2021 Will be an Interesting Year for Medium

On Pro Cell Phone Writers and Star Authors

Back in January 2019 I wrote “Medium is the future” in title caps. A big declaration. And I meant it, and I still think it’s true. But only in some respects now.

This gushing post never got curated because Medium won’t curate anything about Medium, even if it’s positive. I didn’t care. I just loved Medium at the time.

I loved its independence, the absence of advertising, its elegant minimal design, its “long-tail” model of catering for a multitude of interests and — most importantly — the power of the readers to pay the writers.

I also loved the fact that readers are willing to forgive typos if the writing is good

It was still a fancy blogging platform then, and what was most intriguing (and addictive) about it was all the niches it catered for — giving passionate writers a voice in their field. This is what I mean by the “long-tail” — a distribution model that Chris Anderson first coined to describe Amazon’s early success.

I loved reading science, philosophy, psychology, history, art and literature. Who cares about that stuff? A few of us do, and Medium will give us what we’re looking for, like it does for every other niche interest.

It was a foam party of ideas and commentary, hugely entertaining to browse. It had a wikipedia-like breadth, but an egalitarianism that made it the YouTube of the written form: by everyone, for everyone.

2018 Medium was a confluence of innovation: an elegant blogging and networking platform, with a plugged-in photo library (Unsplash) and easy payments (Stripe). This auspicious event created some addictive magic by giving unknown and independent writers an amplified voice, and the motivation ($) to keep up the writing.

Cell Phone Writing Success

Published writing has been democratized like never before. Medium is a big part of that. Journalists’ salaries have been in free-fall since the 2000s. When you consider that people who literally compose articles on their cell phone are getting more appreciation on Medium than journalists with by-lines in big time traditional media publications, it really hits you that Medium is a major cultural disruptor. It changes the way we think about writing.

The real world has nepotism, networks and expensively-attained credentials. Medium’s algorithm is blind to that stuff. Which is great. If the real world is a popularity contest, Medium is an outright beauty contest.

If a writer with by-lines in Vanity Fair or The Guardian isn’t writing as compelling copy as our bootstrapping cell phone tapping friends, then they’ll see that difference in their Stripe payment.

Those now-successful cell phone writers are great, they always were. Medium gave them a channel (read: “chance”) to be appreciated as they deserved to be. That alone makes me want to champion the platform even now.

Since early summer 2018 I have written a lot of articles for somebody who already has a busy job, my hobby became a hefty secondary source of income. That blew me away. Late 2018 was the apogee, it was when I was most satisfied with Medium as both a writer and a reader.

Then something started to happen.

Gaming the System

When Medium launched its partner programme it was only a matter of time before people would learn to exploit any weaknesses they could find.

More writers joined, hoping to make some easy money. The ratio of writers to readers no doubt grew, making writing competitive. All systems get gamed in innocent and not-so-innocent ways, from search engines (SEO) to politics (populism), and Medium is no different.

Articles that exploit our reading weaknesses started to creep in to my feed. In moments of weakness I clicked on them. With Medium being both a platform for writing and distributing, the writers covering crowded subjects are in a sensationalist arms race. A slew of baited articles that were wilfully divisive, triggering or contrarian started to fill up my feeds. Click on one in a moment of weakness and the algorithm thinks you want more.

There was also an explosion of articles that promise a lot but deliver so little. A lot of formulaic self-help started to appear. It’s the journalistic equivalent of lift music — it’s vague, it’s homogenous, but it’s nice, even relaxing. There are different flavours, but ultimately the same outcome: you forget about it the moment you stop reading.

Medium had to hastily downgrade the importance of the applause button because writers could form pacts to clap each other. Self-help articles about “making it” on Medium proliferated. It became a gold rush and, just like the real gold rush, it’s the people selling the tools that make the real money.

There was suddenly the danger that Medium’s hot wash of colour would come out grey. You’d read it, but you wouldn’t proselytize about it to friends over brunch.

Quality, as a whole, suffered considerably. Any customer joining Medium purely to read would wonder why there were so many articles about writing. The platform was becoming a tail-eating snake, chomping its way toward its own head.

Changing, and Changing Again

The platform made a move to take editorial control. It created and then pushed its own publications with a redesigned homepage and navigation bar.

