ONA17

Fireside Chat with Medium CEO Ev Williams

When Medium arrived on the web, it offered a number of intriguing features: a publishing platform that existed somewhere between a tweet and a blog post; a stab at fixing broken feedback systems like internet comments; and a web-based home for thoughtful posts that might otherwise be found in newspaper op-ed pages. Since then, Medium has engineered a more powerful CMS, developed partnerships with major media companies, and continues to test a variety of revenue models aimed at serving both Medium and its publishing partners.

Join founder and CEO Ev Williams – interviewed by WNYC's Manoush Zomorodi – who will discuss making strategic calls in an entrepreneurial environment; the evergreen question of digital revenue; and creating web content that incentivizes thoughtful reading and engaging dialogue in an age of information overload.


Speakers

Ev Williams
Founder & CEO, Medium
Session Transcript

Mandy Jenkins: All right. I hope you've met some new friends, you've learned a lot. You've had a good time. I know some of you did. I saw you at the Newseum last night. It's okay. Nobody tells, nobody tells. As -- as our voice of God said, my name is Mandy Jenkins. I'm the Head of News at Storyful, and I'm the Vice President of the Online News Association, and I'm excited to introduce you to our second keynote conversation of the conference. So when Medium arrived on the web, it offered a number of intriguing features. It was a publishing platform that existed somewhere between a tweet and a blog post, a stab at fixing broken feedback systems like Internet comments and a web-based home for thoughtful post that might have otherwise been found in the newspapers op-ed pages. Since then Medium has engineered a more powerful CMS, develop partnerships with major media companies and continues to test a variety of revenue models aimed at serving both Medium and its publishing partners. Today's keynote conversation features WNYC's Manuosh Zomorodi and Medium CEO and founder Ev Williams. They will discuss entrepreneurship, digital revenue, and community engagement. Manuosh is a podcast host, author and relentless examiner of the modern human condition. As host of Note to Self, the podcast from WNYC Studios, she unpacks the forces shaping our accelerating world and guides listeners through its challenges. Her book, Bored and Brilliant, how spacing out can unlock your most -- your most productive and creative self, which just came out in September, is based on her 2015 interactive project that involved tens of thousands of listeners. It empowers the reader to transform their digital anxiety, which I think we know something about here, into self-knowledge, autonomy, and action. And Medium's CEO, Evan Williams, is an American entrepreneur who has co-founded two of the biggest services on the Internet. You might have heard of them. Blogger, which he ran for four years before selling to Google in 2003, and Twitter, where he was CEO for two years and now serves on his Board of Directors. Please join me in welcoming them to the stage.

Manoush Zomorodi: Hey, everybody. Holy shit. 3,000 people at ONA this year. That's amazing. 50% more than the last time I did an ONA which was just two years ago. That's crazy. So I feel like I want to do a little data research to start...

Ev Williams: All right. Great.

Manoush Zomorodi: ...just so we know what's going on here with our audience. How many of you have ever posted or published something on Medium? Great.

Ev Williams: Awesome.

Manoush Zomorodi: How many -- wow, that's like almost everyone. How many of you, like, okay, the -- read something on Medium. Okay, but key thing, keep your hand up if you are now a subscriber. Okay. So, we're going to test this out next year, right?

Ev Williams: All right.

Manoush Zomorodi: When we come back to see the difference. I can't tell you how thrilled I was when ONA invited me to talk to Ev, because I really feel like you are at the sort of crossroads of everything that I am trying to figure out with my audience, which is how do we rethink the attention economy. How do we make it so that information makes our lives better, improves our communities and makes us actually smarter instead of, sort of, dictating our lives right now, and being a taskmaster as it will . So I've been confronting some of that with my audience. But let's just start. This last year it changes. I even heard someone refer to Medium as Medium 3.0. Tell us what's been going on. What's staying the same, but what is changing.

