Movers & Shakers
Revolutionizing the Way We Communicate on the Web
Evan Williams , Co-Founder Twitter and Partner at Obvious
We had a full house last Friday when Evan Williams, co-founder and former CEO of Twitter, dropped by our offices to chat about how he's worked to revolutionize the way we communicate on the internet. Our HQ was jam packed with some 150 people and everyone of them was excited to hear more about Ev's latest venture, Medium. The new web publishing is poised to once again change the way we exchange ideas and share our thoughts on the Web.
Not only did Ev give us the inside scoop on Medium, but he also told us the real story about how the term "Blogger" was created. He also dished out some great entrepreneurial advice on how to deal with differing co-founder visions.
Feel free to listen to the podcast as you read through the summary of the event below.
Weblog, Wee Blog, Blogger
Story goes that Ev coined the term blogger just as he was pioneering a new era in blogging. But that's not exactly what happened. The term "blog," of course, was coined by Peter Merholz. Or as Ev tells the story of the blog and blogger:
It was sort of a joke when he said it. Instead of calling them weblogs, we should say "wee blogs." And then I thought blogger would be a good product name and it wasn't really applied to the people who blogged because that wasn't a common term yet. So in a sense, there wasn't a usage of the term blogger, but my definition of it was just a product and then it came to mean the generic word for someone who blogs.
As for being part of a term that's heavily incorporated into our internet vocabulary, Ev had this to say:
It feels like kinda being part of a movement, being at the right place and time so I don't pat myself on the back too often about that.
"There Should Be Medium-sized Blogging"
Ev and his Twitter co-Founder Biz Stone's latest project is Medium, which hopes to change the way we write, publish and read content on the Web. The name actually was born from a joke between Biz and Ev. They were talking about how there was short and long blogging. "There should be medium-sized blogging," they joked. But the name resonated with Ev and he wrote it down on the whiteboard and it eventually stuck.
But the idea for Medium goes back even further for Ev.
I couldn't get out of my head some of the things I'd been thinking about for, literally, over a decade. There are ideas in Blogger that we actually built and prototyped at Blogger around 2000 that I've never seen come to fruition. It's possible that those were bad ideas and that's why. But it was the combination of ideas from way back when and everything we've learned in the last decade.
Ev was also influenced by looking at the technology of today and the current state of media, all of which seemed to be pointing to "that there's a next thing." He said there isn't one specific problem they are trying to solve with Medium, but a bunch of different ones, which makes it an ambitious project. The current release of Medium was pushed in an effort to get something out the door since with a product like this, you have the potential to just sit and iterate on it ... forever.
Raising the Bar on Quality Content
One problem that Ev and Obvious are trying to address is the quality of content. The internet has been wonderful in giving everyone a voice, but there's also been a lowering of the bar when it comes to content creation in some cases, he pointed out. He said everyone having a voice is a "profound thing and generally a good thing." But there's a lot more the internet could be doing to help make people smarter, to help improve the quality of where people put their attention with the deluge of content on the Web, he said.
The goal with Medium is to have a place where quality thrives, not quantity.
My frustration with the state of media today is just the level of discourse in society is hugely affected by media and it seems like it's getting worse and worse.
In other words, it's hard to have quality discourse. Not only is quality important, but also having a place where others can collaborate when it comes to creating that quality content.
Social media, in general, is mostly focused on the individual. How can I be smarter, clever or funny and get attention on my own? But most of the best things in the world — media or otherwise — are always the works of more than one person.
Rather than having just singular author blogs, Medium will have collections on a variety of topics that anyone can contribute to. That will also make it easy for those who want to write but don't want to maintain a full blog to actually contribute material. As Ev said, there will be a seat at the table for anyone who wants to contribute.
Author is relevant. If you're reading an opinion piece, you said it is very relevant. If you're reading a how to, does this person know what they're talking about. All that is super important in context to any type of information, but what we're doing that's different is that not being the only determining factor about what you pay attention to.
However, to raise the bar requires a different of kind of metric outside of the obvious pageviews and unique visits, said Ev. When you pay attention to these types of metrics, it becomes less about creativity but instead focused on the ability to write a sensational headline or throwing in a bunch of links to lure viewers. This doesn't mean they will actually read the content, though. By having readers vote on the quality of content they are presented, it's possible to determine that the material was actually read and not just looked at, explained Ev.
Our goal is to make Medium have the absolute best quality of content in the world about almost anything.
By being collaborative and having that voting mechanism, Medium hopes to do just that. However, Ev doesn't want to set the expectations too high at this point.
"It's Not Hard to Make Money on the Internet"
There can't help but be comparisons of Medium to other products, such as Tumblr or even Quora. When one audience member asked how Medium compares to Quora, Ev said:
Both companies are definitely going to make money. It's not hard to make money on the internet. It's not … if what you build is popular, it will make money. The question is will it be popular. There's no product even in the olden days that was significantly popular and couldn't make money and had to shut down. Today, it's easier than ever. They'll make money once we try, if we get popular — not that we're necessarily going to wait to get popular to make money. There are a lot of ways to do that.
Ev said there are probably more differences than similarities between the products, such as that Medium isn't trying to answer specific questions and that there is much more room for art, prose and critique than with Quora.
When Co-Founders Have Differing Visions
Medium isn't the first time Ev's worked to create a product. There's Twitter, of course, and Blogger. As an entrepreneur and co-founder, Ev has had to deal with the occasional differing visions of his fellow co-founders.
There have definitely been a lot of occasions when we've had differing visions and that's usually a good thing. And when it goes well is when where that turns into a healthy debate.
Of course, Ev's been CEO of all the companies he's co-founded, he joked. Seriously, however, he said he never had a situation where differing visions really were a problem, especially in the beginning of a product because you don't necessarily know what the product is or will be. He spoke about how at first he wasn't as committed to Blogger as his other co-founders were, since it started out as a side project. Then it took off and he eventually came around.
But when Blogger was losing money in 2000, there was talk about moving it more toward the enterprise space.
By that time, I'd come around to Blogger. And I'd really fallen in love with the idea of the vision of democratizing information and really fulfilling that promise of the internet that anyone can have a voice and that anyone can publish.
Ev stuck to his guns, figuring that it was better for the company to die doing the important than rather than making money, which he cited as one of the reasons for the breaking up of the company. "Sometimes you have to go with what you think is right," he said.
The tough thing about being a founder or a leader is making tough calls based on incomplete information. I tried to get better at that over the years. It's really hard when you don't know. It's easier in retrospect.
Our conversation with Ev continued as he spoke about content discovery and traditional media. We'd like to thank Ev for sitting down with us and giving us the scoop on Medium and sharing his insights into what it's like being a co-founder and leader.