You shouldn’t “work” as a writer
And other reasons why I’m leaving Medium
But I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to leave Medium without explaining why in a final Medium article. I think my reasoning can be summarized in a short and fittingly controversial statement:
Writers shouldn’t be paid
Before sharpening you pitchforks, let me explain.
The Downfall of free content on Medium
Right around the time I decided to start writing on Medium, since maintaining my own blog was rather tedious, the platform was starting to experiment with pushing their monetisation strategy.
In case you aren’t aware what that is, let me summarize it for you:
- You can subscribe to Medium for x$/month.
- Subscribers get access to both paid and free articles, whilst normal users and readers that aren’t logged in can only read the free ones.
- A % of your subscription goes to medium, and another % get’s distributed among the articles you clapped for and/or read for any amount of time.
This is how Medium views their subscription model, and looking at it through this lens makes it seem outright amazing.
Someone like myself can write articles for free and distribute them to everyone, using Medium as a free platform to gather follower/subscribes, as well as get a bit of “exposure” on articles that are aimed at a wider audience.
Someone who wants to “work” as a writer, can instead chose to opt for only allowing people that pay access his works. That way, he can get an income stream from his passion.
Except for the tiny additions made to this strategy by Medium in order to push more people into subscribing:
- Only pay-walled articles can be featured on Medium’s front-page and in the various topical “publications” Medium maintains.
- Only pay-walled articles will get recommended to users.
- Users will be preferentially alerted to pay-walled articles from the people they follow.
This means that, unless you are willing to pay-wall your articles, two of the biggest draws of Medium: The followers system and the publicity you could get on the front-pages, are now gone.
So what you are left with, is a decent tool for writing and analyzing your articles and a few annoying “features” that will turn off your readers. Such as Medium constantly reminding them that they could instead subscribe and read the pay-walled articles, whilst they are reading your content.
Paid writers and corrupt motives
There are various “professional” authors which I quite enjoy, but the vast majority of the content I consume comes from people putting it out there for free.
The reason for this is quite simple: for-profit writers have to keep in mind their audience, a successful professional writer is someone who manages to maximize profits by gathering the largest amount of impressions/clicks/claps/books sold… etc.
This might seem like a good idea, until you realize that “keeping in mind your audience” essentially means dumbing down your work until it fits the lowest common denominator of whatever demographic you are trying to reach, without alienating too many of them in the process.
Some topic simply require a certain amount of background to understand, and you can’t fit all of that into your article without writing a book, or diluting your ideas. So if your aim is to always be inclusive, ideas are bound to get diluted.
Even worst, some topic simply pander to a niche that is too small to make money from. Arguably my best technical article, for example, falls into that category. It didn’t get a lot of reads, views or claps. Because it pander to a very particular demographic of “people that use C++, aren’t accustomed to the concept of ownership and are trying to learn C++11 and beyond”… that’s a pretty niche demographic, but my sincere hope is that said article significantly helped a few people in that demographic.
If a dozen people that think back 1 year from now and say “That one article was really good at helping me understand X or giving my idea Y”, I will take that over 100,000 people reading a more broadly aimed article of mine, only because someone famous tweeted it or because it reached the top of /r/programming, and then forgetting about it in mere hours.
I’d even argue that writing in such a way as to maximize the number of people that truly loved your work, rather than simply the number of people that read it, is the best way to make a positive impact upon the world.
However, a pay-per-X model, where X has to do with the number of eyeballs you manage to click-bait onto your drivel, discourages that very model of writing, it all becomes a game of quantity instead of quality.
To add to that, paid writing hardly ever indulges in (truly) controversial opinions, that is to say, controversial to the demographic they are writing for. There is often the “illusion” of controversy. There are articles worded in such a way as to seem unpopular, but with which essentially all of the writer’s audience would agree. However, few paid writers will have the courage to turn against a widely held opinion in their own audience, even if the criticism is valid and interesting.
My brain doesn’t pay attention to what my brain likes
The idea of “clickbait” isn’t just some derogatory term I use for the sake of insulting a literary work. Clickbaits are a very real and dangerous type of “thought-viruses”.
