It was one year ago this week when the online publishing world was abuzz with the news that two of Twitter's founders had launched a new platform called Medium, in private beta.
In the early days only a select group of people were allowed behind the scenes to contribute content to Medium. Some details on the platform were made public via an announcement post from Ev Williams, in which he described Medium as "a new place on the Internet where people share ideas and stories that are longer than 140 characters and not just for friends".
In the past year the group of people invited to write has grown, and we are told it "should be a short wait from now" when the platform will be available for all to use.
The main aim of Medium is to be "the best place to read and write about things that matter", and this emphasis on both the writing and reading experience has been reflected in its approach over the past 12 months.
There have also been significant milestones along the way, such as Medium's acquisition of Matter earlier this year, as well as the introduction of new, innovative features which are helping to keep Medium at the cutting-edge of digital publishing – albeit with a few lessons learned along the way.
Medium's head of people operations and product designer Jason Stirman, takes Journalism.co.uk through some of these innovations and shares the thinking behind some of its key strategies, from building a quality writing community to offering collaborative features for writers and readers to benefit from.
Setting a standard from the start
In order to write for Medium, an invite is required. When the platform first launched, this community was kept to a minimum for two key reasons.
The first centred on providing a quality experience, and clear idea to its audience about what it was trying to achieve.
"We wanted to set the brand attributes that Medium is a place where good quality stuff is written, so there's good quality stuff to read," Stirman said.Had we just opened it to the entire world right out the gate people might not understand what Medium's aboutJason Stirman, Medium
"Had we just opened it to the entire world right out the gate people might not understand what Medium's about. They might just think it's a lot of funny pictures or short, meaningless news stories.
"So we started by inviting people in our network, our close friends and family and in our industry, that we knew would write articulate, thoughtful, meaningful things that people would be happy to spend their time consuming."
As well as ensuring a certain level of quality for readers, by keeping the writing community small, it also meant Medium could manage the workload effectively and gave it time to grow alongside its community.
"Any time you build a platform like this – and we've seen this with Twitter which many of us worked on, and some of the people here worked on Blogger before that – if you have a platform that just the world can contribute to, you have to be ready to deal with spam and abuse and copyright and all these things that will be problematic.
"So we're also in the process of growing our team and growing our capabilities technically to deal with those things."
The team has grown significantly in this time, from eight to 10 at the start of the process, to around 40 today.
A 'beautiful writing experience'
While there are a number of blogging platforms online which anyone interested in publishing can use to share content, Medium fills a space "between platform and publication", Stirman explained.
This means that those who write on Medium become part of a publication which is also passionate about creating a great reading experience, as much as a "beautiful writing experience". And the writer is not going at it alone.
When it comes to the writing experience, the focus is on keeping things simple.
"For anyone that's familiar with traditional blogging systems or platforms, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised to see this blank page that looks beautiful," Stirman said. "You start typing and your words sing and your posts look exactly how it will look when you hit publish and share it with the world.For anyone that's familiar with traditional blogging systems or platforms, I think they'll be pleasantly surprised to see this blank page that looks beautifulJason Stirman, Medium
"It's just a beautiful writing experience, very simple, no administrative screens or boxes to fill out or tags to add. Just write, hit publish and you're done." And writers seem to agree, according to these tweets.
When writing a post, authors are faced with a page which only features an insert image logo, directions to insert a headline, an optional standfirst, and then the main post. The only other buttons on the page are to 'delete', 'share draft' or 'publish'.
And Medium has taken an iterative approach to the platform's development, launching in private beta with a "minimum viable product" and making any necessary changes along the way based on feedback and experience.
"We were constantly asking ourselves what can we learn right now," Stirman explained. "How can we learn as quickly as possible that the ideas we have about our product are right or wrong? We experiment a lot, we iterate fast, we fail fast in many cases and we move on."
One specific change, for example, has been the choice of image templates the platform offers to writers, which has now been cut down to just one, having understood that many of its authors just "want a clean place to write".
Collaborative publishing features
In its mission to offer the best experience for both the writer, and the reader, there are a number of ways in which readers can interact with an author and their work, add to the piece in some way, and enjoy the additions of others.
Its commenting facility, for example, lets readers leave 'notes' at the side of a relevant piece of writing. A similar approach has also been taken by Quartz, which unveiled its annotations comment feature earlier this month.
On Medium, notes - which can be applied to paragraphs or even by highlighting a word or sentence - are pre-moderated, and are sent to the author in the form of a private message for them to either approve or not.
As well as establishing a direct communication between reader and writer, the notes feature means the content is then complemented by "meaningful feedback" at the point where it is most relevant, Stirman said.
Another recent addition, which has also served to reflect Medium's mantra that "people make better things together", is Further Reading.
This is found at the end of a post, and offers a space where the writer or a reader can suggest other content on the web which may also be of interest to those who have arrived on the page.
