More stuff is created every day than you could read in a lifetime - there's always going to be a filter
September 19, 2015
I've been writing a blog at ben-evans.com since 2010, more or less, first on self-hosted Wordpress, then Tumblr, and now Squarespace. In parallel, I've built up 90k or so Twitter followers and I have a newsletter with 40k subscribers, both of which serve in part to drive traffic back to the blog. This is what the monthly traffic looks like.
In January 2013 I posted a bunch of interesting and rarely seen Facebook data (and launched my newsletter) and in January 2014 I joined Andreessen Horowitz.
This is blogging the old-fashioned way. It's not the really old-fashioned way - I'm not writing raw HTML in notepad and uploading it over FTP (or indeed editing it direct over Telnet). You could do that, though - you could start out the way Justin Hall did 20 years ago, or use Wordpress, Squarespace, or one of the other new WYSIWYG publishing platforms. The challenge, and the point of the chart above, is that writing is not the same as being read. 20 years ago Netscape might have made you cool site of the day, but today there are hundreds of thousands or millions of 'blogs'. You can publish, yes, but you won't be seen. So, I spent two and a half years blogging regularly before my traffic picked up, and that was with a lot of work and a lot of time on Twitter as well. Blogging has never been easier but getting read has never been harder.
Now, suppose you don't have 2-3 posts a week in you, but 1-2 every six months. That is, suppose you're actually busy doing something else. You could publish on the open web, like me or Justin, but frankly, you'd almost certainly be wasting your time no matter how good they are. You might have a topic that works really well with SEO, but that only applies to a subset of topics. You might have a following on Twitter (or be able to get people who do to link you) but many brilliant people don't - they don't have the time or they're just not allowed to talk about their work in that kind of unmediated way. (A similar point applies to Instagram for a different kind of content). But otherwise, it's very likely that no-one at all will read you.
The problem isn't freedom or openness but distribution.
There are a couple of places you can go to for distribution. If you work at Facebook or Google you might post it on Facebook or Google Plus. Your friends might see it in their feeds (though this is largely random) and they might share it and their friends might see it in their feeds. Maybe. You might wangle a Forbes guest post or blog, if it works with the brand. You might post it on LinkedIn and your network (if you have a big one) might see it in their news feeds (if they ever look at it), and LinkedIn might feature it. This one can drive huge traffic: they reposted my brief post on Microsoft's mobile capitulation and it got 400k views (and 900 high-value comments telling me I was an ignorant idiot and PCs will always be needed for real work). But that's rather a lottery - you can't rely on being featured.
Then there things that are both dedicated publishing platforms and distribution networks, and come with an audience - most obviously, Tumblr and Medium. You could apply Chris Dixon's post 'come for the tools, stay for the network' to this - come for the great blogging tools (and Medium and Tumblr are much simpler and easier than Wordpress) but stay for the distribution. But actually, the network is everything. Blogging tools are a commodity but the network is not. Tumblr and Medium have different takes here. Tumblr is (ironically) closer to the Twitter model, with a time-based feed based on a list of people you follow that takes a lot of time and effort to build up. Medium breaks free of that by deliberately recommending new content. It's trying to be a discovery and distribution network - a solution.
In that, Medium is something of a pair to Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed starts by trying to understand the fundamental dynamics of how journalism is found and read and works back from that to the journalism itself. This is exactly how newspapers and magazines got created in the first place - by working out how to be native to the new form that technology enabled, not by starting with what you already have and trying to make the new form fit into it (which is how most newspapers and magazines then reacted to the web). Medium aims to solve the same problem - 'how do you get read?' - for blogging.
Finally, any such platform solves problems with the open, flat, flexible common standard by moving it into a richer, more powerful and sophisticated but also in some sense closed and proprietary place. In particular, there is always an embedded value judgement in what Google or Facebook (or Medium) shows you. A filter is a decision. Some people worry about this, though I tend to think competition (remember MySpace? Microsoft?) provides good protection. But really, this can only ever be about relocating the problem. You can rely on being on the web, but then you have to tell people your URL, or in Google's index and people have to search for you, or in Facebook and people have to share and to signal to Facebook's filters that they want to see you. If Google or Facebook have arbitrary and inscrutable algorithms, so do people's impulses and memories, and their decisions as to how to spend their time. That is, the open web has the same underlying problem as a closed propriety discovery platform - it's just expressed in a different way. More stuff is created every day than you could read in a lifetime - there's always going to be a filter.
"We've made it to where we are with absolutely no sales or marketing spend" often does not send the signal that founders hope it will send.
— Marc Andreessen (@pmarca)
... though some companies can make it entirely through organic search or Facebook virality, most cannot. (Indeed, very often the mere fact that you've made these channels work for acquisition means they stop working, since your link advantage gets arbitraged away by imitators or Facebook decides you're taking just a little too much of the newsfeed.)