A Letter

Robinson Meyer, in a wonderful and wandering post, raises a number of interesting questions about Medium’s recent changes to be more blog-like.

In particular, he notes that Medium’s new design reverses their previous decision to elevate collections over authors. This new bloggy-Medium adopts a pattern now familiar in nearly every other publishing system created in the last decade: author pages with a reverse chron list of work. Meyer writes:

And that means that Medium The Company has abandoned the tenet that differentiated it at launch: that the burden of authorship-over-time is what kept people from writing online.

So a blog is a collection, typically, of one writer’s work. And giving that it lives online instead of in trees, there’s a sense that it needs to be kept alive. It’s like a Tamagotchi that you have to keep feeding. (Younger folks can insert a Farmville metaphor here I think.) Medium posited—fairly, I would add—that most people don’t have the time or inclination to tend to a blog, but would perhaps dash off a post here and there if there were some place nice to put it. And now they’re realizing that while that’s true, it’s also the case that readers are attracted to individual writers, that when we find someone we can connect to, we keep going back. A familiar face is more likely to get our attention than a stranger. The writing world is in no way opposed to celebrity.

But that leaves platform builders with a kind of tricky situation: how do you get the most good writing, while also bringing in the most readers? Elevating collections over authors may rope in authors who would otherwise be deterred; but elevating authors over collections could make it easier for readers to get hooked. This isn’t all that different from the kind of tension that a platform like Etsy deals with: is the Etsy customer the seller of goods or the buyer? Which side do they advocate harder for? Work too hard for the sellers, and buyers may look for a better deal. Push for the buyers exclusively and sellers may decamp.

Etsy landed on the side of the seller, eBay on the buyer. Where should a writing platform land? Why do people read blogs anyway?

It’s tempting to reach back a decade or two and talk about the early blogs: the usually personal, raw writing that we think of when we hear the now archaic “web log.” But I suspect that moment obscures an earlier origin. A “blog post” can also be called an “article” or an “essay,” older terms with which it has much in common. The word “essay” comes from the French essayer, which means to try or attempt. Aruguably the first modern essays were by Montaigne, who remains one of the form’s best practitioners. Montaigne wrote about politics, about eating, about books he’d read. He wrote about his grief for a lost friend. About his recovery from injury. He wrote about his cat. These weren’t carefully researched or edited works—they were trials, proposals, ideas tossed at the wall to see if they stuck. He hedged more often than he concluded. Sarah Bakewell, who wrote an excellent meta-analysis of Montaigne’s essays, notes that nearly every essay he wrote has an implicit “though I don’t know” appended at the end. His essays are very much like early blog posts that way: tentative, friendly, inviting response. If you translated his essays into modern-English, subbing the metro for the occasional reference to travel by horse, you could drop them onto Medium (or Tumblr, or whathaveyou) and they wouldn’t seem out of place.

So what if a “blog” isn’t a thing we invented with the internet, but something that existed long before and just got reseeded in HTML? What if we inherited this notion of an author-driven blog not from the Kottke’s and Gruber’s of the world but from Montaigne. What if this—ow, sorry—medium is something we’ve been fascinated with for hundreds of years, a form we keep reinventing but just can’t quit. And if we accept that, then what does that tell us about Medium or Tumblr or Facebook or Twitter or or or.

This is going to seem like a tangent, but stay with me. To our collective grief, Leonard Nimoy died on Friday. Nimoy directed two of the original Star Trek films: The Search for Spock and The Voyage Home. The movies are bookends: Voyage Home begins right where Search for Spock left off—Spock newly returned from the dead, the crew of the Enterprise about to depart Vulcan in their stolen Klingon battleship, and a presumed court martial awaiting all of them back on Earth. But before they can be tried, a bizarre alien probe aims some kind of electromagnetic message at Earth’s oceans, threatening to destroy the entire planet. Kirk and company travel back in time in search of a few humpback whales who hopefully speak the probe’s language. Over pizza, Kirk charms a whale scientist; when the bill comes she reaches into her purse and says, “Don’t tell me, they don’t use money in the twenty-third century?” to which Kirk replies with a shrug, “No we don’t!”

No we don’t. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future was staunchly anti-capitalist. The members of the United Federation of Planets eschew money, and those species who still find use for it are generally considered more primitive. The assumption being that if humans and their universal neighbors are to make it to the stars, let alone bound around in them causing trouble, they will have to have moved beyond currency first. Dante put the Pope in Lucifer’s mouth; Roddenberry and his successors cast venture capitalists as Ferengi.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that our core discomfort with Medium—with most of online publishing—is we can’t quite see how the money works no matter how hard we squint. And we’re naturally suspicious of the ways that money skews our relationships, with each other and with art. (And art, lowercase-a, is what a lot of writing is, no matter what the investors tell you. It’s what we love in the writing we fall in love with.)

I get both sides here: as a startup CEO, I got a lot of questions about where the money was going to come from. And I’d tell people one-on-one we were going to charge a reasonable fee, that we had no plans for an advertising model, that we’d take care of our early adopters, respect their rights. That so long as I was in charge, we were going to make damn sure we supported the economy of letters rather than extracting from it. But to believe that, you had to first believe me, and then you had to also believe in the system I was operating in, believe it wouldn’t distort whatever values I arrived with. That’s a lot to ask. I can’t blame anyone for doubting.

And yet of course I myself ask the same questions of each new platform or publisher that appears before us—where the money is, how that money will work—that is, how it will move, whose labor supports it, and where will it deposit the profits. Absent clear answers to those questions, I always assume the worst.

Capitalism makes assholes of the best of us.

But to come back to the question of whether or not our platforms should privilege authors over publications or the reverse: well, what if that’s the wrong question? What if what we’re asking about isn’t taxonomy and authorship but money? In other words: let’s stop pretending that the question at hand is about art, and admit it’s economics. Montaigne was wealthy enough to while away the afternoons writing about his cat. So, of course, are many of the people currently writing on Medium (which Meyer brilliantly frames as Tumblr for rich people). But the question of how the writing is organized is entirely subservient to the question of how it generates wealth for the handful of people who stand to benefit.

Put it another way: say we arrived at that Roddenberry-esque future where everyone had a roof over their head, free medical care, and a replicator to deliver gagh at a moment’s notice. That is, imagine a future in which writing and editing needed no financial return in order to sustain it, in which writers’ and readers’ principle concern was (as Medium proposes) the quality of the writing. What would a writing platform look like then? I don’t think it would look like Medium, but then, I don’t know.