Medium Confusion

Last week, my pal Noah J. Nelson attracted the attention of John Gruber with his piece (published both at Turnstyle News and on Medium) “What Medium Is For.” Noah’s piece doesn’t quite answer the question “What is Medium and who is it for?” but it does help articulate why its critics (like myself) seem baffled by its very existence. He writes:

I can say, unequivocally, that as a writer who has published on Medium and who isn’t being paid by that company, that I’ve extracted a good amount of value from its methods of exposure. There’s something magical about seeing Twitter arguments erupt about one of your own posts in Portuguese.

For Noah, in this instance, value is exposure, attention. Medium is the amplifier that allows his words to be read the world over. He is reaching new readers and starting a conversation with Medium’s unique paragraph-specific comments.

My question, though, is: then what? You can make a name for yourself with exposure, but you can’t pay rent with it.

Now, I’m not paying rent with the candler blog, either. But it’s mine. Everything that appears on this site, every last pixel, is here because I want it to be here. It’s my own little home on the web and if I want to turn it into my day job I could roll up my sleeves and give that a try. The same can’t be said for Medium. Yet.

So what, then, we all throw up our arms and ask, is Medium for?

In a comment Noah gets closer:

Medium is the layer underneath the content. They are attempting to build a better mousetrap.

The “layer underneath the content” used to be known as the open web: HTML, CSS, RSS etc., etc. Medium wants to be that. Medium wants to be the whole Internet.

This is not uncommon today. The modern startup has no interest in contributing to the open web. The goal instead is to bring users into your tent and keep them there; to build, as Noah aptly puts it, a better mousetrap.

Anil Dash’s year-old piece, “The Web We Lost,” provides brilliant insight:

I know that Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest and LinkedIn and the rest are great sites, and they give their users a lot of value. […] But they’re based on a few assumptions that aren’t necessarily correct. The primary fallacy that underpins many of their mistakes is that user flexibility and control necessarily lead to a user experience complexity that hurts growth. And the second, more grave fallacy, is the thinking that exerting extreme control over users is the best way to maximize the profitability and sustainability of their networks.

There is something destructive1 in Medium’s vertically integrated long form writing and publishing platform. I recognize the value to the reader, but not the writer. You’re putting your blood and sweat and time into someone else’s platform for free and getting nothing but attention and a supposed following in return.

I think Medium’s most nefarious conceit is that they pay some contributors at “competitive freelance rates.” Here’s how I put it recently:

What if I told you you could be published alongside writers from (but not in) The New Yorker for the low low price of free? In a nut, that’s Medium: a slick, magazine-like publishing and reading platform that writers should be so lucky to contribute to.

The paid writers bring their clout to Medium, the platform, in order to convince unwitting writers that they should contribute to Medium, the magazine, for free. The paid authors are thus pied pipers of a sort, luring not the readers but the writers out of the web and into Medium.

If I were to cross-post an article both here and on Medium, I’d kick myself should the Medium post get linked to by Daring Fireball. John Gruber boasts a formidable following: 200,000 RSS subscribers, 60,000 Twitter followers and an estimated four to five million page views a month. He drives a significant amount of traffic to any site he links, but his readers are unique. They’re engaged, interested and loyal. Unlike traffic drawn from, say, Digg or Facebook or BuzzFeed, a link from the likes of Gruber tends to turn into a lasting relationship. The readers will come and interact and, perhaps, stick around. For my efforts it seems a shame to have that relationship forged under Medium’s logo.

Perhaps Medium is the ultimate signal booster. Maybe Gruber would never have happened upon Noah’s piece had it not been for Medium’s amplification. But Daring Fireball has been linking to interesting content for over a decade; before Facebook, before Twitter, and, obviously, before Medium.

So did Noah’s piece attract Gruber’s attention? Or did Medium? In the attention transaction that occurs when readers land on his piece, who reaps the benefits? I’m willing to bet Medium does. As a writer, that seems like a big thing to give up for free.

  1. What the scions of Silicon Valley would call “disruptive.” ↩︎