In the same way as with notes, where suggestions are made by those other than the writer, it is up to the author whether or not to approve it.
"It's great to have an idea for a story and put it on Medium and find an audience, it's even better when that audience helps you make your thing better," Stirman said.It's great to have an idea for a story and put it on Medium and find an audience, it's even better when that audience helps you make your thing betterJason Stirman, Medium
"As a writer that's a really great feeling, and it feels great to be part of a thoughtful community that wants my post to be better, and as a reader it's great because if I read something and I like it there's all these other little things I can read and they'll make my reading experience better."
This passion for collaboration at Medium is also facilitated before a post is even published. Writers can allow others to access content while still in draft, and then share their advice with the writer.
"Those could be editors, or people that created art for my piece, or just friends," Stirman explained. "Those people can leave me private notes before I hit publish and share it with the world."
The platform will then automatically refer to those individuals in a thank you at the side of the post, below the byline.
"We're really trying to foster a collaborative spirit in Medium because we really believe that people make better things together and that seems to be true and something we're excited about," Stirman added.
Enhancing the reading experience
As well as the features above, which serve to make content better through collaboration and therefore offer a better experience for writer and reader, there are a number of other features Medium has adopted which also enhance the reading experience.
Each article, for example, is given a reading time, which is published underneath the headline, indicating to the reader how many minutes it will take them to consume it.
Medium also lets content be sorted into Editor's Picks and 'collections'. Collections, for example, enable content to be gathered into groups, perhaps based on a theme or subject which anyone can add to, or a private collection by one or more authors who can effectively have their own publication within the platform.We have a world class design team that literally sweats and stresses over the amount of pixels between the letters and between the linesJason Stirman, Medium
And much effort has also been put into the overall design, which just the like the back-end writing experience, is focused on simplicity.
"We have a world class design team that literally sweats and stresses over the amount of pixels between the letters and between the lines," Stirman said.
"We're proud of letting the content speak for itself and not cluttering up the page with navigation, and ads, and comments, sidebars and tags. All those things that seem to clutter most good content online today. We've stripped all that out."
Working with other innovators
In April Medium announced the acquisition of Matter, a site dedicated to long-form journalism on "science, technology and the future".
Medium said they had been "instantly impressed" with Matter, which took to Kickstarter and was pledged $140,000 in crowdfunding in its 30 day campaign, before launching its site.
"The thing that struck us most was they were just really experimenting," Stirman said. "Having built publishing platforms on the web before, we're pretty familiar with the ins and outs and how we could go about doing that, but there's a lot of things we have never done before.
"We've never really tried to bridge the gap between online platforms and real-life publications and Matter seem to fall in that gap. Also, charging for content is something they were experimenting with. We just really appreciated the fact they were experimenting with that."
Under the new deal some of Matter's content is also published on Medium, but Matter is still operating on its own platform.
"Matter is almost a playground for us because they were already experimenting with all these things so we get to see how those experiments go," Stirman added.
And just this week a new online magazine called Epic, which says it covers "extraordinary real-life stories" announced that its content "will debut on Medium".
While this is not the same arrangement as the Matter partnership, it demonstrates another way in which Medium is working with other innovative digital publishers.
Stirman said "many other existing publications, some new, some old, reach out often to see what we think about the future of this industry and how we can evolve it and make it better for everyone".
Being creative about the business model
When a new online publishing venture is launched, there is usually much interest on the outside about the intended business model. But for Medium, it is lucky enough to be in the position where for now it can focus instead on building up the platform, although it is considering possible business models for the future.
"We're not currently monetising our content on Medium and we're not anxious to do so quite yet," Stirman said. Instead efforts are being driven into product development and growing its network of writers and readers.
But he added that Medium is "really thinking creatively and critically about what our business model might look like".
"We have a lot of creative ideas and I think we will experiment with them, try to do some creative stuff and I think this publishing industry is ripe for some innovation in this regard. I think we're well positioned to be disruptive in a good way and I'm not sure what it's going to look like but right now that's not what we're focused on."
Turning innovation into change
A key aim of Medium, by keeping things simple, is that it will make it easier for anyone to publish their stories, and not just those with the know-how on setting up a blog and building an online community.
It also provides a space for more in-depth storytelling, in a way social media is not designed to do.I think that the publishing world, post-Medium, will look a little bit different than it did before and I think that's a good thing for the worldJason Stirman, Medium
"Because we kind of bridge this gap between platform and publication, people feel good to put their stuff on Medium, it almost feels like being published.
"So we're empowering more people to have their stories told, more people to have their ideas shared with the world and I think that's the most meaningful impact we're having on the publishing space."
Looking ahead, Stirman also hopes that Medium can work to "evolve what publishing content online looks like". And, in time, the business model to support it as well.
"I think that the publishing world, post-Medium, will look a little bit different than it did before and I think that's a good thing for the world."
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