Over the years our social media attention spans (well, just attention spans really) have become progressively shorter. Let’s face it, a listicle with a decent smattering of gifs and memes is an infinitely more popular read than a long-read opinion article. There was a time in years gone by when long-reads ruled the roost, but this has steadily eroded, thanks in no doubt to the likes of Twitter and Vine.
Yet there is one social media platform that bucks the trend of reaction gifs and how to make pancakes four ways in six seconds. That is Medium. Founded by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in August 2012, Medium is, as they put it, ‘a different kind of place to read and write on the Internet’. The emphasis on the platform appears to be placed on viewpoints and quality of writing rather than frequency. Medium focuses not only on facilitating the creation of quality writing but also on creating a network of likeminded individuals, allowing writers to connect to others, comment and interact. From this they have created what is possibly (if it even is possible), one of the nicest social media platforms on the Internet.
It is used by a number of high profile users from The White House and Hillary Clinton to Amnesty International. With more than 650,000 users there is a huge built-in audience, who are engaged with reading quality content. There are a few key features that I feel that I should pull out here:
Firstly, all posts have estimated reading times. Based on the average reading speed of an adult (about 275 words per minute if you wanted to know) it helps you choose to read a piece that you actually have the time for.
Secondly, there is a large amount of white space leftover on the page around a post. With Medium’s focus being on quality writing and reading experiences, the use of white space makes for a pleasant, uninterrupted read.
Finally, there is the use of highlights in articles. This comes back to the network of likeminded individuals. By allowing readers to share their favourite parts of a piece, it helps to connect the network on a more social level and, as some have noted, could encourage readers to digest entire articles before commenting rather than just the headline.
Whilst this may sound like the social media holy grail – an idyll of idea sharing, knowledge and wisdom, there are clouds on the horizon. The company is now looking at building monetisation into the product, with roll-out predicted over the next month or so. Will this affect its native network of writers and readers? Well, initially probably not. Rather than looking towards the traditional banner ads, the company is looking at ‘sponsored content.’. It is also investigating the hosting of other forms of online content such as, video and podcasts. However, the addition of these extra features begs the question, when you’ve spent time and money creating a ‘nice’ long-form reading/writing platform, why add features that will make it similar to all the other platforms out there? Why not focus on the platforms unique selling point – long reads? To give you context of what I mean when I say long reads Medium have reported that the optimal post is read in seven minutes. I’ll just let that sink in. Seven minutes. In today’s social media terms that is eons. Surely allowing video and podcasts to infiltrate the site will only end up eroding people’s already short attention spans, affecting their desire for a long-read platform? Whilst Medium does already support third party sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, rich media isn’t used with quite the same prevalence as other sites. So, to me the obvious answer is that adding these ‘pro’ features will erode people’s existing desire for long-read articles. It might not happen overnight but without careful management it has the potential to turn from a unique platform into yet another busy blog site.
Though when you consider that the founder and chief executive is Evan Williams (who co-founded not only Twitter but also created Blogger), he might know a thing or two about how to run a platform. Hopefully whatever monetising format they end up choosing, it will support rather than undermine the initial offering. A place to write and read on the Internet, that’s still a little bit friendly.
Photo credit: Aaron Burden