Medium’s Brightest Lights Might Be Dimming
‘Algorithmic slavery’ is real for creators online. Should we question the machine that feeds us?
As online digital transformation evolves, you hear of YouTube and Instagram creators burning out due to constantly trying to keep up with an ever-changing algorithm.
Now, in mid-2019, the same might be happening on Medium. Let me explain and be brutally honest. Warning, some of you might not like what I’m about to say.
What is the value of Indie Creators?
While I want to champion indie creators and facilitate how new writers experience Medium, it’s been a bit of a controversial summer for some of us on the platform.
Some of us who depend on Medium earnings for part of our real-world livelihood.
I’m a content freelancer. I have regular clients and monthly retainers, but in some periods I depend on Medium likely more than I should. Let this be a lesson for my future being creative on the platform.
I’m really big on balancing priorities and diversifying income streams but, let’s face it, the reason we are on the gig-economy is also due to necessity.
My earnings are down 70% since June.
Medium Engineers must think we’re “masochists”. Medium executives must think we’re “dumb”. For many of us, our earnings declined by 70% over the summer of 2019, and nobody knows why.
When I hear Medium influencers say “Medium doesn’t owe us anything”, I’m dumbfounded by their subservience, lack of knowledge of the evolution of the gig economy and lack of value for their own place as creators in the system. It’s weird to me, someone who has a commitment to the platform that’s on the verge of fanaticism.
We (the) creators who drive revenue for the company, I might add. Creators who might be worth up to 10x what they are “earning” in some cases.
So let’s take stock of what might be occurring here: (honestly we don’t know since Medium is not transparent about the data):
- The curation engagement bonus has been greatly reduced (July, 2019). This means curated stories don’t give as many views and as big an engagement boost as previously.
- Low follower publications are greatly reduced in their engagement. This means lesser-known publications aren’t able to grow as fast.
- Views declined so radically I call it the “View Apocalypse”. Views plunged in the Summer of 2019, and it was radical for most (or all?) of us.
- Some people tell me it has to do with fewer summer audiences and readers on Medium (I don’t buy that very much, at least not that alone!)
- High frequency and high-quality writers all saw the same decline (meaning it’s not us, it’s them, it’s the platform).
- This is the big change we all noticed: Medium started boosting only its own publications on the front page and editor’s picks and thus hogging the “popular” trending spotlight. This is to boost their own paid publications that have product placements and book arrangements (supposedly those are not Ads?)
- Medium continues its hiring spree internally, apparently at the expense of indie creators.
- It’s quite possible the subsidies to the earnings pot were greatly reduced starting in July, 2019. This means subsequent earnings will be harder with a lower-earnings-per-article potential on Medium.
Writers are Gig Economy Workers Too
Hey, we’re people too.
Listen, I agree with making Medium a meritocracy (which it never has been), but nerfing everything “indie” and “creator” is not my idea of a smart decision.
The lack of transparency on Medium’s part is what makes this so underhanded.
We’ve worked for months and years to grow our following and our personal brand. Now if I’m not doing anything differently, but I’m earning 70% less, what’s that even mean?
This puts serious creators at risk of churning from your platform if this continues. Because that’s not a secure livelihood in the gig economy!
I feel like I’m a gig-economy worker and in an experiment of an algorithmic incentive system.
I’m quite aware and totally convinced that, as a creator, I’m the product. Many if not most of the people who will read this are themselves writers, the fastest growing demographic of subscribers behind Medium’s paywall.
I want to put being a “creator” front and center in my life, but if this kind of an inconsistent paywall product continues, I’ll have to scale back my activity on Medium.
I’ll have to focus more on other things, other platforms, and real-world clients.
For prolific writers, it’s always a time to earnings ratio for us to just survive economically. I’m not a high quality writer that focuses on a niche.
I give it my all on Medium on most days. I’ve (mostly) been handsomely rewarded for doing that. Thus I feel it’s also my right to speak up! If someone like me doesn’t speak up, who will?
Content Platforms Need to be Ethical
There has to be some measure of consistency with earnings, and an algo that refines itself in an appropriate manner. There has to be ethics around this, and they have to be clearly stated by the company. Medium needs to be above board with how it operates us as products and it needs to follow its own rules.
We have a right to know what’s going on. There has to be disclosure if there is a product placement in a Medium Magazine. There has to be some viability to the monetization model that doesn’t make us live in incertainty, fear or dread, as creators here.
I’m blocked from being able to check my earnings on a weekly basis. I get a “504” error. I asked Medium support about this, and I got nothing.
If Medium wants analytics on my own level of “panic” I’m happy to fill out a questionnaire everytime they pull a stunt like this. I’m happy to disclose how much I rely on that income. But I also expect the same in return. Gig-economy workers should have some basic rights.
If they are not putting themselves in my shoes they are failing me as a user and a product. Because your most active creators are some of your most valuable gig-workers.
Those that consistently drive traffic from high-quality sites with the possibility of subscriber conversions should mean something. If the creator platform is buggy, as writers we will churn. We need to be treated with dignity and a sense that our creativity matters.
Control, Coffee and Art
It’s easy to get disillusioned with the mechanism, with the coffee money you might be earning.
Now imagine if you depended on that money for rent. How would you feel? This is actually, some months, my real-life situation.
We live in a world of data and while Medium engineers and executives were off on vacation with nice Silicon Valley paychecks, I wasn’t on holiday, because I cannot afford to go on holiday, take breaks or let the platform be buggy.
Because for me, taking a break is buggy. I earn a content basic income because I hustle.
To pave your own way in life takes enormous commitment, but even in the hidden treasures of the internet, you are still just a “small fish” no matter how many views your creativity brings to the system.
The Medium influencers tell you, “Accept what you cannot change and focus on what is in your control”, but when it’s happening to everyone and there’s no “union”, speaking up might actually be a good idea. And if you value what you do, it should matter. People should matter. This isn’t the Uber or Lyft of content, is it?
Stuck Between Gratitude and a Hard Place
Earning behind the MPP is a privilege and we’re grateful, but we also need clarity and consistency.
Because without a content basic income and a system that is fair, Medium’s credibility will suffer among creators.
Credibility actually matters when your best audience behind the paywall are writers themselves.
I’m happy to give 15% of my earnings to my Medium subscription, as I’m supporting more Patreons of writers I believe in.
But if the algorithm doesn’t value us, it increases clickbait and decreases real quality writing. I think the Summer of 2019 on Medium has demonstrated this fairly well.
The Jungle Algo Platform
If our earnings keep dwindling, some of Medium’s brightest lights will go out. The product that is replacing us as personal brands in the form of in-house Medium Magazines is underwhelming. That is only my personal opinion.
A better Medium has to be a more honest Medium. Algorithms need ethics too. As a futurist, I’m obsessed with this theme, because it’s also hurting me at home.
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