Evan Williams and Biz Stone think their new site, Medium, could mark an "evolutionary step" in web publishing. It’s a lofty aim. And if the two weren’t responsible for Twitter (and Blogger before that), we probably wouldn’t have much faith in them. But their new venture, a platform for collecting and displaying stories, images, musings and more, isn’t just noteworthy for its web-visionary pedigree. It’s got something else going for it. It looks just like Pinterest.
In a sense, Medium’s intended to be a Pinterest for our own lives, an elegant repository for photos, projects, and stories we’ve actually lived, as opposed to a re-blogged clearing house for pictures of wedding dresses and eggs baked into avocados found elsewhere around the web. Here’s how Medium works: A user posts an item and assigns it to a collection. Collections are presented as a series of tiles laid out in a clean grid. Some sample collections already live on the site include When I Was a Kid, a series of childhood images, and This Happened To Me, a collection of amusing, inspiring, or unlikely real world anecdotes. Readers can peruse other people’s posts, note that they thought a particular item was cool and leave a comment, or, if the collection is open to the public, add their own content to the page. The most popular tiles get prominent placement up top. Basically, Medium combines the noncommittal ease of posting to Facebook or Tumblr with the strange allure of Pinterest’s tile-based layout.
Okay, maybe the allure isn’t so strange. After a decade and change of wearing out our scroll wheels on vertically oriented blogs, Pinterest arrived as something strikingly different. Unlike those earlier blogs which put every new post above the last and encouraged readers to flick through at top-speed, the Pinterest-style grid forces the eye to zig-zag through content, slowing down your scrolling but packing more images onto the screen at any given point. David Galbraith, the web giant who co-created RSS and Yelp, wrote recently for GigaOM about his experience developing Wists, a grid-style visual bookmarking site that predated Pinterest. Comparing the grid-style layout with the traditional "river of news" model, he writes, "they look pretty, but require scanning in two directions. This is not good for news, where you need to understand the timeline at a glance. However, for scanning thumbnails, a grid is particularly efficient."
The inherent inefficiency of tiles might seem like a failing. But then again, consider that the very ease of whizzing past so much content using a vertical scroll is a problem in itself: It doesn’t lend itself to lingering a while. It doesn’t lend itself to emotional heft, but rather transactional speed. By contrast, the tile-based layout urges the user to consider objects as a group instead of discrete items. For Medium, this may be just the point: The tightly packed tiles serve to visually reinforce the idea that these photos and stories are part of a collection. If you’re flicking through a blog, a 200-word story titled "Beat-boxing saves lives" probably wouldn’t grab your attention. But when it’s a tile in a collection headed "This Happened To Me," you automatically have a context that makes it a bit more compelling.
There’s also something about the grid and tiles, on a visceral level, that just feels more cohesive and still lively. Where the standard river of news-style blog post comes with all the traditional blog trappings—headlines, timestamps, bylines, and the rest—grids put all the focus on the content. It’s equal parts organized and overwhelming. There’s so much visual stuff on your screen, you can’t help but feel like someone has designed the experience for you. The tiles impart a sense of curation—and thus, human emotion—to the content.
If you need further evidence of the Pinterest-ization of the web, look no further than Facebook. While the News Feed is still a pure river of news experience, Facebook’s much-ballyhooed Timeline profiles are distinctly more tiled in appearance, even though they’re still organized reverse-chronologically. On Facebook’s newly redesigned photo pages, the Pinterest influence is even more apparent. The thumbnails are bigger, the borders between them are smaller, and options for liking or commenting materialize on top of the tiles as you float your cursor above them, just like they do on Pinterest.
Medium’s vision of the web’s tiled future may be right on the mark, and as readers continue to migrate from mouse-bound desktops to trackpads and touch screens, the informationally dense experience offered by the tile format—one predicated on scanning as much as scrolling—will likely continue to thrive. Still, there are times when the tried-and-true river just makes more sense. Take a look at Medium’s own About page, and you get the idea that tiles can actually end up obscuring content, especially when it comes to text. Scanning may be easier than scrolling, but scrolling’s still easier than scanning and clicking, and that extra click is necessary any time you want to jump from a short text preview to a full story or blog post.
It’s no small irony that Medium, a bold step into a tiled future, is being made by Williams and Stone, along with former Twitter product lead Jason Goldman. Twitter took the river of news concept and turned it into something like a fire hose: all the content, all the time, with very little curation outside of who you chose to follow. The emerging popularity of tile-based layouts could even be seen as a response the breakneck speed and Sisyphean scrolling engendered by the Twitter timeline.
Currently, anyone with a Twitter account can log in to Medium to browse collections, though posting is currently limited to a small group of test users. Whether it will achieve the popularity of Twitter or Pinterest remains to be seen. But at the very least, it’ll be a beautiful way to look at everyone’s Instagram photos.