The online publishing platform's head of content labs on optimum story length, writing for free, and how to fix the experience of reading and writing on the Internet.
Hansen spoke at the Nieman Foundation this spring in conversation with David Jiménez, a 2015 Nieman Fellow.
I think you start to see some of the seeds of why writing is broken on the Internet. Reading is an experience in which you’re engaging with another mind. The engagement between an author and a reader was getting severed, so at Medium we wanted to reconnect those dots.
The method for doing that, in addition to creating the tools, was to create a network, a place where people engage with each other and not just with documents. It took Facebook and social networks to realize that the real unit of exchange is not documents, it’s people.
People are a better judge of individual pieces of content than algorithms, but when you’re trying to review thousands of pieces of content in real time and make suggestions about what to read, it gets to be a problem. I think ultimately it’s a combination of people plus machines.
We ran some numbers to figure out if there’s an optimal length for writing on Medium in terms of people finishing a story. Our data scientists assured me that seven minutes is the ideal reading time for a post.
Two years ago, when Medium really took off, there was a resurgence of interest in long-form writing. Yet we accept any type of writing as long as it fits our terms of service.
Shorter stuff is great. Long does not always serve the reader better. Very few stories actually rise to the level of needing 10,000 words.
The idea is to publish stuff that is shorter, conversational, and ephemeral without displacing or removing long-form.
Whoa. That's a somewhat disappointing view. Why does any content, short or long, need to be ephemeral?
Whether taking four hours to create a post or four minutes, I would like the content to be something that I could read and find interesting many years later, at least in a historical context.
I'v noticed this when copying my content, dating back to 2001 for my maketoledo.com blog. It has been an interesting experience to relive moments that I had forgotten about either partially or entirely.
This line: "The idea is to publish stuff that is shorter, conversational, and ephemeral ..." sounds more like what would exist on a message board, such as my other site toledotalk.com.
But even at TT, old content dating back to January 2003 still exists. The old links still work. And at times, I reference "old" TT content in new threads. The new version of TT (2007) allows old threads to be bumped back to the top.
Many threads at a message board may have a life expectancy of a few days or a week. It depends upon the subject.
I guess that I'm a little surprised that Medium.com wants ephemeral content. It sounds like Medium.com is trying to be like Twitter or some other social network, at least for the shorter content, while also supporting a traditional blogging experience with longer content.
Attempting to be too many things may dilute the experience.
Back to the story:
Our long-term goal is to build a platform that rewards writers for being there. We want to build revenue-creation tools in a way that, say, YouTube has done for video creators. We want to do that for writers and give people a bigger cut of the pie.
We haven’t considered what our most potent revenue model will be in the long run. We’re a broker between creators and audiences. It could be that we’re connecting professional writers, designers, photographers, and illustrators, and giving them a marketplace where they can connect with customers at scale, so if you’re a photographer maybe you can license your image to hundreds of people for a dollar each.
We don’t want to be competing with writers or publishers. We’re competing with other people who provide tools for publishing on the Internet.
When you post on Medium, you have followers. People recommend your article. We have algorithms that then will progressively show it to more people. The more recommended it gets, the more it pushes up or goes out in an e-mail blast and so on.
The real workhorse of Medium is the network. It’s the other people on it, reading, recommending, interacting. That creates the amplification. It’s by design supposed to be very organic and not a top-down editorially driven process. It’s bottom-up based on readers.
I think this notion that the value of writing is inherently the dollar that’s spent on the word is mistaken. In fact, everyone who has written a book would say that the value of the book isn’t necessarily the revenue they got from selling the book, but it’s all the opportunities they got from the speaking engagements and other things.
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