Clickbaits are designed to trigger strong emotions, any emotions, now matter how primitive and degrading to the idea of a civilized human. In order to make the titles stick into your mind and pressure you to click them. It usually works by appealing to:
- Taboo/sexuality (Especially efficient when done with suggestive images)
- Outrage (Either towards the subject of the article, or towards the article itself)
- Claims of definitive information or information beyond what the article actually provides (The ONE BEST X for Y)
- Fear of missing out
- Lists (For example “top 10s”, I’m still not sure why this one works so well)
The reason why I avoid clickbait articles is the exact same reason why I don’t eat sugary foods, why I don’t answer sadness with heroin or porn, why I don’t always listen to the “catchiest” music and instead look for some amount of depth and aesthetic beauty. It boils down to the fact that seeking a short-term dopamine hit is likely to result in the least amount of happiness in the long run.
What our brain “wants” to do in the short term, is not what will help us feel the most happiness in the long run and not the way we’ll create the most happiness for others. That’s why we should try, within the best of our abilities, to avoid those dopamine hits and instead focus on behaviors with long tails in terms of rewards.
I’ve never finished reading a clickbait to come out happy, interested, curios and maybe even a tad bit enlightened. On the other hand, I can name at least a dozen seemingly uninteresting short-form pieces of writing that have changed my life for the better. Though they required hammering through bits which seemed rather boring or hard to follow. That’s the curse of truly interesting knowledge, you have to put some upfront effort in order to get it.
But this is fine, because I have tools at my disposal to force myself not to fall pray to that kind of media. That’s why I chose to follow specific writers, youtube channels, blogs, podcasts, authors… etc.
However, websites like Medium are ever rediscovering the obvious, that it’s much more efficient to populate their front-pages with clickbait, if all they are looking for is getting an “increase in engagement from their audience”. My front page has a tiny little box for the publications and authors I follow, and 95% of its space dedicated to what Medium thinks I will click on.
And you know what, Medium is right, I will probably click on the content they recommend, more so than I would on the kind of articles I would like to read. But that doesn’t mean it’s doing me any good in the longer or even in the short term, it just means that it ends up promoting writers that try to trick my brain into “engaging” with works I find of no real value. No matter my reaction, no matter the actual usefulness I derive from it. Any attention, is positive attention, in the eyes of the algorithm.
Could I simply be using more or my willpower to ignore the Medium front-page every time I pass through it ? Sure
Could I be using an addon that blocks medium’s annoying spam and recommended articles ? Sure
But, again, this begs the question why bother using Medium in the first place ?
Harming myself and harming my audience
Lastly, I think that using Medium is twisting the very articles I put out.
I’ve noticed using more images, catchier titles, more subtitles where a subtitle isn’t needed and other minor things to make the articles more appealing.
… and appealing is awfully close to clickbaity.
All of it due to those bloody statistics about viewers, readers and claps.
I have sometimes wonder if I don’t subconsciously alter the very body of my work to maximise those number.
And the kind of popularity Medium brings, as discussed before, is a rather unhealthy one. It’s the kind that works based on virulence, not on quality. I for one know that my second most popular piece (sitting at ~50,000 views) is a pile of garbage. I’ve not moved it onto my own blog and I often feel the need to delete it. Why did it get popular ? I don’t know, but it probably has to do with getting some people fired up, rather than with the quality of the content itself.
Whilst on my own platform, it’s much harder for an article of “go viral” and it’s much less appealing to see new views/reads/reactions as the text result of a sql query, rather than as visual popups on a screen.
To add to that, not only am I inadvertently harming my writing style by using Medium, I’m also harming my audience. First, I am limiting myself to the kind of followers that use Medium to being with. Secondly, I am forcing people that want to follow me to buy into Medium to some extent (by having to create and account and receive emails from Medium). Thirdly, I am giving people a reason to go on and read more of Medium’s content after they are done with my article.
Considering the aforementioned things about the less-than-honest way Medium articles usually try to draw and keep your attention, as well as the way Medium encourages and enables this, I can’t help but feel that drawing people to the platform might be slightly unethical.
So goodbye Medium, you could have been a platform for interesting ideas, instead you’re slowly becoming US-centered tabloid nr. 1628.