SAN FRANCISCO — Evan Williams is the guy who opened up Pandora’s box. Until he came along, people had few places to go with their overflowing emotions and wild opinions, other than writing a letter to the newspaper or haranguing the neighbors.
Mr. Williams — a Twitter founder, a co-creator of Blogger — set everyone free, providing tools to address the world. In the history of communications technology, it was a development with echoes of Gutenberg.
And so here we are in 2017. How’s it going, Mr. Williams?
“I think the internet is broken,” he says. He has believed this for a few years, actually. But things are getting worse. “And it’s a lot more obvious to a lot of people that it’s broken.”
People are using Facebook to showcase suicides, beatings and murder, in real time. Twitter is a hive of trolling and abuse that it seems unable to stop. Fake news, whether created for ideology or profit, runs rampant. Four out of 10 adult internet users said in a Pew survey that they had been harassed online. And that was before the presidential campaign heated up last year.
“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”
The Silicon Valley entrepreneur first drew notice during the dot-com boom, for developing software that allowed users to easily set up a website for broadcasting their thoughts: blogging. By the time Google bought the company in 2003, more than a million people were using it.
Then came Twitter, which wasn’t his idea but was his company. He remains the largest individual shareholder and a board member.
After fame and fortune come regrets. Mr. Williams is trying to fix some things. So, in different ways, are Google and Facebook, and even Twitter. This is a moment for patches and promises.
The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.
His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”
But a new road may have other problems. It may, for instance, be a dead end.
Mr. Williams isn’t the only one trying to fix this mess, of course. If he and others can’t find a path forward, if they can’t solve what he calls “the architecture of content creation, distribution and monetization on the internet,” there are unsettling implications for the future of news and ideas. Maybe it will be all car crashes, all the time. Twitter already feels like that.
For five years, Mr. Williams has been refining a communications platform called Medium. Its ambition: define a new model for media in a world struggling under the weight of fake or worthless content. Medium is supposed to be social and collaborative without rewarding the smash-ups. It is supposed to be a force for good.
“A beautiful space for reading and writing — and little else,” Mr. Williams called Medium at its public debut in 2012. “The words are central.”
Early chatter was enthusiastic, based on Mr. Williams’s track record and the site’s ease of use. But Medium, which began out of step with nearly all other media, now seems to inhabit a different universe.
At a moment when buzz can appear to be everything, Medium is not afraid to be dull. (“How to Expand Your Vocabulary” was featured on the “Popular on Medium” page.) As news becomes more visually oriented, the site stays focused on words. And it continues to strive for the broadest possible reach, welcoming all sorts of untested writers, though that may be changing.
Medium’s latest incarnation, unveiled in late March, included a $5 monthly subscription for premium writing. The reaction was underwhelming. “Ev Williams Has Lost His Goddamn Mind,” ran the headline in The Next Web, an online publication.
Critics say Medium is less a company than it is Mr. Williams’s 85-employee hobby. “The notion that you’re going to succeed as a writing site simply by putting quality first is not compatible with venture capital revenue expectations,” said Bill Rosenblatt, a media technology consultant. “No one would have funded this if it weren’t by Ev Williams.”
Mr. Williams’s supporters say that it is a feature, not a bug, and that publishing needs all the experiments it can get. But they concede the road will be difficult.
Biz Stone was at Twitter with Mr. Williams from the beginning. He joined his old friend at Medium as both a board member and an investor.
“Ev chose the hardest thing to do,” Mr. Stone says. “He said, ‘I want to make publishing profitable.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, so does everyone else.’ How far along are we? Somewhere between zero and half a percent.”
Farm to Silicon Valley
Mr. Williams is 45, bearded and stick-thin. He looks more like a Beatnik poet, staying up until dawn to debate existentialism, than the son of a Nebraska farmer, which he is. Growing up in a place where he felt new people and new ideas were in short supply, he was starved for someone to talk to. Living in a football-loving culture, and hating what he called “the stereotypical jock mentality, small brains thinking they’re superior because they’re surrounded by big muscles,” did not help, Mr. Williams said.