Ev Williams: Sure. The big thing that we decided at the beginning of this year was that the -- the fundamental model that we needed to fuel and fund content creation needed to change. And let me map that back to why we created media in the first place. We -- five years ago when -- when we started it, we believed a few different things. One is that, obviously, what people -- the information people consume matters, and that -- that feedback loops and incentive structures also matter, and these -- and the incentive structures on the web were increasingly detrimental to the quality of content people -- that was being created and distributed. And our theory was, we could build a platform that -- that aggregated a lot of content and a lot of attention, we could build feedback mechanisms that helped good thoughtful things, reach the right audience, no matter who they were from. And that would be better for creators and consumers. And that's what we've always been aimed at doing. So we started focusing on individuals, mostly who -- who had something to say and with the proposition that that was, we could offer a better platform for most people then creating your blog out there on the web. What I said a lot -- a lot in the first year Medium was, I believe the number of people who have something worthwhile to say and the desire to say it is an order of magnitude greater than those who will be motivated to go create a blog and do that on a regular basis. So let's -- let's create a place that actually taps those -- those minds and those stories and gets them out onto the Internet. And so, it wasn't about professionals. And -- but it was about creating a new platform for that segment. And then, with the idea that we would definitely -- that would help build the critical mass to -- to build a better and better platform for people who are more serious including professionals who need it paid, whether they are established or up and coming. And so, that's what we started focusing on last year and we started working with publishers, professional publishers who, both started on Medium and who were on the web and wanted to move to Medium. And, of course, that's when we really had to look at the -- how that content gets paid for. And our theory was, because we already had brands publishing on the platform as well. And there was quite a bit of money going in it to sponsor content and native advertising, that we can make a -- create some synergy with that vibe, then this all being on the same platform and essentially brands would fund this creation. And that seemed viable, but the more we looked into it the more I was concerned and my leadership team was concerned that it wasn't actually going to end up serving the angle that we wanted to. Because, for two reasons, one is the economics just didn't work. Ultimately, it wasn't as I'm sure everybody in this room knows, it's economically -- the money that would -- it's a form of advertising still and though we thought we had a cleaner user experience and better platform in many ways than than just banner ads, it wasn't going to produce more money than that, at least until it was at a lot greater scale. But ultimately, we felt like, if the money was coming from -- from those who were spending it for marketing purposes, that is the end goal that will be served, period. And so it was just a decision that said, 'Well, whoever's paying for things ultimately is the one the most benefiting from them.' And is there a way to say, if we want to benefit consumers, the end user society more generally. If that's our goal rather than benefiting companies that by marketing, not that there's anything wrong with it, that's just not there. That just wasn't our goal. Then we -- that's who we need to get the money from. Meaning that the individuals, the end users, and -- and then we started saying, well is that really possible. Is that viable? What's that going to look like? And we can convince that it was possible and in fact it was a much more attractive business to build. And so, we made the hard decision at the beginning of this year, end of last year, to just go down that path which.

Manoush Zomorodi: Meaning no ads?

Ev Williams: No ads, no team working -- working with brands. We -- and we really reset how we were pursuing the business model. We hadn't fully built out the other one, so most of the product is the same. Most of the -- most of the team was the same, but we did -- we did scale down the team and we started from scratch, saying, okay, we're going to build a consumer supported platform. The thing makes the most sense is subscription with a paywall. And so we started building that from scratch in -- basically in January or February. We launched the first version in March. It was very very simple and primitive. There was no content behind the paywall when we launched. Thank you for those who subscribe day one, anyway. And since then we've been building that out and -- and you know it's still early days. But..

Manoush Zomorodi: So for those of you who did not, I mean, a few of you who didn't subscribe that day, could you just describe what the experience is like now for someone?

Ev Williams: Sure. So, we're still in a transition. As you probably know people come to Medium and publish for open, for free. That's our main value proposition.

M32: And so we couldn't just throw a paywall over the whole site or even a meter paywall, because that's not the deal we have with those publishing on it. And so a small percentage of Medium content is behind our paywall today. It's a metered paywall. It's a logged in meter paywall...

Manoush Zomorodi: $5 a month, right?

Ev Williams: So, yeah. So up to three articles that are behind the paywall for free if you're logged in $5 a month for access to everything. And so that everything is less than 1% of the total content on Medium, leave in less than 1% of what's been published in the last month an enormous amount of content is published on Medium. So it's a small percentage today, but what we recently did is the mouth that's behind the paywall is growing rather dramatically right now, because we about six weeks ago didn't created an option for people to opt in and publish behind a paywall and then be paid based on the engagement on that content. And so that's where we're opening that up over time. But soon it will be an option for anyone publish on Medium to say to check the boxes. Yes, you know, you can put this behind the paywall and then they can get paid.

Manoush Zomorodi: So. Okay, so there's so many directions I want to go. The first one being that no ads, just subscriptions. I mean, it's kind of like the fantasy business model I think for a lot of us in this room.

F2: But I thought it was really interesting that the editor of the all when the all laughed Medium earlier this year, she wrote that moved Medium was a cool experiment but that she missed the ads. Why would she miss the ads? Was it just because there's no alternative yet? Is that -- she missed the money, is that what it is?

Ev Williams: I can't speak for them. But we did -- we had number of publishers who left because they wanted to pursue an ad model. At the time, we had told them, we would be happy to pursue the subscription strategy with them as publishing partners. And we have a number of publishers. We have hundreds of publishers on Medium today who natively whose main site is there and they some of them are starting to opt in, we're doing deals with them to paywalls some of their stuff and we're writing them checks and that is at the time I think they had made a decision. We couldn't guarantee this any, you know, the same revenue necessarily. But we are working with publishers both who are native to Medium and who are external and we're licensing content from them right now.

Manoush Zomorodi: So, let's dig into how they get paid and how different people, if I was a freelancer how would I get paid or if I'm a publisher whose on Medium how it sort of works. I mean it involves collapse right?

Ev Williams: It involves collapse. So the content behind the Medium paywall right now comes from three sources. One, is what we call the Partner Program, which is you can apply and it's been invite only. But we're opening that up over time and that's where we don't even need to see what you publish.

