The Platform Is the Message

There’s no doubt about it: The blogging/writing platform founded by Blogger and Twitter entrepreneur Evan Williams, Medium, is beautiful. Lots of great writers like the late great David Carr used it and wrote about it:

Because it is such a pleasure to work with, Medium has become something of a fetish object for writers. In the last year, Medium has published the biographer Walter Isaacson, the author Emily Gould, the journalist Ben Smith, the entrepreneur Elon Musk and many, many others.

The focus on typography, on the reading experience, is unparalleled in the online publishing space.

Not that I’ve done much research to the alternatives: I prefer to go at it my own. I want to own the experience, and I’ve been doing that in some incarnation or the other since 2001, with my first blog that I cobbled together using Dreamweaver MX, back before it was Adobe Dreamweaver. (Now we’re using a self-hosted incarnation of WordPress, thank you very much.)

My reasons for doing so are equal parts stubbornness, curiosity, and mistrust of others. I think it’s fun to experiment with new storytelling media. And I’m really picky… so being in control of everything is the only thing I’ll accept.

What if I had invested my time and resources into a writing platform that went bankrupt? What if they decided to sell ads next to my work without compensating me?

And we’re back to Medium and this fantastic piece about the platform that was published on a non-publishing-platform website by Matthew Butterick.

[...] Medium pays for only a small frac­tion of its sto­ries. The rest are sub­mit­ted—for free—by writ­ers like you. Af­ter a long time be­ing elu­sive about its busi­ness model, Medium re­vealed that it plans to make money by—sur­prise!—sell­ing ad­ver­tis­ing. This means dis­play­ing ads, but also col­lect­ing and sell­ing data about read­ers and writ­ers. So Medium will ex­tract rev­enue from every story, whether it paid for that story or not. (By the way, will that rev­enue be shared with writ­ers? Um, no.)

So there you go. My stubbornness/curiosity/mistrust of others seems well-advised after all.

Especially when you put it this way:

In truth, Medium’s main prod­uct is not a pub­lish­ing plat­form, but the pro­mo­tion of a pub­lish­ing plat­form. This pro­mo­tion brings read­ers and writ­ers onto the site. This, in turn, gen­er­ates the us­age data that’s valuable to advertisers. Boiled down, Medium is sim­ply mar­ket­ing in the ser­vice of more mar­ket­ing. It is not a “place for ideas.” It is a place for advertisers. It is, there­fore, ut­terly superfluous.

Read the full piece here: The Billionaire’s Typewriter.

Full disclosure: I have a Medium account but haven’t found a use for it yet.

Via {daring fireball}.

Etsy’s Growth Problem

It’s tough to be an ambitious crafter.

When I started my bicycle apparel company, BMINUS, back in 2004, I was determined to do everything by myself. What sounded romantic to me on paper quickly became annoying. Finding a place for all those tee-shirts to dry, drying them by hand with an iron, taping up the envelopes, running to the post office, keeping track of the money, figuring out a marketing plan, re-listing stuff on Etsy… It was exciting and I learned a lot. But if I quickly realized the limits of my 1-man show.

BMINUS was never going to be a big thing. I just didn’t have the time, energy, dedication, or business acumen. But if I wanted to grow the business, I could see how I’d need to outsource some steps in the process. Maybe get the tees made by someone else. That would satiate my ambition, but would it still be a DIY/handmade business?

A recent article, Etsy’s Success Gives Rise to Problems of Credibility and Scale {nyt} explores this conundrum handily:

But as stores took off, sellers started to complain that one person could not possibly keep up with the flood of orders. The logical next step, they said, would be to take on investment and hire employees, or outsource the manufacturing, but doing so would run afoul of Etsy’s rules.

Still, Etsy stuck to its ban [...] until late 2013, when, under its new chief executive, Chad Dickerson, the site relaxed those standards. The change allowed sellers to hire workers or outsource the production to small-scale manufacturers that met a set of labor and ecological criteria. Almost 30 percent of sellers on Etsy took part in support groups in 2014, according to Etsy’s I.P.O. prospectus, and there are already over 5,000 instances of Etsy sellers outsourcing their manufacturing. The company said 6 percent hired paid help in 2013, the most recent year that statistic was available.

Read the article then check out posts about BMINUS on this blog.

Kroll’s Walk in the Park

Great piece {buzzfeed} about one of my favorite comedians, NICK KROLL.

Kroll says his goal for the show “was to make stuff that’s funny to us, that would help me work down the line with people I respect: Seth Rogen, or Craig Robinson, or Bill Burr — I want Bill Burr to think I’m funny.” According to editor and director Daniel Gray, they aimed for a mix of “the lowest of the lowbrow — just complete garbage,” and “the complete highbrow.” Watching the show is like channel-surfing, but also a commentary on that experience. It’s dizzying and hilarious and incites a sort of semi-nauseous glee.

The Pawnsylvania sketches are my favorite—and not just because they speak to my Philly/Philadelphia roots.

Rethinking Censorship

I’ve long been intrigued by the issue of censorship in China. I think it’s an issue that’s often over simplified here in the states. We tend to think of Chinese censorship as a blanket redaction of certain so-called heretical thoughts, when in fact there’s much more nuance to examine. But there was research published in 2013 that indicated that Chinese censors crack down on calls to assemble and protest more than incendiary words against the government.

I also find some merit to the argument that since the Chinese know the materials they ingest are censored, they evaluate information with a more critical eye than even those members of a free society do. It’s also widely known that there are various clever ways around the restrictions.

This recent New Yorker article, Travels with My Censor is a thoughtful and personal account of an American author whose work is available for purchase in mainland China. The author, Peter Hessler, went on a week-long book tour with the man who censors his work for publication in that country.

The following excerpt is especially illuminating:

[...] Western commentary about censorship often turns inward, portraying limitations in other countries in a way that celebrates our own values. One of the most striking qualities of foreign portrayals of censorship in China is the apparent lack of interest in Chinese readers and editors. Two of the most prominent recent feature stories about the censorship of foreign books—long pieces in the Times and in the South China Morning Post—fail to include a single comment by a reader in China. Neither quotes a Chinese editor by name. The articles have not been censored, of course, but nevertheless each has a gaping hole at its center. As long as Chinese readers remain unknown, and editors appear shadowy and symbolic, it’s difficult to understand them or to feel much sympathy.

In the West, there’s a tendency to approach censorship with a high-handedness that would seem inappropriate if applied to other issues of development, like poverty. There may in fact be more similarities than we realize. The drive for improved access to information, which includes education, contact with new ideas, and freedom of expression, is at least as complex as everything that it takes to improve living standards. A term like “self-censorship,” which is a favorite in the West, puts the blame on individuals in ways that may not be right. There’s no economic equivalent—we don’t have a neat two-word phrase that describes the things that poor people supposedly do to perpetuate their own poverty.

I realize that I lack the first-hand experience to speak on this issue with any authority, much like the aforementioned writers for the Times and South China Morning Post. But I can at least point out our contradictory credos and gross over simplification on the topics of free speech and censorship in China.