In 1993, a chance encounter with a new magazine at the mall in Grand Island, Neb., seemed to seal his destiny. It was the second issue of Wired, a publication dedicated to the geek gospel that a new world was dawning. One story was about a retired Army colonel named Dave Hughes who wanted to hook up all 5.5 billion brains on the planet. No farmer’s kid need ever be lonely again.
After a detour or two, Mr. Williams arrived in Silicon Valley. If his vision was clear — get rid of the gatekeepers and let people talk — the road was not. Both Blogger, the software he helped develop for blogging, and Twitter diverged from what their start-ups were actually supposed to be doing, and Twitter in particular involved a lot of well-chronicled drama among the four founders.
Mr. Williams is deliberate to a fault, and his stint as Twitter’s chief executive in 2008 was not a managerial success. “He’s not C.E.O. material,” his former girlfriend and the co-developer of Blogger, Meg Hourihan, said in 2010 when the Twitter board pushed him out.
A few years ago, Twitter was viewed as a tool of liberation. It enabled, some believed, the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. Twitter, like the internet itself, was putting tyranny on a short leash.
Then the narrative turned darker, with the rise of trolling on the platform.
President Trump has said he believes Twitter put him in the White House. Recently, Mr. Williams heard the claim for the first time. He mulled it over for a bit, sitting in his Medium office, which is noteworthy only for not having a desk.
“It’s a very bad thing, Twitter’s role in that,” he said finally. “If it’s true that he wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Twitter, then yeah, I’m sorry.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Williams’s remarks.
In a commencement speech at the University of Nebraska this month, Mr. Williams noted that Silicon Valley has a tendency to see itself as a Prometheus, stealing fire from selfish gatekeeper gods and bestowing it on mere mortals. “What we tend to forget is that Zeus was so pissed at Prometheus that he chained him to a rock so eagles could peck out his guts for eternity,” Mr. Williams told the crowd. “Some would say that’s what we deserve for giving the power of tweets to Donald Trump.”
Mr. Williams’s mistake was expecting the internet to resemble the person he saw in the mirror: serious, high-minded.
“I’ve come to realize Ev is extremely intellectual and introspective,” Mr. Stone says. “If he could wave a magic wand, he’d have everyone write the kind of things he likes, like, ‘Here are suggestions on climate change.’”
It was just another Utopian dream, Mr. Williams says. “The problem is that not everyone is going to be cool, because humans are humans,” he says. “There’s a lock on our office door and our homes at night. The internet was started without the expectation that we’d have to do that online.”
Medium, and Money
Writers want readers and, usually, money. Readers want to be entertained, instructed or outraged. Publishers need revenues and profits. Yet no one has come up with a satisfactory and sustainable way of harnessing the internet to satisfy all these parties without descending into sleaze and clickbait.
“Now that we’ve made sharing information virtually effortless, how do we increase depth of understanding, while also creating a level playing field that encourages ideas that come from anywhere?” Mr. Williams wrote in Medium’s 2012 manifesto.
Money, of course.
In the beginning, Medium had an editorial staff that sought out writers and rewarded them modestly for their contributions, just like a traditional magazine. Abby Norman, then in her early 20s and working for the medical records department of a Maine hospital, was pulled in.
“Medium was a group of writers loping around at a somewhat sedentary pace, and you could get $50 for a bleeding-heart essay and forge relationships with writers and editors,” she says. “They seduced me into this idea, that I had stuff worth saying.”
Ms. Norman wrote 100 Medium pieces in a year, about her brother’s autism, her mother’s bulimia, her own health, and the enduring carnival that is popular culture. Some of them she was even paid for. She gained a following. But as Medium grew more popular with writers, she competed to be heard above the din, and struggled to find people that she herself wanted to read on the site.
“Now being here is work, and it’s not ‘digging for buried treasure’ fun work, either,” she wrote on Medium last September.
Medium was supposed to be developing its business around advertising, which would have paid for writers like Ms. Norman and made the site viable. Then it abruptly pivoted in January and laid off a third of the staff, or about 45 people. Advertising was suddenly no longer the solution but the villain.
