Friends don’t let friends recommend #sponcon

Steven Levy is a respected journalist and all around interesting fellow. He’s the editor-in-chief of Backchannel, a pretty great tech publication here on Medium that like all publications, is trying to find new ways (any way) to make money. Sponsored content is one way to monetize and so Backchannel published a piece sponsored by Upwork that presents the nightmarish hellscape that is spec work as a viable way to make a living. And like any good editor would, Steven Levy recommended that article.

Those who consume media enter into an (explicit or otherwise) agreement that the costs of producing a piece of content are borne by either the consumer or a third party that also happens to have some of their content to share, just for you. Ben Thompson covered this nicely in last week’s episode of Exponent but it basically boils down to ass, gas or grass: nobody rides for free. As much as Upwork makes my skin crawl, Backchannel has mouths to feed and it’s tough out there for publishers now that Medium is not a publishing tool.

On the other hand, when you follow someone on Medium, the agreement is different. You are offering up your attention in exchange for the content that they find interesting and worthy of recommendation. When Steven Levy likes the Upwork sponcon, you roll your eyes, acknowledge that he’s got skin in the game and move on.

But if you’re not Steven Levy, why are you recommending that ad? Did you not know it was sponsored content? Are you somehow benefiting from that recommendation financially? You are stretching the consumer/advertiser relationship by injecting that sponcon into your followers’ reading list.

Is this fundamentally different from tweeting a link to the latest hilarious Old Spice commercial? Probably not, but it feels like it…? Medium is a confusing, exciting gray area right now and those gray areas are where sponsored content can be especially successful … so maybe this is As It Should Be? Does the name Upwork subconsciously remind me of uptalk? Yes. You too, right? I know!

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