Medium is well done, but is it the future of publishing?

Obvious Corp., the startup incubator that Evan Williams and Biz Stone put together after they left Twitter, launched an ambitious new effort on Tuesday called Medium — a lightweight publishing platform the company says is part of an attempt to rethink how (and presumably also why) we publish content on the web in an age of what our own Om Malik has called democratized distribution. The two previous offerings from Williams and Stone took aim at a similar goal: Blogger was one of the first blogging platforms, and Twitter was the first network to capitalize on the concept of real-time stream-based publishing, or what some like to call microblogging. Is Medium going to be as revolutionary? That seems unlikely — but it’s still interesting.

Williams says in his introductory blog post that Medium represents only “a sliver” of what he and his team have learned about publishing and how it needs to be reinvented. As he notes, the idea that anyone could publish their thoughts for free from anywhere and have people read them was seen as revolutionary when Blogger first started in 1999, but now that ability is taken for granted. So what comes next? Williams suggests in his post that collaboration and the crowdsourcing of quality content are two of the core principles that Medium is based on. As he puts it:

“Lots of services have successfully lowered the bar for sharing information, but there’s been less progress toward raising the quality of what’s produced. While it’s great that you can be a one-person media company, it’d be even better if there were more ways you could work with others.”

Pinterest-style collections, Digg-style voting

With all due respect, both of those concepts seem somewhat, well, obvious. What else is Pinterest but a collaboration platform that allows users to “pin,” or save, the things they like from around the web (primarily images)? The idea of crowdsourcing quality content through the votes of readers, meanwhile, was behind the rise of Digg and similar communities such as Reddit, and it also fuels much of the viral success of Tumblr. And while the Obvious founders say they want to make it easier for people to publish and share content, you could argue that Tumblr pretty much has a lock on that phenomenon.

There are other offerings based on the themes of curation and instant publishing as well: RebelMouse, which was launched recently by former Huffington Post technology whiz Paul Berry and his team, uses your social-networking activity to create a curated page of content that you can organize however you wish, while the Svbtle network arrived in March as a simplified blog platform with a stripped-down design.

Of course, both of the things Williams is famous for also looked either unnecessary or unimpressive, and in some cases both. Blogger was cool if you were a geek and wanted your own website, but it was far from obvious at the time that self-publishing was going to become something huge or crack open the media industry in a fundamental way. And Twitter looked so ephemeral (not to mention the ridiculous name) that many people dismissed it as a plaything for nerds that would never amount to anything. So as Aaron Levie of noted on Twitter, it doesn’t pay to underestimate Williams when it comes to this kind of thing.

When you look at Medium, which is still to some extent in invitation-only alpha mode (users can see content, but only a small group of invitees can create it), it looks a lot like a mashup of Pinterest and Tumblr. Like Pinterest, it focuses on the creation of collections that are based around certain topics or themes, such as “Been There. Loved That.” The design, which is clean and a lot easier on the eyes than most blogs or websites, works well with large photographs but not so well with submissions that are just text, which can look a little like a bad RSS reader.

Reinventing publishing for a stream-based world

As Josh Benton notes in a thoughtful post at the Nieman Journalism Lab, one of the things the platform does that is unlike both Blogger and Twitter is that it subverts the notion of the author as the most important thing about the content. While that personal aspect of publishing has been one of the core principles behind blogging — and Twitter has popularized the idea of a “personal brand” that journalists and content creators develop by connecting with their fans — Medium is focused more on the value of the content, regardless of who is producing it or voting on it.

Instead of a blog or collection showing whatever is the newest thing — the typical reverse-chronological format used by most blogs and publishing platforms — Medium sorts according to popularity, in much the same way that Digg does (in a similar way, tools like Prismatic sort items based in part on the social activity around that content). Is the combination of a topic focus and a voting system enough to make Medium something magical, in a way that will propel it beyond Pinterest and Tumblr and the growing cohort of other social-web tools and publishing platforms? I would hate to count it out, but I’m just not sure.

There’s no question that publishing needs to be reinvented for the social age, and in their own way services like BuzzFeed and the recently launched Branch (also incubated by Obvious Corp.) are trying to attack different aspects of that. Former Typepad executive and media theorist Anil Dash recently wrote on his blog about how much of the online publishing world is still stuck in the traditional “blog post” mindset, while all around us we are consuming content in streams — whether it’s our Twitter feed, Facebook updates or the curated feeds we get through tools like Flipboard.

Does Medium fit into that social-publishing, stream-based world? I suppose it does, although in some ways it feels like a mashup of all the other tools that are out there rather than something with a compelling feature of its own. It’s true that Twitter took a while to take shape — and even its own creators didn’t really know what they had until users started inventing new ways of using it. So is Medium the future of publishing? That’s hard to say, but it is certainly an interesting piece of an ongoing puzzle.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Rosaura Ochoa