And for His Next Act, Ev Williams Will Fix the Internet

For years, Ev Williams was saddled with doubts.

As a co-founder of Blogger and Twitter and, more recently, as the chief executive of the digital publishing platform Medium, Mr. Williams transformed the way millions of people publish and consume information online.

But as his empire grew, he started to get a gnawing feeling that something wasn’t right. High-quality publishers were losing out to sketchy clickbait factories. Users were spending tons of time on social media, but they weren’t necessarily happier or better informed. Platforms built to empower the masses were rewarding extremists and attention seekers instead.

Mr. Williams has not given up on Twitter, his biggest and most influential project thus far. (He left the company in 2011, but has stayed on the board and remains a major shareholder.) He still believes that, on balance, a world with social media is better than one without. But a year ago, he began lamenting that the internet was “broken” — an observation that has been borne out by, well, basically everything that has happened since.

“I think I was a little bit ahead of some people in seeing the dark side,” Mr. Williams told me recently.

Much of Silicon Valley is now catching up. Early employees of Google, Facebook and other tech giants have gone public with their regrets in recent months, calling the products they helped build overly addictive and destructive to society. Industry leaders including Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief, have done their own soul searching. This week, Google’s chief, Sundar Pichai, said the company was “reflective” about its responsibilities. And New York magazine recently published a collection of interviews with conscience-stricken tech insiders, titled “The Internet Apologizes.”

But while other tech leaders enter the confessional booth, Mr. Williams, 46, seems to be emerging with a new outlook — a blend of old-fashioned Silicon Valley optimism tempered with the caution of a tech veteran who has seen well-intended products hijacked by horrible people.

Last week, Mr. Williams sent me a kind of mini-manifesto — a two-page document containing his thoughts about technology’s potential, the problems with ad-supported media and the regulation of social media platforms. We followed up with a phone interview, in which he expanded on the ideas, some of which he has been thinking about and refining for years but had yet to make public.

Many of Mr. Williams’s most recent thoughts have to do with how the digital advertising business, coupled with the rise of social media, has trapped publishers in a vicious competition for people’s attention. That quest, which naturally favors loud and extreme voices, has in turn driven more media organizations to publish low-quality and sensational stories.

“When a publisher makes their money only from ads, they are incentivized to spend as little money as possible while maximizing attention,” he wrote.

Echoing Mr. Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress last month, Mr. Williams said he now believed that he had been too optimistic during social media’s early days, and had failed to appreciate the risks of putting such powerful tools in users’ hands with minimal oversight.

“One of the things we’ve seen in the past few years is that technology doesn’t just accelerate and amplify human behavior,” Mr. Williams wrote. “It creates feedback loops that can fundamentally change the nature of how people interact and societies move (in ways that probably none of us predicted).”

Mr. Williams is only a partial heretic. He acknowledges that social media companies have not done enough to promote high-quality content, but he also blames publishers for amping up sensationalism in order to increase their traffic. And when I asked if he agreed with Mr. Zuckerberg’s recent statement that “the world would lose if Facebook went away,” he demurred.

“I honestly don’t know my answer to that,” he said. “I think it’s probably right.”

But if Mr. Williams isn’t ready to denounce social media, he is at least muting its effects in his own life. He still uses Twitter, but he has turned off most mobile notifications, and he tries to leave his phone behind when he’s with his friends or his kids. He is reading less daily news these days, he said, and more books and long-form articles.

“That’s been healthy for me,” he said. “I feel the effects of that.”

Listening to an architect of the fast-twitch internet extol the benefits of books and magazines is a little odd, like watching Chef Boyardee open a farm-to-table restaurant. But Mr. Williams is not alone among tech leaders in his quest for a slower and more balanced media diet. (Mr. Dorsey, who has been Twitter’s chief executive since 2015, went on a 10-day silent meditation retreat in December.)

Whatever you think of his lamentations, give Mr. Williams credit for this: As a billionaire who has already cashed out a big chunk of his tech wealth, Mr. Williams could be waxing philosophic from a tropical cabana. Instead, he is rolling up his sleeves and trying to fix things.

Right now, his focus is Medium, the digital publishing company he started in 2012. For years, Medium’s strategy was to design a sleek blogging platform, attract a crowd by enticing celebrities and established writers to use it, and hope that advertising would pay the bills.

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.”