M2: You can check a box. It's behind a paywall. That's the part that is performance driven and that will -- the collapse mechanism is something we invented recently and that part is somewhat experimental. To be frank what we did is the nature of Medium and really core to the ethos is everybody can participate. And wouldn't it be cool if everyone who had something a great story to tell or a great insight. It's always been our promise and if we do it well even if that person doesn't have other channels or a big social following if they put it in the Medium maybe it will find its audience and is much more likely to than if they put it on a standalone website somewhere. And that's the promise of the network and how much even better would it be if someone who is aspiring to be serious about the writing or the publishing could do that and actually be compensated for it because that's something that even in 2017 is there's not a clear path for that.

M6: 15 years ago when we put, I guess, it was 13 years ago when we sold Blogger to Google. One of the first things, I actually didn't know this was going to happen and when we went there, but within a couple of weeks I said, oh! We have this new thing called AdSense and we had had on the blogs we hosted, we had banner ads that were just network remnant banner ad network that we put on blogs. We didn't share the money with the bloggers. The main source of revenue for blogger before I sold to Google was bloggers who would pay us $12 a year to take the ads off the blog. And so the subscription business. But...

Manoush Zomorodi: It's kind of like a subscription.

Ev Williams: But then Google is like we have this new product. Can we just replace those terrible banners with these nice little text ads and they'll be contextually relevant, and so great there's synergy in this acquisition. And then later we started sharing that money with with the bloggers themselves. So there was an ideas like, oh! You build an audience, you do good stuff then you can actually get paid as an independent creator. But as everyone knows that just wasn't -- it didn't really add up to much and it got worse and worse over time. And so for years they're just that dream basically died. And if you had interesting stories to tell or expertise or knowledge to share on the internet it's great. It's available to do. We've all benefited from people's generosity in doing that. But there wasn't really a path. The path was do that well enough, you get a job somewhere, or maybe you'll get a book deal and that was a success and there was nothing in between.

Manoush Zomorodi: Right.

Ev Williams: And so what I'm excited about now is that we can actually create this in between. It's not going to work for everybody. It will take a lot of work, you have to do really great stuff. But I think we can actually pay people meaningfully because it's not ad based. And we're working very hard to help the good stuff get rewarded.

Manoush Zomorodi: Can you give us an example of somebody on there right now who is really like this is a good fit for them. The way that you are envisioning, the way that they get paid, the type of content that they're creating resonates with the type of people who are going to Medium right now, it's just yeah that.

Ev Williams: Thanks for putting me on the spot.

Manoush Zomorodi: Sorry. We can come back to it.

Ev Williams: Well, let me let me finish what I was saying before, because right now it's the people who are doing the best are people who've been on Medium for a while and who have opted in the program because they've already built a following on Medium. And so I expect that to -- I expect them to still be there. But then a whole new crop of people who are coming in because there's this new opportunity , or people who have casually published on Medium and now are seeing, oh! Here's here's a place where I do more serious work as well. And so I think this will change a lot over time. Right now we're really just proving the system and that's looking very promising. Let me round out what our offering is. That's the big idea that -- this open platform really.

M6: But to complement that we are also doing deals directly with writers and with publishers where we're paying for content, we're exclusive license. We're also doing non-exclusive licenses with publishers in order to where we're curating a few articles a week from the Economist, New York Times, Financial Times, New York Magazine Bloomberg et cetera in order to -- and that's all behind our paywall as well. But sometimes it's on their site for free, sometimes it's not. But it's part of the package you get an ad free personalized environment on Medium. And so the idea is to make it really this phenomenal value proposition for readers and that's where I think -- I'm very optimistic people will pay for content. I think what's going to be hard is when everything has a paywall and subscription. I think it's going to be hard for people to decide what they're paying for and what they're not. So we're trying to create something extremely valuable because it's a bundle of great stuff. And then within that everyone's consuming different segments of it and we're routing the money appropriately for that.

Manoush Zomorodi: So sort of the spotification if you will?

Ev Williams: It's not. Yeah, I mean, there's a very similar, very similar promise, yeah.

Manoush Zomorodi: You and I were talking earlier about like how do you define what a good, quote unquote, "context" is, like so far right now with the attention economy that basically says like if you yell loud enough and you get enough like if you inspire outrage then, and you get clicks that's where the money is, okay. Then that kind of sucks. We've seen that hasn't really worked. Let's take it down a notch. Okay, no it's successful, if somebody read something and it inspires them to the point that they share it. They're engaged to that word that we're just using all the time. That engagement, that's success. Let's we can make money of that and then you and I are talking and you were saying, and I thought this example was really funny. You were like, yeah we have the series about divorce that did really, really well, and I was like, okay, so if my profile on Medium says that I shared a lot of divorce articles and my husband is like, what if with that you know, success can be something that is not shared.

F4: Success can be something that is a very personal thing to the reader or a viewer or listener or whatever it is. How do we get to the point where we are able to--can we--can that even be measured?

Ev Williams: Can that even be measured. Right. And and there's always those examples about something embarrassing or something you don't want to share. But there is even sharing is something older. One of the core ideas we had when we started Medium that was talked about a lot was what drives distribution? What we've created with the Web is the newest on top organi--you know that's basically how we organize things on the Web.

Manoush Zomorodi: Right.

