How Medium became LiveJournal for publishers

A spectre is haunting the open-source CMS community—the spectre of Medium.

But seriously: those of us who make our living creating big websites with open-source platforms like WordPress all felt some sense of foreboding recently when Nieman Lab dropped this piece on the experiences of several notable web publishers deploying their sites on Medium. It went into an unusual level of detail about each publisher’s project process, providing an almost prurient (to me, anyway) comparison to the same experience with an open-source platform.

Seemingly, this piece wasn’t just on my mind. A few days after it was published, I was fortunate to be in the audience at the keynote session for WordCamp Europe. Normally, WordPress project founder Matt Mullenweg delivers a spirited homily to the community at this type of WordCamp, but instead, this keynote took the form of a dialogue with Post Status editor Brian Krogsgard.

A few minutes into the discussion, Brian directly asked Matt if he thought Medium posed a threat to the popularity of WordPress in the big media CMS market. After all, he pointed out, one of the sites featured in the Nieman Lab piece — The Awl — was a long-time user of WordPress. Another, The Ringer, is descended from the now-defunct Grantland, a well-known WordPress site, and ought to have been a natural fit for WordPress. Matt bristles a bit at the question and mounts the argument that Medium offered a raft of services to these publishers for free, essentially paying them to use the platform. He cites the customizability and community support inherent to WordPress as the arguments for using it. See for yourself:

Having ruminated on this exchange a little, I’ve decided I’m not worried about Medium. Frankly, I think a technical comparison of the two is rather beside the point. WordPress isn’t perfect. It’s not even that special technically, although you won’t hear the public face of it say that aloud. What is special about WordPress is its unparalleled success as an open standard for content management systems, and this is something Medium can never be.

Medium is publishing as a service. It begins and ends there. WordPress is an open, community standard. The path Medium is walking is well-worn by many predecessors, including contemporary ones like Tumblr, Blogger, and Squarespace, but also reaching back to the primordial days of internet publishing and platforms like Xanga, LiveJournal, and Diaryland. Medium is a great product. It has a great editor, design, and user experience. It’s pulled off the impressive feat of tooling up to support some serious pure-play digital titles like The AwlThe Ringer, and Pacific Standard. But Matt Mullenweg’s point about the cost model does stand. These early adopters got a great deal, but eventually, Medium will need to charge for its services (or maybe it won’t because it will never expand its enterprise offering beyond a few marquee titles).

You may have heard an impassioned moral and ethical apologia for open-source software already, so I won’t repeat it here. However, regardless of whether you buy into that philosophy or not, the argument for an open-source platform is as much economic as philosophical. Open standards are sustainable; they’re interchangeable parts. A plethora of developers could handle your WordPress site, but there’s only one Medium (or Tumblr, or Squarespace, or Diaryand, or …) The price you need to pay to use an open-source platform is defined by the people you hire to work on it and the actual cost of delivering the bits that it outputs to your readers, and that’s all. Those costs are predictable because you control them. Mortgaging your site to a closed-standards vendor gives them, not you, the economic power.

At Alley, we often trot out the refrain that we’re not a WordPress shop; we’re a media shop, and when a better tool comes along, we’ll go there with it. We use WordPress because it’s the best deal for our clients, but that wasn’t always true. Our company’s history began with Drupal and shifted to WordPress when the media industry shifted to WordPress. Drupal faded because its corporate steward, Acquia, placed its own success ahead of bolstering Drupal’s status as a truly open standard. WordPress has reached its current level of ubiquity because its steward, Automattic, has chosen a path that commits much more thoroughly to the open-source ethos.

So, Medium, too, shall pass. Or maybe it won’t; that would be fine. I certainly don’t wish ill on Medium. However, I believe the best value for publishers will always be an open standard, and I’m confident in our ability to win that debate for a long time to come.