Blogging and Lazy Endism

As ever Adam, who is just so good at blogging, is on the money with his view on it too.  The fact that Andrew Sullivan has stopped writing a blog has led some to catch a nasty dose of lazy endism. But as Adam says, blogging has simply evolved (Medium, Tumblr et al), and so many services now have something of the characteristics of the medium. It's no longer one thing. So he could well be right when he says: 'Blogging is so deeply entwined with the web itself that we don't even really need the word any more'.

It's true. It's not the 'blogosphere' (as we used to call it) of years back, and I lament many bloggers whom I used to love reading but who have fallen by the wayside over the years. But nothing killed blogging because blogging isn't dead. It simply sits amongst its own echoes in the myriad other opportunities we have for digital self-expression and as Adam says'is just part of the language of publishing on the web'.

For what it's worth I'll keep doing what I do here as long as I find it useful and people want to read it. If I'm honest I think I'd struggle without it. It would be like an itch I couldn't scratch. It is by far the best way I know of thinking out loud, of working out what I think about all the stuff I read about. I've met so many amazing people because of it. It has enabled me to start my own business. It has been creds deck, business development tool, and cathartic soapbox in one. And it has (in so many unanticipated ways) brought me so much value over the years.

What Medium Is, What Is Medium?

I've had an invite to write on Medium for a while but have chosen to keep my writing to here for now. But I do think that it's a fascinating platform and, one year after launch, it seems to be continuing to gain momentum. Quite apart from anything else, it's been notable the number of shortlisted entries on Post of the Month over the past few months that have been published on Medium rather than personal blogs.

Medium fascinates for a number of reasons and there's been a few links (that I've recently featured on Fish Food) that talk about how difficult it is to define and different it is not just as a media model, or tool, but as a company.

Alex Madrigal wrote a great Atlantic article asking What is Medium? From the outside, he said, Medium's strategy of creating a beautifully simplified interface, slow release of invitations to participate, paying for and promoting (a small minority of) contributors and contributions, has successfully built the idea that Medium is more than just another blogging platform ('it was a place to be seen'). Yet as a seemingly loose collection of potentially highly shareable posts that have a distinctly wide variability in quality (some extremely good and some really not), where author identity plays a low key role, it defies definition by any conventional model. If it is a whole new kind of magazine or publication what are the boundaries or limits about what it doesn't do? If it is becoming a platform does it need to solve a potentially looming quality question about what gets onto the platform and what gets left out? As Madrigal says:

"Perhaps Medium can continue to do precisely what it has been doing, and their brand value will continue to grow while these major questions remain unresolved. The center will hold because there is no center. In a world when every post stands on its own, atomistically, perhaps it's silly to think a publication can't be incoherent. Maybe a platform can sometimes be a magazine, when it sends out a newsletter of its best content, or when a visitor comes to its home page, but not to an individual story."

So does the fact that Medium is "chaotically, arrhythmically produced by a combination of top-notch editors, paid writers, PR flacks, startup bros, and hacks" mean that it is actually the "publication for our particular moment"?

Anil Dash riffed on Alex Madrigal's article by saying that Medium’s nature "isn’t confusing by accident — it’s confusing by design". Medium, says Dash, is blogging in form, but not in structure. The diminished prominence of author identity and the inability to follow individual writers, the easy flow between related pieces, and the shift away from the reverse chronological format that has defined blogging and its descendants like Facebook news feed and Twitter's timeline means that if it resembles anything it looks most like YouTube.

"Medium matters because it helps to define whether great writing finds a sustainable expression on the web in the post-banner-ad era. Medium matters because it pushes blogging, the native medium of the web, to a new stage of evolution after a decade of relative stagnation...And Medium matters because of what it is: Something that looks really familiar, but is actually quietly something truly new."

And then there was this fascinating interview with Medium employee Jason Stirman talking about their radical approach for building and structuring their organisation based on the principles of Holocracy. Stirman talks about how they're adopting a wholly different operating system for their company based on maximum autonomy (no people managers, distributed decision making, consensus seeking discouraged), organic expansion (rather than trying to squeeze requirements into existing resource), explicit transparency, a real focus on the elimination of tensions. It's a structure "built around the work the company needs to achieve its purpose”, and a hierarchy of 'circles' rather than a hierarchy of people (which reminded me of my research into the benefit of working through small, nimble, agile teams). It feels like a refreshingly different and attractive way of building a company.

Medium seems to have clarity on the vision of what problem they are setting out to solve, and they seem to be taking very different approaches to fulfill that vision. Does it really need to rigidly define exactly what it is from the beginning? Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Medium is that it's kind of making it up as it goes along and maybe that's no bad thing. 

The Best Blog Posts of 2011

Good writing and thinking should be celebrated. It's one of the main motivations behind doing Post Of The Month every month. So a good way to round off the year is with a list of my own favourite blog posts of 2011. In no particular order, here's my top ten:

1. How to Steal Like An Artist And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me by Austin Kleon. An exceptional post by the artist behind Newspaper Blackout. He describes it as "10 simple things I wish I'd Heard When I was in college". So good it's become the basis for a book which is coming out in March.

2. How To Explain An Idea by Mark Pollard. Simple, but fantastically useful advice from Mark.

3. Building A New Agency OS from Mel Exon. Mel's provocative but intelligent polemic that she gave at the third Google Firestarters event in September. Full of good thinking.

4. The Web Is A Customer Service Medium by Paul Ford. How 'Why Wasn't I Consulted?' is the fundamental question of the web.

