The Medium Car Crash

The Medium.com logo, in 1997, before Evan Williams. Via archive.org

Evan Williams and his work are profiled in the New York Times by David Streitfeld. He’s behind Twitter and Blogger. There is one good point that succinctly explains a big problem with the web today:

The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.

His goal is to break this pattern. “If I learn that every time I drive down this road I’m going to see more and more car crashes,” he says, “I’m going to take a different road.”

[…]

For five years, Mr. Williams has been refining a communications platform called Medium. Its ambition: define a new model for media in a world struggling under the weight of fake or worthless content. Medium is supposed to be social and collaborative without rewarding the smash-ups. It is supposed to be a force for good.

Medium feels to me like it isn’t as popular as Twitter, but it is a thing that I suspect most people reading this would have read a few articles on.

The article talks about the business model of Medium, how it exists as a platform for writing. I think it misses the real problem with the site, the reason why Medium exists is to profit off of the work of writers. Not that Evan Williams is a bad person — he tried to create a space for good writing in Medium — the real problem with Medium is that it is yet another business that exists as a parasite on a writer’s work without providing them with a living wage or an identity.

The Times article goes on to talk with one writer who made some money on the site. She received $50 per article, when they were paid, and went on to write about 100 in the same year. Not all of those were paid, and $50 isn’t bad at all for a new writer, but even if she had been paid for every article $5000 a year isn’t going to pay the rent.

Whether the business model is correct or not, I read many articles on Medium, I link to very few, and I can’t remember who the authors are of most of the articles I read on the site. Their identity is subsumed into Medium and they no-longer own their writing when it is read on Medium.

A site like Medium can’t help but raise their brand above the authors. Take a look at this article on Medium that I recently linked to.

The only opportunities for an author to express themselves on the page are their byline, and any auto-biographical text that they write in their bio underneath the byline.

In that article by Jose Moran, it is an article exclusively about that author’s work experience at Tesla. We might remember Jose a bit more than anyone else because he works for Tesla, which is an important company in the electric car field even if I don’t like the way they treat their employees.

Here’s how his byline block appears:

Here’s the banner at the bottom of the page when you’re not logged into Medium:

Now let’s pick a recommended article from just above the bottom of the page. The first one is another article about Tesla and it takes us to ThinkProgress, a site that uses Medium as a host for their writing.

Here’s how the author’s byline block is on a page hosted by Medium:

The bio gets cut-off at the top of the page, but there’s a larger version at the bottom with the full text.

Here’s the banner on that hosted site:

What are you signing up for? Medium. Not ThinkProgress, not Jose Moran. You might incidentally get updates from ThinkProgress or Jose after signing up, but Medium-the-business doesn’t give a crap if you do, so long as you keep using Medium.

In both cases the author loses control over their byline as well. Did Joe Romm want to display just part of his byline at the top of the page? We’ll never know, because Medium decided for him.

Does Jose Moran want you to sign up for more updates from him in case he posts an update where Elon grows some balls and lets his employee’s Unionize? Medium decided that no, what you want to do is sign up for Medium.

The only person that has an author’s best interests in mind is that author.

When an author has their own site, they are totally free to express themselves with more than just a byline. Nuclear Monster is to my taste as a modification of the free software WordPress. At the top of the page, that’s a logo I made with the feedback of friends. I picked out the colors of the site, and what code I wanted to use. I decided what the site’s focus should be. Medium pages are identical, generic and bland, because they express the identity of that site instead of the identity of that author.

Those bylines above are actually an improvement over the original Medium. Back in 2013 the author’s byline looked like this:

It is possible that the 2013 byline looked a little better, I have cribbed it from the archive.org version which sometimes isn’t able to preserve the entire detail of an archived page. However, it matches my memory of the site. No author photo or bio.

When you follow an author who has their own site by subscribing to their RSS feed, or on Facebook, or Twitter, you’re going to get to their site as the destination to read their work.

That author gets to decide if they’re going to link off-site at the bottom of their article page. I don’t personally like those kinds of advertisements, so I just have a rotating group of related articles from Nuclear Monster, but at least I have a choice and could decide if I wanted them. Jose Moran has no option after choosing to use Medium to host his writing. There are links to whatever articles the Medium algorithm picked.

As a writer, I hope that Medium fails, because it can’t exist as a functioning business without exploiting authors who need to establish their own identity in order to survive. I want to see more writers own their own websites or choose to work collectively with others instead of seeing their work stripped of identity and authorial ownership to another business intent on exploiting them.

The problem with San Francisco area startups is that they are all car crashes intent on smashing into as many people as possible before the money dries up and they leave without insurance to clean up the mess they left behind.

When Medium fails and is sold to Verizon, it will leave writers bloodied and bruised in its wake who haven’t established their own identity and they may be so frustrated with the experience that they give up on writing entirely.

Author: Jack Slater

Your editor. More here.

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