Fifteen minutes into an interview about Medium, Ev Williams is ready to rant.
The 2-year-old writing platform he helped start after cofounding Twitter has had a big year. It grew its audience to around 17 million unique visitors per month — up from 13 million in March, although external metrics are predictably lower than that — and has attracted high-profile submissions from the likes of President Barack Obama and Tesla’s Elon Musk. “Building momentum,” as Williams puts it.
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Where that momentum will take Medium is unclear. When Williams starts what he calls “one of my many rants,” which is delivered as more of a sermon than anything else, it’s triggered by a question that Medium is still in the process of answering: Do enough people outside of professional media care enough about reading and writing to make Medium a serious contender on the Internet as opposed to an also-ran?
“I’m never going to say, ‘How can we get as many users as Instagram and Facebook?'” Williams said
“I’m never going to say, ‘How can we get as many users as Instagram and Facebook?'” Williams said during a recent interview with Mashable. “Breadth and depth are both important. There are a heck of a lot of people in the world; it’s hundreds of millions that care about things enough to occasionally read about them. There’s probably tens of millions that care enough to write about them. Is that going to be the biggest thing on the Internet ever? Probably not. Is it going to be one of the most influential things ever anywhere? Possibly so.”
By this measure, Medium is getting there. In 2014, the site became a destination for notable writers as well as a publisher of original writing through its verticals such as Matter, the in-depth, longform journalism startup that began on Kickstarter. That combination of publisher and open platform has helped attract writers without prompt, such as Mitt Romney and Talib Kweli.
Medium is the most intriguing media startup of 2014 not just for its success, but because it also sits at the center of one of the most important debates of the year. With no shortage of sites boasting growth in visitors, has the way we value media become out of touch with what actually matters? Is “time spent” a more important indicator of a site’s value than how many people click through it?
The idea has its proponents. Facebook cracked down on clickbait, instituting a penalty for sites that could not hold users’ attention. Upworthy, a site that saw fast success with the unique user metric, began touting time on site instead. The Financial Times now sells ads based on how long they are displayed.
In 2014, Medium did as much as any other outlet to push this debate forward.
If you build it…
Williams is, in many ways, Medium’s foundation philosophically, technically and financially.
Twitter, which Williams helped found, underpins Medium’s social networking, allowing new users to instantly find writers they already follow on Twitter. The site also has quite a runway. Williams is worth around $2.6 billion, according to Forbes, and the site raised $25 million in January 2014.
It is already a darling among professional writers. New York Times media reporter David Carr features the site in his journalism class at Boston University. PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy recently lauded the site’s flexibility.
“I’m a fan. It’s a fantastic authoring tool,” said finance writer Felix Salmon, noting that it has become something of a combination notepad, cloud drive and publishing tool for him. “It’s just a great place to write things down and have them available wherever you are.”
Combined with Medium’s in-house content from verticals like Matter, the site has gained a reputation for having quality content. Williams calls it “social proof,” meaning readers have a certain degree of trust in the content thanks to its well-known contributors.