Department of Platform Shifts
For the past year or more, Medium — a new kind of content, publishing, and social media platform — has been chasing Facebook and Google’s business model. That model is simple and insanely profitable when it reaches scale: command the constant attention of a sh*tload of people, then insure they see a sh*tload of tailored, relevant advertising.
It’s not a particularly innovative approach, and it’s certainly not new (see, well, television…). And I’m not entirely sure Evan Williams, CEO and founder of Medium, was ever entirely committed to the chase. But given the realities on the ground (VC funding, growing content platform, etc), Williams had to at least give Google and Facebook’s business model a go.
Which he did, announcing a new advertising platform last year. Publishers like our own NewCo Shift, Bill Simmons’ The Ringer, and many others jumped on board, eager to find a new middle way between the wild west of the open web, and the barren deserts of the platforms.
In part, Williams’ decision to bail may have been a simple combination of math and pragmatism. After all, who on earth could possibly challenge the duopoly now controlling all of the growth in digital advertising? But I think Williams, who has seen hard pivots and near death more than once in his career, was seeking a more contrarian narrative. The question is — what exactly is the new story? We’ll have to wait to find out — and I very much doubt the answer will come this year, or even next. I’m voting for something that looks like SoundCloud for writers, but…
Regardless of the answer, we should celebrate William’s decision to forgo the creation of yet another Internet startup patterned after a monopoly platform driven by advertising. Sure, I’m a huge fan of advertising, when it’s done right, and I am certain, over time, it will be part of the solution. But given what’s at stake — the right of our society to an open, fair, and free exchange of ideas — we should all be thankful that at least some leaders in our midst are open to trying something new.