5. Planning For Participation by Patricia McDonald. An erudite explanation on why "then people can upload their own versions" is the new "let's do a viral", and how we can do better.

6. Do We Really Need Chief Innovation Officers in Ad Agencies? and Ten Things I've Found To Be True About CIO's in Agencies by Ben Malbon. A challenging question, worth reading not just for the posts but for the comments it stirred up.

7. Think SmallThinking SmallWhy Small MattersSmall IdeasHow To Think And Make Small by Gareth Kay. An exceptional series of posts from Gareth expounding his thinking on why small is important, and how "a continuous stream of interations and interactions" can become a "long idea". Smart and insightful.

8. 'Engagement': Fashionable Yet Bankrupt by Martin Weigel. A sharply focused piece railing against lazy thinking in marketing. Martin posted a number of well-articulated posts this year (including another favourite of mine on how we should Stop Fetishising The Insight) but sadly he seems to have stopped blogging. 

9. Check Against Delivery. My Speech to the IAAC by Ben Hammersley, about technologicial change.

10. My ICT Teacher Can't Mark My Homework from Emma MulQueeny, who runs Young Rewired State. A powerful call for change to our national curriculum in order to create more opportunity for our kids to learn how to code.

There were many that could so easily have been amongst the list including Murat's question about whether the next Angry Birds or Instagram could be born within an agency, Igor's smart piece on why W & K are not hiring Creative Technologists, and Noah's short but erudite article on the stock and flow of content strategy. But I had to stop somewhere so there you are. My thanks to all the authors for providing us with such challenging and well articulated thinking this year.

Porous Paywalls


This piece by Felix Salmon is the smartest post on paywalls I've read in a long time. In it, he talks about how the porousness of the NY Times paywall is a feature, not a bug:

"It allows anybody, anywhere, to read any NYT article they like. That makes the NYT open and inviting — and means that I continue to be very happy to link to NYT stories."

The NYT paywall of-course, does not attempt to be an impermeable barrier in the way those of the WSJ or the Times of London do. People who don't subscribe can still read a certain number of articles before the wall comes up. If you arrive via a link shared on Facebook, Twitter or a blog you won't hit a paywall. And as many quickly worked out, there seems to be plenty of none-too-complex ways to work around it.

Salmon compares it to a polite "Keep Off The Grass' notice, rather than a tall fence with razor wire on the top. It is, as Dan Gillmor puts it, more of a 'suggestion wall' than a paywall. Yet the early signs indicate that it appears to be working.

So in this, and in many other ways (as is so often the case with digital models), the NY Times paywall is counterintuitive to traditional media practice. And that's what makes it interesting.

Last year, Jeff Jarvis questioned the 'cockeyed economics of metering reading', and the logic of apparently charging (and, he suggested, sending away) "the readers who are worth the most while serving free those who are worth least". In a similar vein, typical print subscription models reward the most loyal readers with lower cover prices. Those who read the most are the most valuable, so get to pay the least.

Conventional wisdom also tells us that people who get something for free will never pay for it. So if you have something of value, and you want to charge for it, you have to isolate it and protect it at all costs. Build a big wall around it. Make it as impenetrable as possible. Then charge people to come through the gate.

Yet as Salmon points out, it seems that inspite of the ability to gain (albeit) limited free access, and (for many) the ability to work around those limitations, a large enough segment of the population seem to feel that they're getting sufficient value in NYT content that it's only proper to pay. And in being open and still allowing people access the NY Times are maximising the number of people who might feel the same.

At the other end of the scale, The Times of London paywall takes an approach that it is the invconvenience of not being able to read their content that will force you to pay. You might argue that at one level they are succeeding, but it is an unsubtle, closed door policy.

As Jeff Sonderman puts it, motivations such as convenience, duty or appreciation are more compelling than coercion, and this is especially important when talking about intangible goods, like information. He also points out that newspapers (and I would add magazines, and indeed any print publication) have always had a 'leaky payment system'. Industry research has long proven that newspapers (and magazines) have an average of more than one reader per copy.

If I was running a closed operation, my fear would be around not only whether it would work in the short-term, but what my long-term future looked like. How will people who are new to my content find it? What will the experience be like when and if they do find it and can't access it? How am I going to attract new, younger readers if they can't see what I do? How can I continue to be part of the wider debate around the issues that really matter when only a tiny proportion of the people involved in that debate can read my analysis? And when so few of them are likely to link to my analysis because they know others won't be able to read it?

A wholly closed approach removes you from the news content sharing ecosystem, and from the way in which people find content they want to consume on the web. In a recent Pew survey of more than 2,200 Americans, 75% of online news consumers said they get news forwarded through email or posts on social networking sites, and 52% said they share links to news with others via those means. I can't remember the last time I saw a Times Of London link being shared.

The results of these paywall experiments could not be more important for the future of news and of journalism. As Clay Shirky and others have long observed, the economics of ‘analog dollars to digital dimes’ (or the ratio of revenue per reader/user) seems to be not a problem, but a feature of reality. Like him, I believe the future of news is likely to be chaotic, and involve a multiplicity of business models. But like Salmon, it feels to me like the NYT model utilises more of the kind of subtle, human approach that often works best on the web. This Autumn, Shirky returns to teaching undergraduates for the first time in 12 years. I'll leave the last word to him:

"The thing I really want to impress on my students is that the commercial case for news only matters if the profits are used to subsidize reporting the public can see".

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