Ev Williams: We newest on top. And then as as velocity has increased then things have shorter and shorter shelf life. And as a as a reader, consumer, its seems obviously that out of all the things you could you could possibly spend time on the chance of the most valuable thing you could read have been been published in the last day or in the last 10 minutes is very slim. So we always wanted to take an approach where we say, time is a factor but relevance is a more important factor. Something can be old and still very relevant. And so we always wanted to design our distribution system, so it wasn't as focused on time as as lots of others.

M6: And but even with that I bring that up as just another element because older things people can really value on but then they feel embarrassed about sharing them.

Manoush Zomorodi: Right.

Ev Williams: So going back to sharing. So there's all of these things that we're sharing is not the right measure of value and it's valuable for that for that outlet of course, is driving more people there. But, so what we're thinking about when we--that we've always been looking at different metrics and for we are big proponents of measuring time spent on articles and because we thought as opposed to page views clearly a how--if people spend you know, five minutes in your reader stats on, meaning you'd probably seen theirs. You don't get time spent but you get read ratio i.e, does someone more or less make to the bottom of the page. There's a few more factors like did they do it you know, not too quickly. But, so we try to reflect meaningful metrics back both to the system to decide which crowd as well as to our creators. And then when we start thinking about this program where we say, okay we need these meaningful metrics and not just to know what deserves attention but to actually give money.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yes.

Ev Williams: Then we decided we didn't quite know. We couldn't measure it based on the data we had, and especially when the incentive would be substantially increased to game the system. And so it's one thing to say length is is its a good proxy for value, it's not value itself, it's really cost. So that's why it's a good proxy. But if we're actually paying it out based on length only then it's very clear that that A, we'd be paying more for long things.

Manoush Zomorodi: Right.

Ev Williams: Long that isn't actually more valuable, conciseness is actually great and things of similar length can be very different values. So it wasn't--and that's even without the game. Once it was gamed then then you have like there would be tricks to keep people on a page longer.

M1: So we thought well, what's the best possible, what version to know if something is valuable and it would be to ask the reader how valuable was that and if they could and if you could do that in a way that was low friction.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yes.

Ev Williams: And a low cognitive load then that would actually be ideal. And what we had was the recommend which is our version of a like that because it was binary. You don't really get those. That's more like you know, good or not.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yes.

Ev Williams: And so what we needed was a variable, a variable like if you will and that's it. That's all of the collapse is. It's a way to say minute or awesome or just lay in the metaphor is obviously, hopefully something people are used to and naturally doing. It's not like a ratings system. It kind of is. But is it like, is this a three star or a four star.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yes.

Ev Williams: We didn't want to have people have to think learn too much. So that was the idea. How can we kind of capture the feeling of appreciation or value that people are feeling for a piece and use that as one of the pieces of data that we're looking at. And does that really capture value as well as being explicit to the subscribers that that is an important signal. So it's really--if you know that you're paying for things and you have an agency as to where what you want to give positive feedback to in really and that translates to money. This is how you do that. And that was an important part of it as well. So that's why we create the collapse. We don't only look at the collapse just to be clear we we are learning over time. We're looking every week when we calculate the payouts. You know, here's all the data we have about it. Do we feel that we have the right measure? I'm sure we'll look at more factors over time. In some ways I think it's kind of like Google search quality where there was one big idea in the beginning which was Page Rank but they learned over time that wasn't the only measure that mattered. And it depends on lots of different things.

Manoush Zomorodi: So I've been on book tour going around the country and the question I consistently been getting at the end of it you know, I have to sort of explaining. Yes, the book is about boredom but it's more about the attention economy and how we reclaim some of our humanity from some of the things that we're reading. And I always get that you know, and hand up at the end well, what can I do? What can I do right now? And one of the first things I say is pay for the stuff that you value that you are reading. That is you know, that you're learning from. And there's a nod, but I don't know how many of these people actually go and do that. How many do you need to go and do that? And are Americans ready to pay for their information? The trust gap is huge. We all sadly see it.

F2: And what does it like 1.8% of The New York Times digital only subscribers of all the people who read it, only 1.8% will actually pay. Are you thinking like no, we're at a moment where this is about to change. People get it. I mean, thank you Donald Trump in some way or is this just like the slow and steady drumbeat that we have to, we have to as publishers make a difference?

Ev Williams: I'm--I'm optimistic. And because a variety of reasons. One is, if you look across basically every category of product or service in the world media as well as non-media, there are higher end products that people pay more money for and they weren't always there.But I mean, take the Starbucks famously made people pay three times as much for coffee. like, this was a commodity product until they came along and said, now pay more money for those. There's a whole category products where where a discerning audience decides, if there's something better available that would they will pay for it. And I don't see any reason why the information people rely on spend enormous amounts of their their time on informs their view of the world their business themselves. It's something that I think people get is valuable and they won't pay if they don't have to pay and they won't pay if there's not a--if it's--if it's not better. But in category after category people pay for high quality, higher quality convenience and selection. And that's that's happened. Television used to be free. Now and now we pay for it and then we pay even more for it for premium channels. And guess what? It got better and better when it was not just the lowest cost way to to capture attention on television which was reality TV and something that would kept your attention while you're flipping through the channels which is not unlike scrolling through a feed. And so what works in the pay television model is is things that actually are so good that you tell your friends about them until and that's what works. And you know, and there for a while the music industry thought no one's going to pay for music again. And then Steve Jobs, will make it a lot easier to pay than to not pay people pay. And it seems obvious to me the same thing is going to happen in this--in this category also because it has to. I mean everyone is going to subscription not because, oh, this is a cool idea. Wouldn't this be fun. There's just it's not sustainable.

