Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A Founder of Twitter Goes Long

Mr. Williams is a contemplative 41-year-old Nebraskan turned billionaire, at least on paper, as of Thursday when Twitter went public. If Twitter redefined the frontier of communications, Medium is trying to reclaim some of the lost territory.

Broadly speaking, Medium is a blogging platform, meaning it’s a place for people to write and read posts. And Mr. Williams, as its C.E.O., hopes that it will allow thoughtful, longer-form writing to flourish. Mr. Williams frankly acknowledges that the medium of Medium is not new. In fact, he says he’s reaching back to the once-du jour notion of blogging because, in the frenzy to build social communications tools, something has been left behind: rationality.

“In the early days, I bought into the idea that the Internet would lead to a better world, that the truth was out there and that we didn’t need gatekeepers,” he said. The idea that he and many others embraced was that an unfiltered Internet would create a democratic information utopia. “Now,” he continued, “I think it’s more complicated than that.”

Medium is Mr. Williams’s version of a gatekeeper, albeit one that relies heavily on technology rather than human expertise or taste. While it has some editors soliciting and promoting some content, the bigger idea is to use algorithms to help identify blog posts that readers consider valuable and to bubble them to the surface.

He’s carrying out ideas he toyed with in his first big commercial venture, which was called, simply, Blogger. He sold that to Google a decade ago, begetting his first millions. Now, he is joining the mini-movement to celebrate long-form expression at sites and apps like Longform, Longreads and the Verge. The oddity is that Mr. Williams helped found Twitter, which is to long form what snacks are to dinner: sometimes a prelude, often an appetite killer.

The short-burst culture has eaten away at the very definition of “long form.” Many articles in Medium, for instance, are hundreds of characters longer than a tweet but tens of thousands fewer than something you’d find in, say, The New Yorker.

And some see little evidence that people want to consume anything that takes much time. “I see a diminishing audience for long form of anything,” said James Katz, director of the division of emerging media studies at Boston University. “The riptide of society is heading the other direction.”

For his part, Mr. Williams said he was disturbed by the swelling cacophony of information that makes it easy to be overwhelmed and hard to know what to trust. Good information, he said, can lose out, and, as he described his new mission, “I want to give rationality a fighting chance.”

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Mr. Williams told me over lunch last week, wearing skinny jeans and long-sleeve black T-shirt. “But I’m a more realistic optimist than I used to be.”

He traced the evolution of his thinking by describing an “epiphany that bothered” him this year. In preparing a speech, he revisited his career’s early days. The exercise made him realize that the Internet wasn’t changing the world as he had once idealized, but that, far less romantically, it had come to be little more than a “convenience.”

If this sort of revelation rationalizes Mr. Williams’s new business, he is not alone in believing it. Nor is he the only mogul seeking to use a technology-borne fortune to finance serious journalism. (See: Jeff Bezos buys The Washington Post or Pierre Omidyar finances Glenn Greenwald in an investigative journalism venture.)

But you have to give credit to Mr. Williams for having the courage of his convictions. He’s been doing his own thing since he embraced his inner nerd, rejected the football-obsessed culture of his native Nebraska (becoming a vegan there, he said, “was tough”), and moved west. He can also afford to do what he wants, given that his already considerable net worth has jumped nearly $2.5 billion, owing to his 10.4 percent stake in Twitter.

He’s backing Medium along with two business partners, Biz Stone and Jason Goldman, both formerly of Twitter. Medium, which started in 2012, has around 40 employees and, last month, started letting anyone write for it. A few writers are paid, with their work solicited by a small editing team, but most are not. Much ballyhooed by Medium is software that allows “collaboration” among writers by letting them share posts privately before publication, in pursuit of suggestions or edits. Posts then appear in collections, or channels, like “Adventures in Consumer Technology,” or “Best Thing I Found Online Today.”

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