Jun 3, 2015 · 3 minutes

Pando alum Hamish McKenzie argued in 2013 that Medium would have to choose between being a publisher and being a platform. Now, almost two years later, the company is finally making its choice clear.

First there was the introduction of "responses," which allow Medium users to, well, respond to other users' stories. Then a site redesign made it clear that Medium could support short content in addition to meandering blog posts.

And most recently, Medium co-founder Ev Williams' argued that Medium isn't a publishing tool -- which is what the minimalist don't-call-it-a-blogging-tool was originally and most famous for -- and is instead meant to be a social network for writers.

The introduction of those features, combined with Williams' blog post, make it clear that Medium isn't content being a traditional publisher. Rather, after two years of trying to be everything to everyone, it's going to be another social tool.

That point was driven home when Business Insider reported that Medium had consolidated and cut funding to many of its original publications.

Matter, the longform content hub that started out on Kickstarter, is changing. The Nib is reducing its roster of regular contributors. War Is Boring is looking for a new publishing partner. Some publications are being rearranged or axed. Others were merely contract-based sites whose contracts expired and won't be renewed.

The changes don't appear to be linked to poor performance. Matter and Backchannel, the tech-focused publication started by Steven Levy, are said to have done particularly well. Most of the sites are successful, in fact, given their age.

Instead, it just seems like Medium decided that it no longer wants to publish a variety of not-quite-websites, even if they're attracting both talent and visitors. This after the site introduced a variety of features specifically for publications.

Such is the capricious nature of attaching content to a tech company. Or, as some of the company's cheerleaders would put it, the nature of working on a startup that didn't save the media business despite outsiders' most fervent hopes. It's dangerous.

So, is this a sign of things to come?

Just look at Facebook. The company recently convinced several media partners to host their content on its service. Sure, it's offering control over the stories and a sweetheart revenue split, but it's still hosting the content all by itself. It wouldn't take much for the company to introduce its own publications. Why trust the New York Times to produce quality content when you can hire a few journalists -- who are much cheaper than engineers -- to make content for you?

But only an idiot would take this hypothetical deal. Facebook could change its mind about how articles appear on its website, how much it values original content, or how many journalists it wants to employ after one meeting. Suddenly all those newly hired journalists are out of work.

I suspect many people would have the same fears. So why did so many writers and editors trust Medium?

Perhaps the biggest difference was that Medium seemed like it was equally keen on being a platform and a publisher, at least initially.

As Levy explained when he announced his publication on Medium:

When I first thought of creating a lithe, nimble center for meaningful, fun tech writing, I realized that Medium — which has already become somewhat of a magnet for people doing just that, whether the wise contributors to The Message or the luminaries who have found it a great place to publish — was already such a place. I also loved that as a nascent enterprise, Medium’s conventions are not yet set in concrete. In short it’s a perfect place to participate in the grand experiment of Internet-based journalism.
It looks like Levy was right about Medium's conventions not being set in concrete. But I suspect many of the people whose publications are being closed or shuffled would now prefer Medium to have a more stable foundation.

At least Medium has shown this: It doesn't matter if a tech startup promises to focus on content. It doesn't even matter if the content it does publish is good, receiving traffic, and well-respected. That content can disappear in a moment.

[Image credit: Public domain]