Medium Co-Founder Evan Williams on the Future of Social Publishing

For Blogger and Twitter Co-Founder Evan Williams, his latest venture Medium could be considered the culmination of a career seeking the ideal social publishing platform. But it's probably not, or at least not quite yet. Williams spoke with Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson as part of the McCloskey Speaker Series in Aspen, CO, telling the story of his rise from Midwest farm boy to one of the most influential players of the Internet age. 

Growing up outside of Clarks, Nebraska, (population: 372), Williams was more into books and magazines than other local kids, realizing that by reading he could "tap into the brains of people and learn in hours what they learned in years." His true ticket to the outside world came through a mandatory computer programming class he took in high school.

"It blew my mind," he said, adding that he ended up teaching half the class. "I would program in the computer room when the school was shut down, the lights were off, the doors were locked, and I thought, this is what I want to do."

Williams didn't actually program professionally until several years later, when he co-founded a company called Pyra Labs in 1999. His three-person team was working on an online collaboration project when Williams came up with the idea for Blogger.com, a user-friendly blogging platform for people who didn't know how to code. Williams lost his team amid the dotcom crash of 2000, but continued to work on Blogger solo, and in 2003, he sold the company to Google and went to work for them as head of the Blogger group.

Less than two years later, Williams left Google to work on what would become Twitter, making yet another transition between publishing and social collaboration.

"The big thing that I didn't understand when I did Blogger was that the power of the Internet is really about the network, the interaction, the back and forth," he said. "Blogger was really a tool to build websites. I was always attracted to the idea that anybody could put their thoughts out there and somehow, the good stuff would be found. And at the very beginning of the Internet it was about community, but then it became a publishing medium. That was powerful, but it overlooked something more important and more powerful."

So the founders of Twitter set about to explore the community aspect of the Internet. At that time in 2006, Williams explained, text messaging was just starting to catch on in the United States, but with limited capabilities, so Twitter was initially positioned as an Internet version of texting with the ability to reach a bunch of people. 

Like Facebook, Twitter started out as a way for people to tell their friends or followers all the mundane things they were doing. It evolved and expanded, mostly because of its users, Williams explained. 

Watching a fire department in southern California use Twitter to distribute information about a wildfire, among other things, "it occurred to us in mid-2008 that this wasn't purely a social product, but it's about what's happening," he said. "It might be about someone eating a delicious taco, but it also became really important real-time information. I think it's the ultimate news service."

Meanwhile, users were inventing Twitter features, such as the "@" symbol to reply to a particular user, which Twitter staff then had to figure out how to optimize. It also played a prominent role in movements like the Arab Spring uprisings, helping protesters organize and disseminate information to like-minded people. 

Yet, with some 500 million tweets a day these days, there's a lot of noise in Twitter, Williams admitted.

"What it should really be doing is finding what's most important to you every time you check it, and it's not there yet," he said. 

Williams stepped away from his day-to-day role as CEO of Twitter in late 2010, when it occurred to him that there might be an opportunity to create a publishing platform that incorporated the social networking he had been working on since leaving Blogger. And while Twitter and Blogger had achieved the goal of getting more voices out into the world, he had learned that "the fact that all of this information was out there doesn't instantly make us all smart. If fact, it's almost the opposite because there's maybe too much information."

So Williams set about to build a system with the underlying assumption that anybody and everybody could publish, "but let's make it better. Let's have a system where feedback loops reward quality and thoughtfulness. Let's explore how to publish/share things that evolve over time, evolve beyond the print model."

Launched in 2012 with Twitter Co-Founder Biz Stone, Medium is that platform, although Williams notes that it's not done evolving yet. The interactive publishing platform contains content curated by its editors, shared by users, and ranked and linked by popularity and similarity. It allows users to edit posts, highlight sections within posts, and upvote the best articles and stories with the recommend feature. 

Williams said Medium attempts to level out inequality by elevating thoughts and bloggers that resonate most with others.

But while Medium is where Williams invests most of his time these days, he recently found a way to invest his money better than he has in the past. Claiming that he was not very good at angel investing because he didn't put in the time required, Williams, along with some of his partners, launched Obvious Ventures in December 2014, with a focus on "world positive investing." With investments in solar energy, meat alternatives, and a sustainable diamond company, to name a few, the venture firm is committed to investing in companies and ideas that tackle global issues and do some good.

"My rule is not, 'Will this make money?' Because that's not the primary point," he said. "I look at it as, 'Would I see this as hugely successful even if I didn't profit from it?'" Williams said, adding that success includes both financial success and positive change.

Clearly, Williams's career as a game-changer is not quite over.

Catherine Lutz is a contributing writer to the Aspen Idea blog.