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Topic rather than date: a sea change in web publishing?

21 Sep, 12 | by Claire Bower, Digital Comms Manager, @clairebower

Structuring web content by topic or theme is not radically new. Over the past decade, tagging has been the most common method of creating organisation online. ‘Web 2.0’ companies like Delicious and Flickr built their entire businesses around user-generated tagging of content (a.k.a folksonomies) but topic pages never really reached their potential. This is evident in the chronological organisation of academic material and also in three of the biggest online services ; Facebook, Twitter and Blogs.

However, internet savants are predicting a big change in web publishing, which involves a move towards topic organisation. Medium, a new site launched by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, organises its content into pages. Each page is called a “collection” and is structured around a single topic, event or theme. As discussed above, people have consumed content largely on a chronological basis until now. Services like Medium, however, along with the more established Pinterest, are attempting to change that.


So, why will Medium succeed where other ‘organised’ sites have failed? What makes Medium different from Flickr, for example, is that there appear to be set categories for users to put their content into. “Instead of adding a category to a post, you add a post to a category.” Tagging in Flickr or Delicious, on the other hand, is freeform. Users can create a brand new tag and it doesn’t even need to be a proper word. Medium’s form of topic mapping, however, is much more controlled.

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, goes as far to say that topics usurp authorship:

“Topic triumphs over author. Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about. And because of the implicit promise that Medium = quality.”

When you look at Medium, which is still in invitation-only alpha mode (users can see content, but only a small group of invitees can create it), it looks a lot like a mash-up of Pinterest and Tumblr. How prominently contributions appear in collections is dependent on how many people have voted on it. Here are a few of the best collections so far: Been There. Loved That; Look What I Made; The Obvious Collection.

Williams says in his introductory blog post that Medium represents only “a sliver” of what he and his team have learned about publishing and how it needs to be reinvented. As he points out, the idea that anyone could publish their thoughts for free from anywhere and have people read them was seen as revolutionary when Blogger was launched in 1999, but now that ability is presupposed.  Given the founders’ record of launching popular publishing platforms, it will be interesting to see how users respond to this latest venture and the knock-on effects in academic web publishing.

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