A medium without a message is an empty vessel

Evan Williams shared some interesting insights about the things that Medium doesn’t consider important.

It’s a good read. He breaks down some of the metrics that have come to dominate the way people in the digital media industry view success.

tl;dr Being big is not everything.

In the media world revenue is predicated on the existence and actions of customers who value what the medium carries across it. Certainly having more of those people is a good thing, but if none of them value what you offer then failure will be looming around the corner.

How do you measure value? Maybe numbers aren’t the answer.

Despite tons of data points you can get from an app, a web browser and a web server, those technologies aren’t very good at identifying what people care about and how things change when ideas resonate.

Yes, the Internet is very smart about what we are doing, and many digital media companies can work out some things that interest us. And when it can’t identify those things from our direct actions the Internet is getting better at inferring our interests by association, through proxies and relationships.

But digital media companies trade in something more elusive than those things. It’s not Monthly Active Users and Session Duration that matter. Those are indicators of success – symptoms, not drivers.

The good media organizations (the ones I tend to value, anyhow) live and die by the way they catalyze ideas.

Twitter, Facebook and some of the new media players such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy are recognized as winners because they have millions and millions of people using them. They are remarkable, no doubt, but ultimately the metrics qualifying their ‘success’ are weak.

The packaging wrapped around an article or video in whatever form it takes says a lot about the substance itself, and the more our many Internet services repackage and manipulate the way links are shared the more distant we will feel from the meaning behind those articles and videos.

I’m certainly thankful that so many people can inform and influence what I think about. Free speech must protect our right to share things as much as it needs to protect our right to say things.

But the value of the things that are said and therefore the medium carrying those things is not measurable in terms of how successfully they were packaged and delivered alone.

Apple’s white boxes and the unveiling that happens when you open them have a big impact on the way people think about their products, but ultimately it’s the product itself that Apple customers love.

Mat Honan’s Wired article from December is yet another industry amplifier of metric obsession that leads people into very short term thinking. In the end he grounds it all in the knowledge that he and everyone at Wired know very well:

“A good story, well told and suited for its audience, has always been the thing and always will be. But never more than now, when the story has to live on its own.”

The Internet gives us some incredible insights into how media businesses work because it records every action by a customer in a log. Those logs tell fascinating stories, but it’s the soul of the business that enabled those numbers to talk in the first place.