The Problem With Medium
A Shiny Content Farm is Still a Content Farm
There’s a lot of buzz around Medium right now. It’s shiny and incredibly easy to use! Great sharing features mean increased social media buzz! Founded by some of the guys who made Twitter so of course it’ll be awesome! And there are curated posts, so if you write something really fantastic, you’ll get tons of exposure.
Super, right? What else could a writer possibly ask for?
This is all true. But it all neatly glosses over one ugly fact: Medium is just an upscale version of the same old business model used by shady content farms the world around. And it contributes to an environment where the most important element in creating written content — the writer — is undervalued and uncompensated.
That business model goes something like this:
Step 1: Get people to write for cheap (or better, for free!)
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Profit
Step 2 isn’t clear in the case of Medium, but you know it’s coming, eventually. Nobody starts a business with no plan for seeing a return on their investment, after all, even if they’re playing a long game.
In the case of Medium, it may just be some variation on “selling ads” or something more novel, like “repackaging content to sell it elsewhere.” A friend of mine has joked about Medium selling best-of collections as Kindle Singles… but that’s an entirely plausible direction for the business to go.
And if and when they decide to monetize your content… they’re not under any obligation to give you one red cent of the proceeds.
A reminder, from Medium’s Terms of Service:
By furnishing your User Content to Medium, you give Medium a broad license to use and exploit your User Content as it operates and evolves its business. That license has a number of different features: it is a perpetual, non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to exploit all copyright rights now in existence or that may arise in the future with respect to your User Content, in any medium that now exists or may arise in the future, as well as to do anything else that is reasonably appropriate to our Service and its exploitation of your User Content (including, but not limited to, use of your name in association with your User Content to identify you as the contributor). The license has no restriction as to the medium, dissemination method, type of Service we may offer, or the type of systems or products that may be used in conjunction with your User Content.
What does this mean? It means you’re giving your writing to a corporation for free, and they can do anything they want with it. Forever. Without paying you. Ever.
Writers in the digital world are under a lot of conflicting pressures. Gathering an audience when you don’t have an audience is wicked hard work. And so the lure of exposure can be incredibly powerful: simply use someone else’s platform to boost your own reputation and gain influence. Hopefully, the thinking goes, some of those readers will start to follow you around and pay attention to your other work.
But if all you ever get from your writing is exposure… what exactly are you gaining? You can’t eat exposure. It doesn’t pay your mortgage. It doesn’t keep well in the freezer and it’s not transferable. And alas, exposure doesn’t always mean increased interest in the stuff you’re making money from elsewhere. I know of more than one project (not naming names to protect confidences) where widespread and glowing press coverage never translated into actual sales.
Now, I’m not saying you should never write unless you see the Benjamins. I’ve written for free before; I’ll do it again. Sometimes, yeah, the exposure is worth it. But even then, it would be foolish to use Medium as a primary platform for your work. If Medium goes away — like Geocities, Bloggers.com, Posterous and countless other startups lo these twenty years gone by — your digital footprint will be gone, too. Poof.
I don’t know about you, but the idea of every link pointing to my work for the last few years suddenly breaking… well, it makes me feel a little queasy. Third-party platforms come and go, but a site and domain you own are forever. Protecting yourself and your work from bitrot is important.
Now, maybe you don’t mind lining someone else’s pockets with free labor. And maybe the risk of bitrot doesn’t matter to you. Your personal calculus may prove it’s worth it and beneficial to you, and you still want to post to Medium. And that’s fine, I guess. We all draw the lines we’re comfortable with.
Just make sure you’re perfectly clear on what you’re getting out of the bargain — and what you’re giving up.