(Please note that this post originally appeared on Medium. Normally the opposite will be true.)
I just rejoined Medium and became a member, and for some irrational reason I feel a need to explain why.
Maybe it’s because I oppose Medium’s very existence as a matter of principle, and any reasonable person would be justified in asking me why I would give five bucks a month to a website whose existence I oppose on philosophical grounds. Here’s the short version.
- If you build it, nobody will come.
- Walled gardens are back.
- I make lousy websites.
I have decided that I must accept reality and go where the people are. Unlike Twitter, Google+, and Facebook, Medium allows me to be a paying customer instead of a product.
If You Build It, Nobody Will Come
The World Wide Web is dead. It’s as dead as Ymir, the primordial giant of Norse mythology. There is nothing we can do to bring it back, because the richest among us would rather build a centralized, corporate-friendly Web from the flesh and bones of the decentralized, democratic Web they murdered.
Ten years ago, you could allow people to post links on your site, or to show a list of links which were driving inbound traffic to your site. Because Google hadn’t yet broadly introduced AdWords and AdSense, links weren’t about generating revenue, they were just a tool for expression or editorializing. The web was an interesting and different place before links got monetized, but by 2007 it was clear that Google had changed the web forever, and for the worse, by corrupting links.
Am I being hyperbolic by saying capital murdered the Web? Maybe, but any Marxist on the Internet could explain in exhaustive detail how capital tends to privatize once-public spaces so it can monetize them. I’m not interested in doing the same here.
Instead, I must consider how to cope with the new Web. It appears that my only options are to adapt or fall silent. I refuse to fall silent, therefore I must adapt.
To what must I adapt? A Web where decentralized, independent platforms are no longer viable unless an author wants to consign themselves to obscurity. It is no longer enough to buy a domain, build a website, and wait for people to show up because they found you on a search engine. This approach no longer works, and griping about it won’t get me anywhere.
Return of the Walled Garden
People don’t surf the Web with only a search engine as their guide any longer. They have long since retreated to walled gardens reminiscent of the ones from which people fled in favor of the open Internet back in the mid-1990s. Back then, people connected over dial-up modem connections to services like Prodigy, CompuServe, and America Online — and they would pay handsomely for the privilege. If they interacted with the open Internet at all, it was with these services as an intermediary.
Nowadays people use corporate-owned centralized social networks as intermediaries between them and the open Internet, and get links to web sites not from search engines, but from friends sharing links. Instead of being paying customers, they’re now the product, their data and attention sold to advertisers. Every like, tweet, and post makes somebody like Mark Zuckerberg richer, and nobody seems to mind that they’re not only working for a guy who could buy entire Third World nations — but that they’re working for free.
The question is, how to reach them. I can’t depend on friends and family to share what I write. First, I don’t have any friends. I don’t have much in the way of family, either. (Don’t feel sorry for me. I’m not lonely. A cat is fine, too.)
Even if I had a large network I could rely on, expecting them to boost my signal is unreasonable because it’s a pain in the ass. To do so, they would have to take the time to go to my website, find a post, read it, and then share it. While I could share links via mailing list, that would require that I persuade people to sign up, and would then require that they get my emails, read them, click the links, and share them.
Monkeys will fly out of my butt before any that happens, for one simple reason.
I Make Lousy Websites
I tried to develop my design sense. I tried to make pretty websites. I tried to make appealing, engaging sites that people will want to visit again and again. I keep failing, and my continued failures discourage me from doing what I’m supposed to be doing: writing.
Why do my make lousy websites? It’s not a technical issue. I can write clean, standards-compliant HTML and CSS. The problem is that my aesthetic sense was shaped by the early Web. My idea of a well-designed website is this motherfucker.
You can read it, but would you want to? Would you want to read one post after another on a blog designed like that? Would you keep coming to such a bare-bones website? Probably not, but while I could force myself to build something more appealing I don’t think it’s worth my time.
Trying to build a fancier website that nobody will visit is just another form of yak shaving (a term I must have picked up from Seth Godin). At the same time, posting all of my content in a walled garden is nothing but digital sharecropping. Is a compromise possible?
Time to Round Up a Posse
The question is, which elsewhere? Twitter is the men’s room wall of the Internet. The 140-character limit is unsuited for long-form writing, and posting too many links is a good way to get suspended. It’s well-suited to short and snappy posts, but while I could serialize a novel 140 characters at a time actually doing so is probably a terrible idea.
That leaves Google+ and Facebook. I posted a lot of stuff on Google+ back in the day (and have the archive to prove it), and even defended the service against people who dismissed it as a “ghost town”. However, Google+ is pretty much a ghost town now, because Google kept trying to eat Facebook’s lunch (and make it a single sign-on and commenting platform for services like YouTube ) instead of recognizing that it had a vibrant, active user base of geeks, artists, and writers who loved Google+ in 2011 because it was everything Facebook wasn’t.
Oh, and Facebook? Have you ever tried writing more than fifty words on Facebook? Let me tell you a little story. I once tried posting an outtake from one of my novels using Facebook’s “Notes” feature because the regular post interface kept eating my post. Afterward, I solved the Lament Configuration.
When they came, their leader said, “We have nothing to offer you that compares to posting on Facebook. Your suffering is already legendary in Hell.”
That leaves Medium. The interface for writing is tolerable, and unlike the other sites I mentioned it gives me the option of being a paying customer and not being subjected to advertising. It allows me to import posts from my website given a URL. If I wanted, I could create a publication and assign it a domain name, or a subdomain.
It will do as a POSSE destination, since publishing here will also automatically share posts on Twitter and Facebook. As for my website: Jekyll with some tweaks to its default theme is probably good enough. My posts will live there, but be available here. I’ll even arrange them into publications and series for your convenience.
Update for 10 September 2017
I changed my mind and nuked my account on Medium. I explained my reasons for doing so to the extent that I am willing to do so in this post.