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Medium launches a 'premium' Mastodon instance as a membership perk

Publishing platform Medium is opening up its debut Mastodon instance, me.dm, to its members, the company announced today.

Last month, Medium first teased its plans around the Fediverse -- the group of interconnected servers powering a range of open source, decentralized applications, including the Twitter alternative Mastodon and others. It said it wanted to make access to me.dm a perk included with Medium membership, offering a place for authors and readers to discuss the content published on its platform.

The company explained at the time that this would make for an interesting local feed -- a reference to how Mastodon users can view a dedicated feed of just the conversations happening on their own instance (server), in addition to those happening more broadly across federated servers (those servers their local server knows about and is connected to).

In addition, Medium said it would tackle some of the onboarding challenges involved with joining Mastodon by making it easier for newcomers to find both the people and topics that matched their interests as part of its onboarding flow.

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That's an area others have begun to tackle, as well, as they aim to capitalize on the potential of the decentralized web. Last week, for example, the magazine app Flipboard announced it would launch its own instance on flipboard.social to address similar concerns. The new Mozilla-backed Mastodon mobile app Mammoth additionally features an onboarding experience that aims to simplify sign-up by sharing suggestions of who to follow from across different categories.

But while there are some similarities with these other Fediverse plays, Medium is the first major tech company to offer users a "premium" Mastodon experience -- meaning access to the instance isn't free as it is elsewhere when signing up directly. Instead, interested users would have to purchase a Medium membership, which currently runs $5 USD per month or $50 per year with its annual plan.

The company believes the exclusivity and the community it will curate on its instance will have immediate value. Already, it's quietly onboarded 5,000 people from its waitlist onto the instance and is forecasting a community in the "six figures" in size at some point later this year.

Image Credits: Medium

"We want Medium to be the best place to read and write on the internet," Medium CEO Tony Stubblebine tells TechCrunch. "We want to do it under a single subscription -- I think people are tired of having dozens of subscriptions. And I think we've also found that ad-driven models have their own kind of corrupting influence," he continues. "I think that's why a lot of social media ends up toxic -- because people are focused on engagement, rather than substance. So, in order to have the best place to read and write, you have to build the whole thing around an economic model for substance. For us, that means a subscription," Stubblebine adds.

Plus, the exec points out, the instance will be among those run by an experienced tech company. That means it will run the instance on its own infrastructure and will have its own Trust & Safety team managing moderation. (Today, there's one person dedicated to the task, but it could scale in time.)

Stubblebine notes, too, that instance's domain name -- me.dm -- could have a draw.

"You have to share the domain along with your username in the Fediverse. To have a short domain is valuable," he says.

Image Credits: Medium

Betting on a federated future

Coincidentally, Medium is announcing its Fediverse instance's opening on the same day that Twitter was facing yet another partial outage.

However, the move also comes at a time when there seems to be a broader shift in Mastodon's direction -- and not just because Twitter has become unreliable.

Under Elon Musk's ownership, there are questions about Twitter's future -- the company has lost advertisers and is in debt to creditors. But there are questions about the future of centralized social media, as well.

That's further highlighted by the fact that Medium itself was created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams. (Williams exited Medium as CEO last year, but remains chairman of the board.) Another Twitter and Medium co-founder, Biz Stone, also sits on Medium's board.

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, meanwhile, is backing Bluesky, another decentralized social concept but one that uses a different protocol than Mastodon. Its future, given its reliance on Twitter's funding, seems questionable, though.

Stubblebine addresses the oddity of having so many Twitter founders now involved with companies building alternatives but says Medium's impact on Twitter's fate is not a huge consideration.

"We didn't go into this year, thinking that we wanted to compete with Twitter or even that it was possible," Stubblebine says. "But it seems obvious to me that there's an exodus from Twitter -- and enough of an exodus to create an alternative. We're not particularly worried about whether or not Twitter lives or dies. We see it more as there's going to be a new thing and maybe it lives alongside Twitter or maybe it completely replaces it. But regardless, it's going to be important. And, regardless, that new thing is Mastodon," he adds.

Medium plans to improve its Mastodon experience as it grows, hoping to provide a place for writers to find new readers for their stories and enable conversations, then roll out more features in time.

It's not the first company to try to relocate some of the discussions that used to take place on Twitter to its own external community in the wake of Elon Musk's Twitter acquisition. In addition to Flipboard and its own Mastodon instance, Substack late last year targeted Twitter with its launch of an in-app discussions feature, too.

Meanwhile, Tumblr owner Matt Mullenweg confirmed to TechCrunch that it's testing the ActivityPub protocol that powers Mastodon and other Fediverse-connected apps, in addition to others, like Bluesky and Nostr.

Medium itself, by comparison, isn't integrating with ActivityPub -- it doesn't think syndication of blogs to the Fediverse is the future; its focus instead is on proving a place for the authors to build a community.

Stubblebine also says he's not worried that offering a premium instance will corrupt the potential of what's, so far, been a free and open source social web.

However, he does admit there has been some pushback from the wider community about Medium going the premium route.

"Most of the pushback is based on a fear of -- sometimes it's expressed as a fear of capitalism, but, when you dig into it, it's always a fear of monopoly. This is one of the things that I think is exciting about the Fediverse -- there's really no hope for anyone to monopolize it. So it just leads to healthier business ideas," he explains. "This is just a business idea that will be one of many on the Fediverse...I think it's new, so it will probably be a little bit alarming. But in practice, there's just no way for it to pan out that way," Stubblebine says.

"I think there's this unbundling of social media going on right now," he continues. "And what that gives us is the opportunity to be more opinionated. For me, that's exciting -- I don't want to be a town square for the entire world. I want to be the town square for people that love reading and writing -- and a certain type of reading and writing -- thoughtful reading and writing," he concludes.