Can Medium Be Both a Tech Company and a Media Company?

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Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit - Day 2
Photo: Mike Windle/Getty Images

On Sunday night, the writing platform Medium’s flagship publication, Matter, published a long, heart-wrenching story about the death of writer Zak Stone’s father and the potential culpability of Airbnb. Lengthy, explicit, and decorated with photographs of Stone and his father interspersed with bitterly funny parodies of Airbnb’s website branding (horrible accidents in place of smiling travelers), the article struck a nerve; it was Medium’s “most recommended story” on both Monday and Tuesday. It also drew a comment (or a reply, or whatever Medium’s terminology is) from Medium founder Ev Williams:

This is a super sad story. But on the question of liability and responsibility, I’m wondering for those who assume most/much of it should fall on Airbnb would feel different if the house were rented, through, say VRBO. Or Craigslist? Or a newspaper classified ad? Why or why not?

ps — Those images are a bit much.

As I said on Twitter at the time, :grimace emoji:. Williams has since walked back — or attempted to clarify — his note, in an explanation that’s now the second most-recommended story on Medium. (The first most-recommended is, naturally, “50 Ways Happier, Healthier, And More Successful People Live On Their Own Terms,” posted to “Life Learning.”) Williams’s post is introspective, in the methodical manner of a debugging program:

In retrospect, here’s what I miscalculated:

My tone came off as lacking empathy for Zak Stone, the writer of the original story. He told a tragic, personal story and I’m up in there saying, yeah yeah super sad, BUT… (more or less). My immense sympathies go out to Zak and his family. I didn’t bother to say that, though. I’m generally not the best at judging how other people are going to feel, but here is what I think was the exacerbating factor: I read the story days before I wrote that response. As a result, I wasn’t in the same emotional state as those who read it right before they read my response.

Williams had also updated his original comment to clarify that he meant the original, art-directed “images,” not the family photos, and that by “a bit much” he meant that “they nudge the tone for those who do from something critical of Airbnb but reasonable to something comically anti.”

Coincidentally, Williams’s public struggle to adequately respond to an article sharply critical of his company’s tech-industry peers came at the same time that Medium (not Matter, I don’t think? I can’t tell) was launching a “new conversation series” with a smart and thoughtful essay by Awl editor John Herrman called “Tech Is Eating Media.” Here’s Herrman on the digestion process:

[T]he same media that has told, or assisted in telling, the story of the internet over the last two decades, and the epochal companies that are rising through it, is being absorbed by its subject, which needs it less and less. In some ways, this change has been surprisingly seamless: an industry supported by one set of advertising models is simply finding support from another. But the ways in which this has altered the relationship between the news media and its subject — the remaking of industry, the resultant rise of a new class of industrialists, and the innumerable social, cultural and political consequences of this change — are becoming less subtle. Latent ideologies are manifesting in action. Conflict is overflowing, now, into antagonism.

Tech is eating media, and Ev Williams is burping. As Herrman writes, the two industries are increasingly inseparable from a business perspective but still divided by cultural values. Particularly where reporting and criticism are involved. Look at the reaction of tech luminaries like Dick Costolo and Marc Andreessen to the Wall Street Journal report on blood-test startup Theranos or the New York Times article about Amazon’s workplace. One industry is boosterish and positivist; the other is (supposed to be) critical and oppositional. What happens when they try to go into business together? Something like Williams’s glib and unthinking comment: general discomfort.

Medium wants to straddle the divide between media and tech — to be both a platform (tech) and a publisher (media). This can place it in an awkward position: Institutionally, is it on the closed-ranks side of the “new class of industrialists” of the tech industry, to whom the question of Airbnb’s liability in the deaths of its guests is already settled? Or is it an editorially independent media company with a mandate to ask uncomfortable questions? So far, its defense against the differing interests of its two halves is transparency. This morning, Matter’s editor Mark Lotto weighed in on the entire set of comments: “I can’t think of another publication or platform where an editor and his boss would have this exchange in front of everybody.”

I can, actually — I used to work at one. Would-be tech-media hybrids like Medium, and my former employers at Gawker, tend be enamored of transparency as a value, both because it promotes unfettered discourse and the free movement of information, and because it allows both partners in the uneasy marriage of tech and media to publicly distance themselves from one another.

But it’s not enough. Editorial transparency can be valuable and illuminating but, as is too often the case with tech, lofty ideals tend to blot out the actual relationships of power on the ground. Ev Williams is not just another commenter. When he publicly questions Matter’s editorial decisions, he’s thinking of Medium as a tech company and of himself as just another platform user adding his two cents. But he’s also the guy that signs the checks. His public reactions have real consequences for Medium, if only to the extent that they will shape the kinds of stories pitched to Matter. Who wants to take a risk in a space where your (rich, powerful) publisher’s distaste for your work will be made so public?

In some sense, this is a much lower-stakes version of the issue at the heart of Stone’s piece: How do we assign responsibility in a platform economy? Writing on the internet is an increasingly fraught experience. Important stories — reported investigations and personal essays alike — can leave writers vulnerable to a huge amount of public criticism (not to mention legal liability). The support of an institution is more important than you think. You don’t want to worry about your boss, or your boss’s boss, distancing himself or denying responsibility. I believe Williams when he says that he leaves calls like this up to Lotto, and I believe Lotto when he says that Williams’s response came out of respect and not reproach. But at some point Williams is going to have to settle his indigestion and figure out whether he’s a publisher, or a platform owner.

Is Medium a Tech Company or a Media Company?