Last year, after that strategy failed to catch on, Medium laid off a chunk of its staff and turned to a subscription model. Users can now pay $5 per month for access to premium stories, and writers can earn small amounts of money when their stories get positive feedback (known as “claps”) from other users. (Disclosure: Several years ago, I wrote a few freelance stories on Medium, so I periodically get a few cents when someone “claps” for one of my old posts.) The company has also hired human editors in order to elevate substance over fluff.
“That’s a very particular problem that was caused by the economic model of publishing on the internet,” Mr. Williams said. “That’s the problem I’m trying to fix.”
It’s not hard to view Mr. Williams’s Medium project as a kind of antidote to Twitter — an attempt to cultivate a space for thoughtful, well-crafted ideas that rewards depth over immediacy. Medium is not profitable, and it declined to say how many subscribers it has, but Mr. Williams wrote in a post last month that the site gets roughly 80 million monthly visitors, and a company spokeswoman said subscription revenue was growing by 50 percent each quarter.
Mr. Williams wants people to find Medium valuable enough to pay for, but he doesn’t necessarily want it to be the kind of site that people visit 10 times a day. He has become a fan of the work of Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist who has criticized the addictive qualities of popular internet services.
In social media’s early days, Mr. Williams said, “addiction was the goal.”
“Not in the cigarette sense — it wasn’t as cynical,” he added. “It was just a game, like: ‘This is fun. How do we make it more fun and addictive?’”
And as for Twitter, which remains a highly addictive app with millions of compulsive users? Well, Mr. Williams said, the company is working to fix its problems, including weeding out some of the most noxious rule breakers on the service. (The company recently solicited proposals for tools to help it measure “conversational health.”)
But he is not convinced that the problems with social platforms can ever be fully solved, nor does he believe it’s entirely incumbent upon tech companies to solve them. Ultimately, Mr. Williams said, it will be up to users to choose, and stick to, their own information diets.
“There’s a huge buffet,” he said. “If you eat whatever’s put in front of you, you’re not necessarily going to be making the best choices.”