They were desperate times online, the mid-2012s. Facebook had cashed in. Twitter was sending app developers into exile. The internet had gone from noisy and irritating to suffocating and scary, at least for the web purists — the platforms were becoming megaplatforms, and they no longer belonged to the people who joined them first.
This was the mind-set that gave birth to the New Internet. It was to be an online Elysium, a safe place for developers and investors and thought leaders, a new home created by the internet elite for the internet elite. It was built from the finest materials on virgin property. Commerce was for the last internet. The new internet was pure and was to remain pure.
There was Svtble, the invite-only, stripped-down, identity-focused blogging platform. There was Medium, the invite-only, stripped-down, post-based blogging platform. There was App.net, a paid, infrastructure-obsessed version of Twitter. There was Branch, the invite-only conversation for people with important things to talk about. The New Internet seemed both opposed to the internet it came from and nostalgic for an even older one: App.net scratched some of the same conceptual itches as RSS; Branch's ethos recalled the golden age of the web forum; in Svbtle and Medium there are certainly shades of the blog platform boom of the early 2000s, when Moveable Type and Wordpress and Drupal and Blogger scrapped for dominance. (This is inheritance, not inspiration: Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, who founded Medium and is an advisor to Branch, co-founded Pyra Labs, which created Blogger. Jason Goldman, also of Blogger and Twitter, became a board member at Branch. Obvious Corporation is at the center of this small galaxy.)
The New Internet is funded by successful figures from the last internet, and backed by an uneasy combination of prestigious investors and the New Internet's own users — the foil to Obvious Corporation's venture capital is crowdfunding. By late 2012, it was fully incorporated. Not open, exactly, but firmly established. The only thing left to do was to wait.
A year and a few months later, here we are. We still live, mostly, on the last internet, but the last internet has changed, perhaps in different ways than its utopian expats thought it would. Mobile, in particular, has reoriented the old guard's priorities, and let entire classes of new apps and services — some of which had no place in any known internet — to flourish. App.net has gone through a series of changes and reinventions but remains, essentially, a parallel social network and app ecosystem for power users. It's currently asking its users if it should support Bitcoin. This week, Svbtle announced that it would open up to the public. (Its founder, Dustin Curtis, opened the announcement: "When I first started working on Svbtle, I was building it out of frustration.") Earlier this month, Branch, which had undergone a number of reinventions of its own, was acquired — mostly acqui-hired — by Facebook for a modest but healthy sum.
Yesterday, Medium, which is by far the most visible service of its group, revealed that it had raised $25 million in funding from some of tech's most pedigreed investors. It would be wrong to say that Medium is the last site standing: Svtble, now open to the public, could grow dramatically or carve out a significant niche; App.net, despite emerging in the significant but now largely forgotten aftermath of a change in Twitter's policies for developers, remains a fascinating experiment. And yet it feels like this vision of the internet's future imagined a different timeline. 2013, online, was defined by louder noise and less exclusivity, by the rise of staggeringly large platforms and coursing backchannels. Content of all types was agglomerated into social feeds of all types, and those feeds began to look the same. Large parts of the internet were remade not as pristine sanctuaries but as intentionally ugly mobile apps.
To the extent that the industry is betting on the New Internet — the parallel internet, the better internet, the rightful internet — it's betting on Medium. Which makes it that much stranger is that we still don't really know what Medium is. The site has changed a lot since its launch, courting writers with extraordinarily high per-word rates, fleshing out its CMS, hiring a former Wired editor-in-chief, and acquiring Kickstarter-funded Matter, a platform for science journalism. It grew as a toolset; at the same time, it published a lot of content. Its users published a lot of content. Some was good and some was bad (credit to Medium's vibrant subculture of tone-deaf entrepreneurs for the latter). A lot of it was just sort of there. The top 100 stories for December resemble a polished, Valley-centric Thought Catalog for adults.
The New Internet services shared an important trait: None had an elevator pitch. At best, they had elevator complaints: Twitter is on the wrong track; blogging platforms are ugly and foster mediocrity; conversation, online, is broken. Medium's has been the most difficult to grasp. It launched into a haze, described as "Pinterest-like" by many of the publications that covered it, largely due to an opaque launch strategy. There's a fantastic update at the bottom of Techcrunch's reveal story, which, like all stories that day, was limited to speculation:
This article was significantly updated after we learned more about the true purpose of Medium
Medium launched and lived for over a year. So where are we now? Alexis Madrigal, in August, took a stab:
Medium is chaotically, arrhythmically produced by a combination of top-notch editors, paid writers, PR flacks, startup bros, and hacks.
Is it the publication for our particular moment?
Williams, given a $25 million opportunity to explain himself again, tried. In an interview with Re/code, he pushed back against the perception that Medium was just a place for long-form features and vanity posts. "We welcome all the so-called 'crap' as well as the longer essays. But Medium isn't just a long-form platform," he said, outlining an editorial structure in which various subject editors cultivate talent and assist in story "development."
It's hard to imagine a typical internet user having the slightest idea what Medium is, which may be the point. Some of my unease about Medium, which is shared among my peers, comes from my perspective: For now, anything I read on Medium is inseparable from the essential weirdness of the fact that the piece is on Medium, instead of on a publication's site, or on a personal site, or on Tumblr. It seems to be positioning itself somewhere in between the feed tier and the publication tier, in an ill-defined and claustrophobically narrow seam. Or is it a gulf? Is situating it between feeds and publishers missing the point? Should Medium be italicized?
A sort of common wisdom has congealed — and Medium has done little to dissolve it — that Medium is like a YouTube for written stories. In 2005, YouTube solved the problem of embeddable, sharable short videos; in 2014, perhaps Medium answers similar, albeit much less urgent questions: Where do you write without starting a blog, without joining a community, without writing a comment, without having access to the media? Where do you just insert your idea into the internet? If you understand the last year of Medium as a proof-of-concept phase, spent building a toolset and creating a very nice way to type words into a box, then it's already been a success. It's an increasingly attractive entry point to the semi-pro internet, a latter day WordPress that both hopes to take over written content and to get credit for it.
If you credit Medium with that level of ambition, and think the internet might reward it, then maybe the dream of the New Internet is still alive and well — at least, for the internet's creative class. How that eventually manifests on the broader internet, to readers, is up in the air. YouTube is popular despite its intimidatingly disarrayed front page. It's so big that it doesn't really have a discernible sensibility, and plans to carve out channels or verticals within the site have been beaten back. YouTube, most of all, benefits from hosting endless diversions. Even if you get lost there, it's hard not have a good time. Nothing about Medium suggests that it wants to be a home to diversions.
In any case, since 2012, Medium's pitch — or rather, its complaint — has gradually been inflected with a vocabulary of "brands" and "storytelling" and "revenue." Medium, in other words, may finally be ready to announce itself to the world. What will it say?