Wil, thank you for being clear on your opinion! 🙂
Ev Williams

Hey Ev –

I’ve been thinking hard about this stuff for a few days, and share many of the concerns here.

The reason is I firmly believe incentives drive much behavior, whether they’re allocating money, prestige markers, or little dopamine hits. Standard social media “likes” are mainly in the latter categories — and our pursuit of them drives millions of human hours per day, while creating billions in market cap for Facebook and the other mechanisms that allocate them. This is clearly powerful stuff.

By shifting to Claps, Medium adds money to the mix. Yes, money has long been in play for social media heavies (going from 100 to 1000 Twitter followers merely scored me some dopamine hits, while going from 1 to 10 million has upped many a celebrity’s earning power). But Claps brings a large, potentially distorting incentive to mid-level creators like me who may come to view Medium as a significant income source as your ecosystem grows.

However pure our motives, anyone who aspires to write fulltime must establish an economic relationship with an audience. In becoming a mechanism for this, Medium is doing an unambiguously good thing, and I applaud and admire you for that! But the underpinning incentives will heavily steer what gets created. And I’m quite worried about this starting point.

I say this because I view Medium as the Web’s last, best shot at a home for serious, long-form writing. I myself have posted several 20–40 minute reads to your Members that have completion rates ranging from 70–80%. In our ADD era, that’s both astounding and inspiring! But this sort of writing will not thrive in a Clap-driven ecosystem.

As an example, last month I posted an excerpt from my new novel to your Members under the title, A Most Peculiar Text. It’s a 36-minute read, and went up on a Wednesday. Most people found it during work hours, when long pieces face huge headwinds for reader attention. Despite that, 73% of the 322 Members who hit the page completed it, which rounds to 140 hours of reader engagement. That earned me nine Recommends.

By comparison, in February I wrote a somewhat jokey public-facing piece called Yet Another Reason Why I Love Lyft — a 7-minute read. 49% of the people who clicked it completed it, rounding to 38 hours of reader engagement. This earned me 25 Recommends.

I maintain the “worth” those pieces delivered to readers is better reflected by the hours they invested in them than by the number of times they clicked Recommend. By the former metric, the long piece delivered roughly 3x the value to readers. But in a Clap world, I’d have been paid almost 3x more for the short one. Furthermore — using minute-count as a (very) rough proxy — the long piece would have taken over 5x the effort.

Combine the effects, and the short “clappy” piece would have rewarded my writing time 1,500% more richly. When real money’s on the line (and with it, improved prospects of writing fulltime), it’s easy to see what sort of content will result. Nothing is apples-to-apples in writing (certainly not between a novel excerpt and punchy article), so I’ll admit this math is quite crude. But even if it’s way off, a 1,500% factor can’t be ignored.

The obvious rebuttal is that fans of the long piece might have Clapped repeatedly to even things out for me, had Claps been a thing when I posted it. But I actually think the “repeat effect” will aggravate rather than mitigate the problem. The reason is that Clapping is a public act — and repeated Clapping is intensely public. Furthermore, much of Medium’s content has political undertones. And whether or not we like it (or admit it), virtue-signaling is inherent to anything political.

This affects me less, as I don’t write on very politicized topics. But for the large group that does, the incentives will be overwhelming. Short, highly-charged pieces trumpeting a large in-group’s perspective will be Clap magnets. Long, nuanced ones that make some controversial points will require far more work and will be met by crickets — even if they’re actually quietly enjoyed by huge readerships. When Clapping equals financial support, the disincentive to clap for anything remotely unfashionable will be magnified. Because even if “Clap shaming” doesn’t become a thing, most censorship is self-imposed.

Evidence as diverse as our last election, Daniel Kahneman’s research, and the online ad market’s contours proves that human behavior reveals human desires far more clearly than quietly stated preferences. Publicly-stated preferences are notoriously unreliable. And Clapping on Medium is a public act with a direct financial dimension.

This will not create the kind of writing that your Members actually crave. Even if that craving and the creative choices of your writers are wholly subconscious phenomena (and they’re not). Even if nobody deliberately seeks to hack the system for personal gain (and they will). If writing 100-word rage pieces packed with zippy one-liners ends up generating high hourly wages, lots of people will take that gig — and the result will be a floods of Clap bait.

The good news is that Medium can access a hugely powerful behavior-based metric to reward writing — which is reader minutes. You’re already tracking this. And it’s a far better gauge of what people actually enjoy than any public signal.

It’s also the metric that will ultimately drive Member retention. Because decisions to re-up will be based on a gut-check of whether the site provides enough hours of engagement justify the cost. Not on how many times the Member jittered a finger over the Clap button. And Medium will thrive by drawing & retaining people who prefer the act of reading to that of affixing badges on posts.

I could go on for paragraphs, as there’s more nuance here (Cliff Notes — I actually believe a hybrid system of reader minutes plus a more conscious reward system might be best). But this is already ridiculously long for a “response” (what do you expect from a guy who writes 547-page novels? :-)