A cute kitten. Sorry, I couldn’t help it (Flickr CC // Richard Walker)

A Click-Bait Experiment, and the Navel-Gazing Problem that Threatens to Ruin Medium

by Henry Wismayer


Check out the update to this article here: https://medium.com/@henrywismayer/down-with-the-triumvirate-db9aed77d8b5.

Medium, this wondrous platform for taking thoughts out of your brain and turning them into words, has a problem.

As I write this paragraph, the Top 20 stories on Medium have some common themes. One is about getting dumped, another is about getting hired. Another is about Twitter (of course). Several are headlined with didactic commands of the “Live-this-way-or-your-life-will-be-shit” variety.

By my count, 14 out of 20 of them cover the sort of subjects that have come to monopolize the site’s bandwidth recently: ‘TECH’, ‘LIFE-HACKING’ and ‘ENTREPRENEURSHIP’ (this last being a sort of bastard offspring of the previous two) — let’s call these themes ‘The Medium Triumvirate’.

Because for anyone that hasn’t noticed, Medium has been hijacked. Not by terrorists, though that, while unwelcome, would arguably be more interesting. Instead, it’s been hijacked by life-hack gurus, designers and San Francisco people. And we, the people who don’t subscribe to life-hackery, who don’t work in design, and who don’t live in San Francisco, have had enough!

Back in September, I poked fun at this phenomenon with a post entitled ‘A Cynic’s Guide to Writing the Perfect Medium Post. The implicit complaint — that Medium was becoming a tedious forum for the tech start-up community — received a lot of support, ranging from tacit head-nods to exasperated howls of agreement. But in the intervening weeks the scales have tipped yet further; now The Triumvirate seems more dominant than ever before!

So, in an attempt to demonstrate just how one-dimensional the Medium universe has become, I got all cunning…


1. The Experiment

This experiment — which, before anyone feels compelled to point it out, barely merits the label experiment — was born out of frustration.

In early October, I posted a piece about a charismatic one-legged man I met in Syria before the country descended into civil war. I published it under the headline:

‘Who Knows What’s Become of Charlie?’

Charlie was the feature story on The Coffeelicious, a publication with over 40,000 followers, for almost a week. In that time, it garnered a little over 400 views. Around half of those came from my own Facebook friends.

Perhaps the article was a bit shit— what seemed evocative and poignant about Charlie to me may not have affected others in the same way. The story was niche, certainly, and perhaps a little maudlin. But I believed in it enough to question whether it had found its audience.

And so I re-posted the piece, but this time I used a completely irrelevant title, parodying the same life-hack puffery, full of the promise of self-improvement and hero-emulation, that seems to be metastasizing across the Medium platform. Chuckling irreverently as I typed the words, I went for:

‘Elon Musk Just Revealed a Simple Hack that Could Transform Your Life.’

Then I changed the tags. Gone were ‘Syria’, ‘Travel’ and ‘War’. In came ‘Tech’, ‘Life lessons’ and ‘Entrepreneurship’.

Voila:

Now, we all know how click-bait works. Garnish your post with a photo of a cute little kitten and animal-lovers will flock to your button like zombies to a brain smorgasbord.

It is an act of deception and, as such, was bound to provoke some small hostility (although the guy who replied with: “If I could vote for you to be banned, I would,” was probably taking his chagrin a bit far). But most people didn’t seem too put out by the dissemblance, with several confessing that they wouldn’t have clicked without the tantalising headline, but enjoyed the post all the same.

Bottom line: the piece got read. Roughly fifteen times as many people read the piece under the Elon Musk title, ten times as many recommended it.

But what does this result say about The State of Medium? Here, for what it’s worth, is my conclusion.


2. Conclusion

To state the obvious, good writing (if you’ll allow me to assert that my writing is at least ‘good’) does not presently guarantee an audience on Medium.

There have been some welcome anomalies recently: ‘How to Lose Weight in Four Easy Steps’ by Aaron Bleyaert, and ‘When I’m Gone’ by Rafael Zoehler to name the two most block-busting examples.

For the most part, though, The Triumvirate is all-pervasive.

Tech-illiterate as I am, I have no idea how Medium’s ingenious algorithms endeavor to filter and curate material to position it in front of the right eye-balls. But what I have noticed is that most of the stuff I see on my homepage lands there courtesy of Medium’s most active and powerful users.

A disproportionate number of these ‘super-users’ are, themselves, ‘tech’ people. Many of them work for Medium, or write for one or other of Medium’s in-house publications. I’m willing to bet a disproportionate number of them live in San Francisco’s tech-start-up bubble.

Whether or not you follow these super-users (and many of them write beautifully), the stories they recommend are the ones that get circulating. And if most of the super-users are nerds it’s inevitable that articles from the TECH-LIFEHACK-ENTREPRENEURSHIP sphere will be the ones that come to dominate the site.

Alas, unless something changes it will only get worse.

The ease with which Triumvirate articles — even depressingly hollow ones — accrue views and Recommends provides an irresistible incentive for other people to follow the formula. As a result, Medium risks becoming a click-bait factory, a lame production line pumping out articles around the same limited themes.

Before long, this one-dimensionality will be all the site is known for.

“You know what I need, Kevin,” you’ll say to your friend Kevin. “I really need a 24-year-old tech start-up CEO living in the Bay area to tell me how to live my life, y’know?”

And Kevin will say: “Hell, you’d better get yourself over to Medium! They’ve got tons of that condescending shit on there.”

If Medium is serious about attracting — and holding the attention of — a truly diverse community, it needs to radically improve the means by which authors of every stripe can find an audience. Because for all the honorable clichés writers like to spout about writing for themselves, writing for the love… that is why we’re on here. To be read.

Otherwise we’re just pissing words into the wind.


If you are struggling to find an audience with your posts, or if you find it difficult to unearth the stories you like to read, please recommend this article. Over to you, Ev Williams.