M6: What we've been doing for 15 years and it because there's pressure on ad rates, there's more supply and programmatic and other forces are pushing the prices down and everybody knows, if you're selling attention, you're not selling content. You're selling a commodity. Content does not have to be a commodity. It can be differentiated. It can be great. You can be solving different needs, and but, if you're just selling attention that is commodified, because it's automated and Google and Facebook can sell attention better and more cheaply than you can by creating content or. And so you have to sell commodities in high volume. You have to produce it for low cost.But if you're selling a product to people who appreciate it, you can have a high end product and you can sell it to those people and that that works time after time. So the good thing is everybody is reaching the same conclusion during the same time. So there is certainly a consumer retraining that we have to do as well as sort of correct the tragedy of the comments which is if everyone else is giving it away it's harder to pay. But that's why that's partially why I'm optimistic because you know it's going to -- it's going to be less -- less subsidized and there's going be less options to get good stuff for free. But still be stuff for free. But I think the pioneers are learning that it's working in many cases and that's good for everybody.

Manoush Zomorodi: I mean my theory is that like things like yes the good stuff but I also -- I'm seeing it with digital privacy that finally in the last sort of year people are starting to take it seriously like paying for having a VPN even knowing what a VPN is, those sorts of things. And maybe fake news is the way to get people to be like Ahh! like how do I get the good stuff if I have to pay a little bit that would be nice. Do you think that Google and Facebook they recently said that they're going to try and help drive people towards subscriptions for publishers what's your take on that?

Ev Williams: It's hard for me to to analyze exactly what will happen with them but I'm generally optimistic for the same reason. I think the I mean they have so much power they have the power not only to distribute but to lower friction.

Manoush Zomorodi: I think they're just placating us in some way?

Ev Williams: I think -- well, look that the subscription business doesn't really make a difference to their business. But I think they're smart. I think they're -- they're smart and self-preserving and I know from the people that I know in those organizations and I know lots of them. They're there genuinely they genuinely care. They don't want to cause the downfall of society.

Manoush Zomorodi: You know right?

Ev Williams: Yeah. They don't. They don't. But and so you know and they think they're self-preserving is like well if people don't you know Google's and the banner down seriously we care about information and the quality of the web and they've -- they've had a long track record of backing up their concerns. So I think they get that and I'm certain Facebook gets that as well. And if people stop trusting Facebook because they keep clicking on bad things then that's terrible for Facebook. So and they're smart. So whether or not you can be cynical about their you know even if they were completely focused on placating I think it will still -- it's still good that they're -- that they're I don't know how real these solutions will be but I think they're moving in the right direction. And yeah it's all -- it's all going to get people to pay more money for more stuff.

Manoush Zomorodi: Okay. So I've got eight minutes and so we're going to take your questions so please start formulating them there will be microphone's going around. But meanwhile I want to switch a little bit to talk more about where you see yourself as part of this whole discussion. Right. Like there's the whole debate over, no we're a platform. Oh! we're a publisher. What's sort of responsibility is there in terms of you know what you do allow, what content you allow to be on Medium? If there's something inflammatory will you say no this doesn't belong here. What is this dance going on about what role the technologists have in terms of making sure that the information we get is viable?

Ev Williams: Well there's a question there. We always consider ourselves a platform. We've also been a publisher on our platform. I've always argued that those aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. In fact basically every platform of every every kind at scale the creative platform is also an application provider or content provider on the platform. And so any of our publishing efforts and we're still involved in publishing efforts we commission content and sometimes we edit content because we want to -- our customers are paying subscribers and we want to create great stuff for them and we want to see the paywall on the platform with really great stuff. So we will -- we will spend our own money and we'll have a hand in that and we'll also work with partners and we'll also work with individuals and on for the -- for the organic stuff that's showing up. And all these are good because they create a better and better product. And so I don't think from because from the consumer perspective they don't -- we're not a platform like they don't -- they don't really care like really how -- how it gets there I think ultimately it's the great stuff and it is easy to find it. And does it speak to my interests and is it a great experience. That's what that's what we focus on. And I think it can be very you know but -- and there's no scenario in which we can do what we want to do without working with thousands of like there's going to be way more content from people who are not us than them from us. So that's the way I'd think about that. And in terms of responsibility I think that for platform providers in general we do -- we don't take responsibility for everything on our system any more than say Youtube or even like there's probably terrible music on Spotify and.

Manoush Zomorodi: That comparison is APK.