I wasn’t happy about that. I liked the old Medium’s non-agenda. Suddenly it was The New York Times, its homepage was filled with sanctioned Op-Ed. I thought the whole point of Medium was that it wasn’t a media company. But at least it tried to force quality pluralism with a menu of options, even if most of them weren't of interest to me personally.

I get the feeling customers voted with their feet (I wasn’t alone) because another swathe of changes came in fast.

The new, new model is about following. It’s more of an old-school blogging model (we’ve come full circle), which — ironically — seems to have put out some well-followed Medium writers.

My own reads, and therefore income, went down significantly. This January is my worst month financially on Medium since I started writing, and that’s with having gained thousands of followers and written over a hundred articles since then. What seemed like an upward trajectory has nose dived.

But c’est la vie…. I’m not going to cry about it. In the terms and conditions Medium is very clear that I own my content and I can take it wherever I like. Medium owes me nothing, and I’m fine with that.

I never felt entitled to a living from Medium, but I am writing from a position of privilege. Some writers really need the money, and it will be interesting to see what happens in a field that’s starting to see competition emerge. People are now becoming more accustomed to paying for content and 2021 will see that trend explode as the online advertising market implodes.

Competition

Some star writers have already jumped off Medium, tempting their followers to pay them directly and consistently on bootstrapping platforms like Substack rather than facing algorithmic uncertainty.

Mainstream aggregators like Apple News+, which is integrated beautifully into our devices, are charging $10 a month for access to the universe of top-tier publications. That’s great value for a regular reader.

These bootstrapping and mainstream services are a pincer on Medium. It’s not that the online subscription business is a zero-sum competition, but it does mean that Medium needs to quickly settle on what it represents. The ad-free unique selling point is becoming increasingly less unique.

The problem that Medium seems to have is that it knows what it is to writers, but not to readers. Ironically, competition for content will likely force it to find out — Newsbreak is using a similar payment model for news writing, and Vocal Media is doing the same for lifestyle. This means a lot of Medium content will be duplicated onto free-to-browse plaforms.

While there is still a dizzying array of subjects covered on Medium, it’s still largely unclear on its form. Substack understands its form well. Its minimal interface is crystal clear about being a (free or paid) “newsletter” service. Those who do well on Substack are those not necessarily writing great stories, but have an in-depth knowledge or an insider’s take that people want to subscribe to. Nobody browses Substack like they would Medium.

Medium is now toying with short form, giving writers a home for their thoughts, and enabling them to “curate” and network a bit more. I must say I love browsing though the magpie nest feeds of writers like M.G. Siegler who make the most of this new feature/direction.

I’ve dabbled myself. But it immediately became clear that it was technically difficult to pay-wall short form (is “pay-wall” a verb? Who cares!). Metered short form had to be clicked on which surely defeated the purpose of having a Twitter-like “home stream”.

It still feels like Medium needs to stay medium form. Its flow-zone appears to be high-impact personalised writing. In other words it’s best for finding writers who know either a lot about a subject, or have a unique take on it, and they will convey it in a personal way.

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Personalized and memorable writing is the sweet spot for Medium. I don’t know how to describe it, I only know what it’s not. Maybe Medium should define itself by what it’s not? (Image by author)

This is how we get great non-fiction stories. I mean “stories” here in a loose way, I mean a personal take on an actual subject (not just lifestyle fluff) with a beginning, middle and end. That’s the kind of memorable writing that would make you preach Medium to friends over brunch.

Scott Galloway and Ryan Holiday come to mind as great writers in this respect. They are both included on Medium’s shop window introduction to new users as star writers (well deserved). But Galloway and Holiday have content elsewhere too, very little of their output — if any — is Medium-exclusive.

If Medium could just nail “form”, I’m sure even more unique and quality content will follow. Readers will pay for the Medium experience, as opposed to the writers, who can come and go. Netflix isn’t a bunch of content, it’s an experience — “Netflix and chill”, and its newer content falls around that brand promise.

Maybe I’m wrong. This may be an entirely subjective take that nobody else would recognise. I see a different “Medium” from every other reader, and that’s part of the platform’s strength. Some may disagree with me, and it would be interesting to read people’s thoughts as we enter a — how do I put it? — interesting year for everybody.

The lessons of philosophy and history, their practical benefits for your life and work. Feel free to get in touch: stevengambardella@gmail.com

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