I remember in the 80's when many of us debated the value of BBSes. The acronym stood for “bulletin board systems”, which described the technology in plain terms but didn’t do a good job explaining the magical feel of it. It was hard to explain why it was so different, and in many ways, so much better than anything that came before it.
I remember in the 90's when we were all debating networks like Prodigy, AOL, Compuserve, and Fidonet and tried to figure out what it all meant. Some things were the “real internet” and other things were “walled gardens” but there was something special going on that transcended all the categorizations and debate.
I remember newsgroups and the web and browsers and people using the phrase “high tech” to mean anything that involved a computer. We talked endlessly about what the implications of everything emerging all around us. A lot of people all made the same joke about having trouble finding the onramp to the information superhighway.
I remember being told to buy Netscape stock. I remember the day Yahoo! went public and I started hearing rumors about how the valley was exploding with wealth. I remember breathless articles in Wired about the new economy and NASDAQ 10,000 and watching the market seesaw 800 points in a day. I remember how the pre-millennium tension felt. I remember how exciting it all was.
I remember somewhere in the middle of all of this a company named Pyra made this thing called Blogger. I remember all the original zine authors turned webmasters taking a look, comparing it to the hand-written products we had built out of duct tape, Perl, and chicken wire. I remember a parade of television pundits and most people dismissing blogs as vanity plates for the web.
I remember the crash, and the layoffs, and how within a few years it all felt hopeless. I remember how the internet had failed to prove it could sustain businesses. I remember the feeling that we had lost. I remember Zeldman saying “The independent content producer refuses to die,” and doubting him.
I remember Blogger losing almost its whole staff. Maybe there was five people, maybe three. Maybe it was just down to Ev. I remember a fund-raising campaign to save it. I bought a Cafepress mug and sent a sappy email about how I’d do what I could. I still have the mug; its Powazek-designed logo is almost completely faded away.
I remember that by the time Odeo and Twitter came around, we had already gone through a few more cycles but the internet was very much back. I remember how much we talked about Twitter. It was intriguing but confusing. Why would anyone write a blog post in 140 characters? Did we really need another place to waste time online? Why not just use MySpace?
I remember all the froth and debate, and I remember thinking “there must be something there if people can’t stop talking about it, loving it, hating it, trying to understand it, analyzing it, comparing it to other things, sussing out its business plan, and so on”.
I think I finally understand now. In hindsight it’s clear that none of these inventions were radically different or sci-fi inspired. They were all just new ways for people to read, write, share, and communicate.
So what’s Medium? It’s the next in a long line of ideas that tend to get over-thought and downplayed at the time, but make a whole lot of sense once everyone starts imitating them.
Medium is a place to read and write. Human editors pick the best content instead of letting algorithms do it. This leads to a higher quality experience than on many other sites, so the links get shared a lot. That’s it.
It’s not x-ray vision, and it’s not a personal jetpack, it’s just a modest idea executed very well. And in my experience, those are the things people have the hardest time explaining at first. It may take us a few years to fully understand how simple but unique Medium really is on the internet in 2013.
And one day in the future, after the next good communication idea is announced, people will scratch their heads about that too, unable to understand the new value it brings. They’ll say “I don’t get it. Why not just do this on Medium?”
Same as it ever was.