Countless Medium users have written thought-piece after thought-piece on the disconnect between Medium’s goals as a company, what Medium says its mission is and the needs/desires of its users. I’ve waited patiently for something to change, but after some news I received today, I’m entirely certain that the situation is not going to be remedied any time soon.
It’s been repeatedly touted that Medium wants to be the place where “meaningful ideas” are shared and discussed. However, the categorization of what is and isn’t a meaningful idea is different from person to person. Meaningful ideas to some may be things exclusively to do with venture capital, San Francisco or tech. More importantly, some may argue that meaningful ideas only come from well-known writers, actors, musicians, politicians and other celebrities. The point is that the definition of what’s meaningful changes depending upon who you ask.
“But Medium helps unknown writers get discovered every day!” you might say, and it’s not that this isn’t true, but the question is whether these things are intentional or whether they’re accidental. A simple way to measure this is by looking at a company’s actions. Do they invest heavily in their community? Do they work hard to implement features to help the unknown get noticed? Do they really listen to their users? Well, Medium has canceled sponsorship on a number of community loved publications, they have no immediate plans to assist small writers with monetization and they still haven’t hired any community support staff, implemented a public road-map or provided a channel for feature requests.
Not only this, but Medium has simultaneously doubled down on their efforts in “growth” by focusing on bringing more “influencers” to the platform. In fact, Medium just opened a position specifically to woo policy makers and advocacy groups. You see new positions opening up in growth consistently, but questions from the community sit unanswered, smaller publications lose their funding and Medium seems completely indifferent to it.
The idea that Medium will become a sort of social democracy where the free exchange of ideas could take place regardless of personal clout, is a dream that never came to fruition. The sad truth, is that Medium is just another San Francisco tech darling that’s taken millions of dollars in funding and is now accountable to their shareholders rather than its community and what do shareholders want? Growth. And growth is a tricky thing to manage. This fact is further compounded because growth itself and building community are often at odds with each other, sometimes even incompatible. In other words, Medium is growing so much that it’s starting to eat its own tail.
What Medium doesn’t seem to understand is that writers are a fickle group of people and Medium isn’t just another social network. Writers put a tremendous amount of effort into their works and therefore, tend to have much greater expectations of the platforms they use. They’re naturally predisposed to be skeptical of companies like Medium, companies that ask to be trusted with the product of sometimes months (if not years) of work. I’m not sure if anyone’s built what Medium has before and in a lot of ways that means they’re in uncharted territory. By Medium approaching growth in the same way a company like Twitter would, they’re losing sight of what exactly makes Medium special in the first place.
Writers will continue to leave Medium and Medium will continue to not care. The number of smaller writers will dwindle as Medium becomes centralized more around “influencers” until it’s made up of just two groups: readers and personal brands. The idea of social democracy will float away like petals in the wind and Medium’s IPO I’m sure, will be a big one. It didn’t have to be this way, but it will. Medium is filled with people like myself, who are passionate about the community and really bought into the mission. It was uniquely positioned to be able to make a difference, but in the end, I think it will just be another platform for the already empowered to broadcast their thoughts.
For me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the incident involving Ev and the AirBnB story. This wasn’t just an “I made the interwebz mad ☹” moment like he made it out to be in his pseudo-retraction. It was something that resonated throughout the entire community and brought a lot of questions to people’s minds about Medium’s mission. The aftermath didn’t revolve so much around people’s offense that Ev could be so callous as to make a comment like that about a story where someone’s dad died, but rather inquiring “what was the point?”.
The perception (by a lot of people) seemed to be a public disowning of Matter’s essay. That while I’ll “allow” something like this on my platform, I certainly don’t agree with it. A comment on the fact that he disapproved of bashing AirBnB publicly, which then in turn brought up questions of his motives. Surely he knows people who own a stake in AirBnB and perhaps some of his own backers even do. Simply put, there was absolutely no logical reason for him to publicly respond. It was something better reserved for a Slack message or email. In his own admission, he even said that he’d already privately voiced his concern to Mark Lotto earlier. So why did he have to reiterate that in a public forum?
The argument that Ev is just another Medium user is patently absurd. He’s the CEO of the company, a public figure, and his actions are judged as such. What he chooses to do or not do has both intentional and unintentional effects and I’m not buying the fact that he’s naive enough to have clicked publish without having already thought that through. If he was, I highly doubt he would have made it as far as he has in his career. He’s a smart dude and smart people’s actions are always carefully considered, they’re not reactive.
What’s kept me here for this long is the idea that there is a solid captain steering the ship. That Medium’s staff is a trickle down effect of Ev’s mission to change the world for the better. This incident drastically altered my perception of Medium as anything other than just another well-funded startup in San Francisco. From my own observations, Medium is less a single cohesive unit working together towards a common mission and more compartmentalized groups of the same people who would work at any other startup in the Bay Area. It’s commercial, not handcrafted.
I’m not not going to be using Medium. I’m still going to continue to support the writers I love here and ride the wave for as long as it lasts. What I’m doing is moving my writing off of Medium and simply using Medium as another distribution channel. Medium will now be secondary. I’ve had an opportunity to be introduced to a great little platform that focuses on writers. They provide multiple options for monetization, offer full design and layout access, allow self-hosting(if you’re so inclined) and provide a rich publishing API that focuses on platform agnosticism to the writers benefit.
I’m by no means singing woe is me here. Medium has afforded me with a lot of opportunities and I even have a guest appearance coming up on an incredibly popular podcast because of it. My ambition is exactly the same as it was when I started writing here, the only difference is that I’m pulling my writing back like money before a bank-run. If Medium is not going to look out my for my interests, then I can’t continue to invest in it as the sole platform on which I choose to create my writing.
I think a healthy amount of skepticism about any modern tech company is not only warranted but necessary. As writing/journalism becomes more centralized/syndicated by a few massive social platforms, it’s important to ask yourself if your needs are truly being served, or if you’re just being fed the same old line of “mission driven”. In the end, I really hope I’m wrong about Medium, I’d love to be wrong. One thing’s for sure though, wherever this community goes, will be better for it. It’s Medium’s community that makes it special, not the software. Let’s hope they figure it out.