Ev Williams: But what if someone wants to listen to that but if you know if it's a copyright violation or if it's you know I'm sure they have rules just like we have all platforms have rules and different rules make sense for different platforms. We kick content platform up for Medium all the time. Abuse is obviously a thing that you can't do on Spotify probably. But we have strong rules about abuse and we've enforced those pretty consistently and about spam. I think and then we human-curate a lot of stuff. And so we we have it's more about pulling stuff up that we want to be seeing than it is about saying that like filtering out anything that is below a certain bar unless you have fixed rules. We are humans. We are humans and the humans do an important job. And you know we help them with computers and we help them with the other humans who are users of the platform. And but I think an open question for us frankly is and I think this applies to a lot of the big platforms that's a new question is it's easy -- it's pretty clear to have rules around certain types of abusive content whether it's attacking other user on system, attacking groups hate speech etcetera. Not all platforms have the same rules. I think a whole different thing is rules or policies around information quality and that's something that I don't think is it's a lot harder obviously. And I think it's something that we're thinking about but we haven't yet really enforcing anything. But that says for instance if you're purporting something you know opinion is fine but if you are you know claiming something and it's in the tone of news or journalism that it has to follow certain practices or you can't spread conspiracy theories if you have no data to back them up or something like that.

Manoush Zomorodi: Is that way the word has been around that you've been hiring editors, because you know how to do that right, we know just to make sure that the stuff is.

Ev Williams: It's less we are -- we're interested. We've always had an editorial part of Medium that's done various things helping -- helping people come on the platform you know influencers and VIP as well as commission writers. And we have a curation team that is part of that and we're booking that up a little bit both for the curation and to work with both partners who are coming up through the system as well as a top tier writers and publications that we are spending money on now. So yet we're booking up that a little bit but we're not dramatically changing the nature of it.

Manoush Zomorodi: Let me just ask like you've been several iterations of Medium lots of startups like what's your decision making process like are you just ruthlessly every day that's working that's not, good bye, yes. Like what do you do, how do you decide? There's so many choices.

Ev Williams: It's a hard question to answer. It's we're in -- we're playing a long game here. So.

Manoush Zomorodi: So you do, right?

Ev Williams: Thank you. I think I was asked the other day like how many pivots have you done?

Manoush Zomorodi: And then you went all the way in a circle right back where you started?

Ev Williams: And my answer is we've been -- we've been working for five years trying to do the same thing and we're creating a platform that enables the creation and distribution of important stories and ideas. That's always what we've been about. And what we've changed. We did one pivot of the business model that that was a change we said we're not going to do this anymore. And we're going to do this and then everything else is either stayed the same or was an experiment in UI, or in marketing, or something and that is that's about giving the product right. That's make it about making adjustments as you as you are going in on a journey and that's the way I think about about building things. Companies and products is that you have to have your sites out there. But like any journey it's not clear, what stands between you and out there, you can make a guess and let's go that way. It's like oh there's a boulder in our way and like we've got to turn this way and then we get in and it's a combination of of your faith that you're going the right way and intuition and gut and data and research, and all these factors you have to blend and you have to make a lot of calls and you have to be willing to get stuff wrong, which is hard when a lot of people are paying attention. But if we didn't do that then we wouldn't figure anything out.

Manoush Zomorodi: But it sounds like you know I think a lot of us are questioning the motives behind a lot of the tech companies out there. And one of the few people, I think who genuinely wants good to come from the information. Am I giving you too much credit here?

Ev Williams: You're not giving me too much credit, but you might be giving other people too little credit. I think.

Manoush Zomorodi: I am ready for them to come and claim it. I mean

Ev Williams: I mean look I think I'm generally optimistic that in as I've stated. But I think the Silicon Valley platform software builders are still it's still in idealistic bunch. I think it's been -- it's a really exciting time right now, because it's like oh shit this stuff matters maybe at a level that we always hoped it would. But there it's good and bad. And I'm still on the board of Twitter and that's been a huge learning experience over the last 10 years. And I don't think anyone in Silicon Valley says well screw them we're making lots of money and this is awesome. Let's just pretend that we care. It's, so, but there's also I have the luxury of I don't have ad revenue. So I can say screw ads. I think they're ruining the world. So let's not do that. Most people who have ad revenue can't say that. And by the way I make a distinction between the type of ads that are on Twitter, do have ad revenue there. And ad only driven content. And so that's a luxury that I have that maybe is why I'm more vocal about it, but I think a lot of people like most people I talk to agree with me, when I'm in Silicon Valley or in New York.

Manoush Zomorodi: I want to ask you.

Ev Williams: Yeah.

Manoush Zomorodi: Are you advising Twitter as they get ready to go to Capital Hill on November 1st and testify before the Foreign Intelligence Committee?

Ev Williams: There must.. I feel like.

Manoush Zomorodi: Journalists if I didn't asked.

Ev Williams: Yeah I know.

Manoush Zomorodi: They wouldn't buy me a drink.

Ev Williams: I was wondering when the Twitter kind of questions would come.

Manoush Zomorodi: I held off.

Ev Williams: That's good. You also didn't hint in during our preview.

Manoush Zomorodi: I was brought up well 90s Washington correspondent.

Ev Williams: Does the question still out there?

Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah. The question is still.

Ev Williams: Room full of journalists knew I couldn't move on. No. I mean I can't I'm not the best person to advise on that anyway. And as a Board member, I can't really comment on any of that. Sorry. Boring answer.