“Ad-driven systems can only reward attention,” Mr. Williams says. “They can’t reward the right answer. Consumer-paid systems can. They can reward value. The inevitable solution: People will have to pay for quality content.”
Mr. Williams was late to arrive at this solution. The rest of the media got there long ago.
Subscriptions have become more viable online in the last five years, refuting the long-held notion that no one would pay for writing on the web. Some publications have had significant increases since the election of Mr. Trump.
Medium declined to say how many subscribers it has, saying that its effort is still informal. In any case, it’s not going to be an online magazine. Mr. Williams resists the notion that Medium should be seen as a traditional publisher, commissioning, editing and making stuff available.
He suggested instead the bookstore model. Bookstores don’t commission material, but they curate it and sell it. “Write whatever you want, and we’ll pay you based on certain terms,” Mr. Williams says now. “Does that mean I’m the publisher, or you?”
As Medium struggles to define itself, the older new communications platforms — Google, Facebook, Twitter — are trying to deal with their unexpected toxicity.
Facebook is hiring thousands of screeners to monitor its Facebook Live. Google has announced structural changes to make it easier for human raters to flag low-quality results, so that asking “Did the Holocaust happen,” for instance, no longer brings up a white supremacist site. And Twitter seems to have had fewer reported episodes of harassment recently, which may count as progress.
“I think we will fix these things,” Mr. Williams says. Just don’t hold your breath. The work has barely begun, he says. “Twenty years isn’t very long to change how society works.”
Already a Relic?
James Hong, best known for the popular rating-and-dating site Hot or Not? in the early 2000s, was an angel investor in Medium. He once told Mr. Williams that he had some new ideas about dating sites but feared that if he tackled them, “I’d be working on the same thing my whole entire life.”
Mr. Williams had pondered for a moment and replied, “I’ve been working on the same thing my whole life.”
Mr. Hong said: “It’s not a vanity project, it’s his calling. Other people calling it a vanity project actually tells me more about them than it does about Evan.”
That kind of determination may raise the odds but says little about long-term success. The darkest theory about the failure of Medium to catch on as an influential writing site comes from Cliff Watson, a 46-year-old advertising executive and onetime Medium contributor from Omaha. He thinks it is already a relic of an earlier era, kind of like communicating by carrier pigeon or telegraph.
“Medium feels like the perfect Obama-era platform: minimal, distinguished, self-important, elevated,” Mr. Watson says. “But as soon as the campaigns really ramped up their efforts in the primaries, we were living in a post-Obama world, metaphorically, and then literally. And that post-Obama world holds no room for minimalist, distinguished, self-important, elevated thoughtfulness.”
So what’s a mere writer to do? Mr. Watson says he is now working on a screenplay.
Even some Medium writers are critical of the new subscription effort, fearing they will lose whatever audience they may have had. “Why write for a pittance for your words,” wrote one of them, Keith Parkins, “only to then find no one is reading what you have taken the time and trouble to write, because it resides within a fenced-off ghetto?”
Medium maintains it is doing well by the metrics it cares about. The company says that the number of posts on the site quadrupled in 2016, and that it has 60 million unique monthly readers. After raising $130 million from investors, it had a valuation of $600 million last year.
Yet the path to significant revenue seems as elusive as ever.
Mr. Williams is dismissive of those who say making Medium viable is not merely difficult, but flat-out impossible. “That’s why I’m doing this, and they’re not,” he says.
The site is soliciting writers again. Ms. Norman recently got the call. Since she stopped focusing on Medium, her career has blossomed — she wrote a book on medical treatment of women’s pain, which is coming out next year from Nation Books — even as her health has declined from autoimmune ailments.
“I’ve been trying not to die, frankly,” she says. “I’ve really moved on to other things out of necessity.”
And yet. Medium hasn’t solved the problem of publishing on the internet, but neither has anyone else.
“I’ll pitch them, because I’ve been invested all this time and I’ve hung on and hung on,” she says. “I’d like to see how it all pans out. I’d like to see it through.”