Of editors and algorithms: Evan Williams on the future of media and Medium’s role in it

Ever since Medium arrived on the scene a little over a year ago, created by former Twitter CEO Evan Williams and his partner Biz Stone at Obvious Corp., there has been much debate about what exactly Medium is — and also what it is trying to become. In a conversation with TechCrunch, Williams made it clear that he thinks something like Medium is the future of online media: a platform similar to a magazine, but one that anyone can write for, where algorithms and editors work together to find the best writing

Over the past few weeks, Medium has come under fire for hosting some controversial content, including a rant about life in San Francisco and a story about a writer whose home was raided by the FBI because of the content of her Google searches – which later turned out not to true. Some critics have complained that the site is nothing more than a dumping ground for every half-baked thought that occurs to someone, and have questioned why this is so when the site has editors like Evan Hansen, formerly of Wired.

Sinker tweet

“People are going to publish crap”

Williams, however, was unapologetic in his TechCrunch interview — saying despite the questionable quality of some of the content that shows up on the site, Medium is worthwhile because it helps to bring good content to light that might otherwise go undiscovered:

“People are going to publish crap on Medium… and guess what? There’s crap on Twitter. There’s crap on blogs. There’s crap on the Internet. And if we try to keep crap off the Internet, the Internet wouldn’t be important. The system’s working if there’s great stuff that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day and/or gets more attention than it would otherwise.”

But if Medium has the same amount of crap on it that Twitter or the internet does, why would readers bother to go there? That’s where the algorithms come in, says Williams — who helped create and sell the Blogger platform to Google before starting what became Twitter. The Medium founder says the service has developed its own filters for surfacing and recommending the best content, which are based in part on looking at which articles a reader spends the most time with.

Hands typing on classic typewriter

In addition to allowing almost anyone to write a post (the site is still in invitation-only mode, but says it will be opening up to the public eventually) editors like Hansen and former literary agent Kate Lee are also commissioning posts and longer-form content from writers – including a joint venture with Epic, which is focused on finding in-depth stories that could potentially become movies or books. Medium doesn’t make it obvious which writers are being paid, however, which some have argued makes it difficult to tell which pieces the site is putting its editorial stamp on and which are just flotsam that happened to wash in through the open door.

“A system where good things can shine”

Ultimately, Williams says he is trying to create a platform that will allow more people to share their views on a broad range of topics — in much the same way that Blogger did — and then Medium will use its algorithms and editors to sort through them and find the good ones:

“It’s also an optimistic stance to say that we can build a system where good things can shine and get attention. And there’s an audience for ideas and stories that appeal to more than just the most base desires of human beings.”

In a sense, Medium seems to be trying to blend the free-content UGC model of the Huffington Post with the old-fashioned magazine style of commissioning work, and combining that with an algorithmic approach similar to the old “content farms” like Demand Media. So there’s a wide swath of undifferentiated free content that comes in one end, and then the algorithms try to sort it out, and meanwhile the editors try to generate higher-quality content that advertisers might theoretically be interested in.

Can the service do all of those things at once? As I argued in a recent post, there is a potential conflict between trying to give readers a curated magazine-style experience and allowing anyone to post anything they want regardless of quality – and that could impact not just readership but any future business model as well. But then since Williams stands to become a billionaire when his former company goes public, he has plenty of time to experiment.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Pinar Ozger and Shutterstock / artjazz