty of it) optimizes for no context required — recaps after every commercial break and teasers before to keep you tuned in, which you probably won’t, because you don’t care. It’s transactional.

However, there is now also the total opposite — television with complex, multi-season narratives. Television shows were always designed to keep viewers coming back. But streaming has allowed show creators to build in much more complexity because they can assume you’ve seen every episode. This complexity builds deeper engagement and fandom — which is important because the way to succeed in that world is to make something so good people tell their friends about it. You hear people obsess about GOT enough, you have to subscribe to HBO. That’s the game.

One result of that game, it seems safe to say, is that, with streaming television, most of us watch fewer TV shows than we did on cable, but we watch them much more consistently. Less catching an episode here or there. We’ve seen 100% or zero. At the same time, our reading has gone the opposite way . We read far more outlets, but nearly all of them sporadically. In other words, our reading has gotten more transactional while TV has gotten more relational.

I’m speaking in generalities here, clearly. We did have Must See TV back in the day. And there are many counter-examples — as well as emerging counter-trends — online. For example, newsletters, podcasts, tweets, and even Instagram/Snap-style Stories are relationship-driven media.

Original blogger.com homepage
Original blogger.com homepage
Blogger.com homepage circa 1999 (design by yours truly)

Another form of relational media on the web is blogging — especially in the early days. One of the things I loved about blogging back then — and that people enjoy about writing newsletters today — is the feeling that you’re publishing to a relatively consistent group of people who care what you have to say. Even if it’s a small group. This lets you write with more freedom and confidence. You build context and trust over time. Your success is less dependent on your latest headline and more on delivering on the trust your readers have given you by showing up. Do so reliably and that readership grows, like a great show (via word of mouth/tweet, or, in the old days, blogrolls).

Also, a blog is a place. It’s a virtual place, but, conceptually, you go there. This sense of place adds to the context, the relationship, you build with a blogger over time. We called them homepages. Welcome to my home on the internet, here are my latest thoughts. Here’s more about me.

RSS provided a mechanism to subscribe, which created continuity (and efficiency). A weakness of RSS, though, IMO is that it doesn’t carry the visual design of a blog. That, and not seeing the URL in your browser, reduced the sense of place.

As a blogger, because the space is yours — you’re not pushing yourself into a feed or an inbox — there’s a lot of freedom. Similar, perhaps, to the freedom that one has posting to an IG story versus the feed (without the ephemerality).

Image for post
Image for post

One of the original ideas behind Medium was to give people an easy and beautiful place to publish, even if they weren’t full-time writers or committed bloggers. We believed there were at least tens of millions of people in the world who had worthwhile stories, knowledge, or ideas to share who could and wanted to articulate them but didn’t have the right place. If you want to publish once, or occasionally, spinning up a blog or a newsletter is too much complexity and not the right vehicle.

Over the years, many of the biggest hits and most important stories on Medium have come from people who had a single story to tell. Medium made that easy and helped find the audience. Being open and accessible to anyone remains important.

However, as we’ve evolved, we haven’t done as good of a job helping those thinkers, writers, and experts who do publish more regularly, which was the intention, as well. Our distribution mechanisms became more transactional and less relational over time. More concretely, while you can build followers on Medium, our algorithms have played a bigger role in what gets distributed. As a result, readers have been less likely to follow writers because it doesn’t have a huge effect.

So that’s the big thing that’s changing with this new app (and soon on the web). Our goal is to create the best of both worlds: An open and simple platform where anyone can publish — once or occasionally — that also allows for deeper connections between readers and regular writers. These notions are complementary because the overall vision is to build an even more robust network of thinkers and perspectives, where ideas get better because they’re connected to others, and where links between people and posts lead to more discovery. Where both the content and the network evolve into greater density and complexity over time.

The web was meant as a two-way medium, where every reader is a writer and every thinker has a home. Let’s make it that way again.

Going back to our new app, it’s not just that it’s more follow-driven and less algorithm-driven. This is a good thing in itself (as long as you know who to follow). But the other key is it’s not headline-driven. Yes, there are headlines, but the core experience is that you tap on the entity (author or publication) you follow, and you go to their space — usually before you even know what they’ve written about:

Two screenshots from new mobile apps
Two screenshots from new mobile apps
From homepage to profile

When you scroll down, you see what they last wrote about, in case you missed it. (Yeah, kinda like a blog.) This means you’re more likely to read the authors you like much more consistently and develop deeper relationships. As a writer, you’ll be writing to people who care what you have to say (and much less dependent on headlines).

All of this works together with the new upgrades to the publishing tools we announced recently, which allow you to create a more expressive publication, plus a more seamless reading experience on the web. Not all the design elements are replicated in the app (these are both still in beta), but there’s a similar experience.

There’s more to the story. Over on the Medium blog, I posted about some of the other stuff we have in the works, as well as how Medium’s doing.

Check back for more in the future. In fact, follow this pub and get the new app, and you won’t have to remember to check back.

Written by

CEO of Medium, partner at Obvious Ventures, co-founder of Twitter, curious consumer of ideas

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