Now I Understand Medium

Like Jon Gruber and many other online media professionals I know, I’ve been puzzled for a while by Medium, which if you navigate over to the site looks like a publication. Except it looks like a publication whose selling point is design—specifically a very nice design that fits the contemporary trend toward things that are “clean” and “flat.”

But they appear to have achieved this elegant design through sleight of hand. There are no ads and no revenue model. But that’s a trick anyone could pull off, until the money ran out. Meanwhile, aside from the design as a publication, Medium seems weird. What kind of publication is it? No kind that I recognize.

Everything changed for me over the weekend when I took the time to write a blog post on Medium. Or to write a Medium? To medium? Verbing is important, and I’m not sure Medium has it down. What they do have down is writing stuff. This is, by far, the best tool for simply writing that I’ve seen. You type, you edit, you format, you toss some images or headers in. It’s really nice. I came away from writing the post wanting to proclaim Medium the greatest CMS (“content management system,” if you’re not in the business) in the world. But that’s actually wrong. The genius of using Medium as a writer is that it isn’t a CMS. It’s a writing tool that has a publish button and a share button. But precisely because it isn’t tasked with a lot of difficult content management problems, it focuses very effectively on being a text editor.

Does this mean that I now see the future for Medium and how it’s going to become a sustainable business that makes its founders rich? No, no, I don’t. And I think it’s relatively clear from Medium’s stabs in different strategic directions that they don’t either.

But as someone who writes a lot of stuff and has used a lot of different writing software, I’m telling you that I was blown away by the quality of the product as a writing tool. There is a lot of talk about What You See Is What You Get writing and editing tools, but Medium delivers on a level that makes previous WYSIWYG tools look like a lie. And by sharply constraining your design options, they essentially make it inevitable that your product will come up pretty well-designed without you needing to think or work too hard on it. One of the fundamental laws of capitalism is that not every great product is a good business, and not every successful business is built on a good product. But this is a really good product. If I didn’t care about getting paid or having a job and just wanted to write something, Medium is the tool I would use. Since my job is to write Slate articles, I’ll probably keep doing that instead. But the fact is that if I had a product this good, I would definitely want to experiment vigorously with getting it out there. I would invest in this product. Sometimes it happens that starting with a great product doesn’t lead to a viable business. But a great product is a great place to start, and once you see Medium from the creator’s side you’ll understand why there’s enthusiasm about this.