Manoush Zomorodi: Lets do questions. I think we have a mike. And we have our first question right there. If you have a question please do leave your hand up while somebody is asking because I think we have multiple mike running we will just get back to back to back to back. So we don't waste time. Please go ahead.

Unidentified Speaker: Thank you Manoush. Thank you Evan. Fascinating. Quickly start by questioning your claim that people will stop trusting Facebook. If they click on terrible bad things because for them mean it's not a bad thing. I don't know if you've seen on Facebook wall of certain political figures supporters, but it's bad things for them to reinforcement and variation of their belief in polarized environment leaving its works. And my question is on the video debates in the communities. Are we going to official to written to articles into videos Facebook down to 80% they estimated that constantly the videos. Are you factoring that in videos on Medium?

Manoush Zomorodi: Are you pivoting to video? How many of you are pivoting? No I'm just kidding?

Ev Williams: So our the way we think about that. Our mission is not about text or the written word, but we love the written word. And I think its the most the best form for lots of ideas and stories. Hence we want to be great at that. I think video other than embedding them is not something we're focused on. We did recently incorporate audio natively in the app and with so we have audio versions of a lot of stories. I think that's more of a compliment. Long term we may think about video but not to super focus on it.

Manoush Zomorodi: Great. Next question.

Unidentified Speaker: Yeah. I just wanted to ask a question around how you see platforms for paying content creator such as Kickstarter and Patreon which is starting to push into content creation and how you see yourselves different to those or you see its parallel I think they are quite interesting.

Ev Williams: Sure. I've been a big fan of both Kickstarter and Patreon both I think we're aligned in spirit and what they allow is for people to do really great work. And it's not based on pure getting attention as cheaply as possible. So I think that's great. I think different types of things. They're not mutually exclusive a lot of people in our partner program use Patreon as well. But I think I think we'll just different types of content and creative efforts will thrive on these different platforms. I think lots of models are going to work and since we're very early we can you describe exactly what makes more sense for Medium partner program versus Patreon and Kickstarter but I think we will know more about that soon.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah. Go ahead.

Lauren Bracey Scheidt: Hi. I am Lauren Bracey Scheidt shite from NPR. As I'm hearing a lot about business models here at the conference and we have a large segment of our cohort here who is thinking about how they shift their business models to focus on subscribers for the readers support. So that's one. We have the free model where your personal data gets wrapped up and sold. Who's left to think about the information millions of citizens who can't afford to pay?

Ev Williams: Great question. We thought about that quite a bit. And my theory is there's going to be two things. One is there will be high quality content that is available for free for a long time. I think they'll be less, but lots of non-profit journalism out there that I'm sure there's plenty of people here represent. I think there is recognition that they were funding and to their missions will be supported. I also think metered paywalls are a super awesome thing. They basically allow those who can and are willing to pay to subsidize everybody else. And that seems to be the dominant model that is working for subscriptions. Again, I don't think it works for all if you're publishing low volume very high value material a meter approach may not make sense. But for major outlets, I think most are going to be metered until someone thinks of something better and that is a way basically of letting some people subsidize everything. It maximizes the distribution, while still having a sustainable model.

Un: Well, this does build directly off of that. I'm the News Director of a newspaper for lack of a better term in a community that by old measures we have circulation under 50,000. The micro audience that we're reaching could never support the newsrooms that we've come to know over the years. The number of people needed to meet the needs of that community. It's hyper local news, but it's very it's -- well there was a session earlier today that all news starts at local and we need to maximize that. So this builds off what you're saying to the last question, but do you see any vision of a business model that can sustain the needs of news operating at that level?

Ev Williams: I'm not an expert on the businesses of local news. I think one element that hasn't probably got enough attention is how do we -- how do we make the -- how do we lower those costs while not lowering the quality and and ad-only model doesn't insist on lowering the -- sorry, keeping the quality the same. But I think there are ways to say, how do we how do we tap into a community and do -- and make it a lot more efficient in order to keep people well informed. That's a very hand-wavy literally answer, but that is one thing that comes to mind. I also think that, I think, subscription part of it is, are there not enough people to literally to pay for the cost of that? Or can you not convert enough of them to subscription? And I don't know the answer to that in your case. I think in many cases it will be possible to convert a lot of people if, for example, this is why I'm a proponent of our model and the bundled subscription, because I think it's going to be very hard. So to get someone to opt in for a subscription for a small thing, but if it's part of a bigger thing and a lot of that money from the local people gets routed to you maybe that's more efficient and works. Be happy to talk about whether or not that works.

Manoush Zomorodi: Go ahead.

Unidentified Speaker: Hi, sorry.

Ev Williams: Hi.

Unidentified Speaker: We're guy from Europe here. So my question is basically in two parts. One part is, there's a debate going on in Europe right now about intermediaries doing enough in the hate speech regulation department. And I want your take on that. And the other one is basically related since you're also involved with Twitter. Can you comment on the, I mean, lack of activity of Twitter in this department so hate speech harassment not enough activities in the reporting of and sanctioning the bad stuff that's going on that platform? Thanks.

Ev Williams: I can't really comment too much on Twitter. I would say as a general statement and I've said this as my own personal opinion is that we can do way better on all these systems in regards to hate speech and abuse and anti-social behavior and misinformation embossed and just looking at how a lot of the system has developed. We built them with a lot of optimism that the free flow of information is this wonderful thing. And I think it's important to not forget it is in so many cases and we didn't build them with an expectations of all the downsides of that and the potential for abuse. And so we have a lot of catching up to do. We, as an industry or as technologists and builders of these platforms. And so I don't think anyone would say there's not work to be done. And -- but I also don't think anyone who would say it's totally unclear how to do that work or impossible to do that work. I think there's everyone knows there's work to be done. Everyone knows there's can think of solutions for how to do it and I know there's very serious conversations going on and work being done. I get very a lot of people dedicated to working on that at Twitter and probably everywhere else.

Manoush Zomorodi: We've time for two more. Go ahead.

Unidentified Speaker: How's it going? I'm a developer in a newsroom. So I'm coming at it at different angle here. When I look at current news sites I think it's a criminal under use of the capabilities of a web browser. And in that I'm working on incorporating the interactives and there's been a lot of sessions around that. So I'm wondering if Medium is interested or if that's on the road map of Medium at all to get interactives involved on their web pages. While it would affect the static of the page I think it would positively impact that.

Ev Williams: Yeah. Totally. We've been in this that for a long time. We don't have anything or currently building, but it's definitely in somewhere on the road map.

Manoush Zomorodi: So you're open to it. It doesn't have to be clean.

Ev Williams: We love it. We love love it. Absolutely. I mean we've won of several initial premises when we started Medium, and one of them was why hasn't Digital Publishing evolved in beyond what print can do more in more than just free distribution.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah.

Ev Williams: And there's very few ways it has. There's a column a text, and so that was something we talked about a lot. We've experiment a little bit with our own forms, but it's definitely something we'd like to get back to you and build more power into the systems.

Manoush Zomorodi: You should check out snowfall. Last question, yeah.

Unidentified Speaker: I'd like to get back to the responsibility question. Traditionally, the publisher owned over line types, he owned the trucks for the distribution. He went and sold advertising. He sold subscriptions. He paid his writers, his reporters, you know, for their content, and he made money off the top. I don't understand why you don't think of yourself as a publisher because you control all those things and now you want to pay the journalists for their content. It seems to me that the only reason to pay for content is to know who is responsible.

Ev Williams: I think people will pay for content for a few different reasons, but knowing who's responsible is very important. I agree with that. We tried to make it very clear who is responsible for Medium content. That's why the author is at the top of every single post. That's why if it's within a publication on Medium, the brand of that publication as is above that. And I think people are kind of used to that. If you go to YouTube and you see that it's like who created this and people get or on Twitter is like what's the Avatar beside this. It's not over. This comes from many entities, so Medium is similar. And because it comes from many places. I'm not trying to say we're not a publisher, we are also a publisher on our platform. And in those cases we are -- but I think what a publisher is, is evolving, and there's room for there to be hybrid versions of what a publisher is. I think you can be a publisher and you can now distribute through a platform, and you don't have to own all the distribution and there's probably pros and cons of that. It's not unlike say TV works where you can be a creator of a program and you don't own the cables that go to people's houses or the OTT service that's delivered through. I think that's going to be a very viable model for lots of publishers in the future. But I think in all cases, there's a name attached to the content, and that's where the trust or distrust accrues.

Unidentified Speaker: Why pay ma?

Ev Williams: Why pay me as a a consumer?

Unidentified Speaker: front, if you don't take responsibility?

Ev Williams: We -- people pay us because they get access to a lot of great stuff and it's convenient and speaks to their interests. And we will try to be a trusted source of great stuff. I don't -- I think people are sophisticated enough to know that there are different parties responsible ultimately for what's there. And that's a good value proposition for a lot of people.

Manoush Zomorodi: It's a debate that is going to continue. So I want to thank you Ev for being here to have it with us.

Ev Williams: Thank you.

Manoush Zomorodi: You sticking around or you're running out of here?

Ev Williams: I'm around for a bit.

Manoush Zomorodi: So, okay, he's going to be around for a bit. I will be too, if you want to come and say hi. Thanks for having me ONA.

Ev Williams: Thanks Manoush.

Manoush Zomorodi: Yeah. Nice one. Thank you.

Session Audio
Social Conversation

Related Resources

ONA17

When Satire Is the Most Effective Political Coverage

  • Francesca Fiorentini
  • Matt Negrin
  • Melinda Taub
  • Moderated by Versha Sharma

In a truly unprecedented political climate, both journalists and audiences can feel fatigued from day-to-day news coverage. Satirical news shows like The Daily Show and Full...

Table Talks: Audio, Video, Photo + Immersive

  • Moderated by Julia B. Chan

Consistently ranked among the best experiences of our conference, this series of participatory, inspiring conversations will address challenging topics in your area of expertise....

How Bots are Deepening Relationships with Readers

  • Emily Clark
  • Rebecca Harris
  • Joseph Price
  • Emily Withrow
  • Moderated by Craig McCosker

These are the droids you’re looking for! Chatbots are proliferating at lightning speed, and proving a unique way to grow and engage an audience. Our experts will discuss their...