A practical guide to writing on Medium, Part 2

MASTERING MEDIUM’S SOCIAL STRUCTURE

This is part of an occasional series giving you the inside scoop on getting the most you can from Medium. Most of this information can be found on the Medium Support Pages, but sometimes it’s hard to find the information you want because you don’t even know what question to ask.

[Update: Some readers have pointed out that not all of the actions I’ve described work on mobile touch-screen devices. First, make sure you have downloaded the Medium app to get maximum functionality. Even at this point,you will find there are a few options not available.]

Medium created a number of ways for people to interact socially (in addition to the various modes of communication discussed in Part 1 of this series). The focus of this guide has to do with how to find and build a community within Medium, not how to get the maximum number of hearts (there’s a big difference).

#1 Responses

For many new writers to Medium, responding to an article is a good way to start. It’s not as intimidating as writing a completely separate article, publishing it, and then wondering why no one is reading it.

Here are a few things to think about:

The vast majority of authors will read and respond to your comment, so think about how you act if you meet the author in real life. Compliments, questions, introducing new ideas connected to the article, sharing your own feelings from reading the article, or sharing a personal experience that is similar or different from the author are all responses that will probably create a positive interaction, or create a message thread where the discussion goes deeper.

One new writer asked in a story, “Am I tilting at windmills by writing responses on stories looking for more discussion from the author or other commenters? Is this not a place for discussion?”

My answer might be helpful:

Look at the typical story to which you respond — someone who writes about deeply personal issues. Think about the person who wrote the story. Why did they write it? Are they really asking for something? Who would they trust or respect?
In my opinion, the vast majority of these stories (even if they ask questions in the text) are a form of confession and anonymous group therapy.
Now think about how people might respond to the writer. Can you see a difference between the following two forms of response?
Preaching, self-help platitudes, playing psychologist, or giving advice that you wish you had followed
“I feel your pain because I experienced the same thing (personal story with some connection to the original post)”
Reponse type #1 is not looking for discussion; nor will people respond if they don’t feel you are empathetic.
Response type #2 is an honest attempt to make a personal connection, so, depending on the mental condition of the story’s author, you may get some responses or have a discussion.

#2 Highlights

The highlight function in Medium (mobile users, you will need to download the app to do this) is a fantastic tool, in my opinion. Here’s why:

  1. Writers want to know if their writing is good. They also want to know which parts work and which ones don’t. When someone writes something beautifully, or makes an especially perceptive point, I point it out with a highlight. Without saying a word, it’s a direct message to a new writer, “this is great,” in the hopes that they will begin to recognize their great stuff as they are writing, even with no one giving feedback. It can also be short hand for “this is really good,” without using more time to write a response. In any case, writers are always interested in your highlights. Here’s a story which explains the importance of highlights in more detail.
  2. When you highlight something, you can immediately create a response. This is what happens after you highlight a passage. The dialogue box allows you to click on the speech bubble to make a comment:

When you post your response, the highlight shows up at the top of the box. (see below) This helps the writer understand exactly what you were writing about. And, if you click on the highlight, you will jump to the exact location in the original article. This can be very helpful when you are trying to find specific information in a long article.

#3 Those damn little hearts

The recommend is a really misunderstood part of Medium; it is far more complicated than liking something on Twitter or Facebook. When you “heart” something, you not only show the author that you liked their story, your recommendation shows up in your feed and is seen by all the people who are part of your community (we’ll go into “following” in the next section).

[NOTE: There has been a long raging battle between the content marketers who push self-help, life hack and start-up articles and traditional writers who are trying to create art. If you want to learn about it, go here. There is also a subset of writers who spend their time sucking up energy and attention on Medium by writing rants about content marketers. I address them in detail here.]

Medium’s algorithms are based on who recommends a story as well as how many people recommend it, so the heart takes on much more importance than a like. If you like a story and want to share it, then heart it. But sometimes, you may think the story was only good for you, but maybe not all of your friends, so maybe you don’t want to publicize your interest. No matter how fascinating you find an article about medieval torture, looking into the dark soul of a neo-nazi, or reading about sexual bondage, there’s a chance you don’t want your grandmother to think you’re saying it’s must read entertainment.

On the other hand, those little hearts can be a false currency. If you don’t like reading listicles all day, you might be very frustrated that some of the worst crap on Medium is constantly featured as a top article, and dominates your email feed.

One of the biggest complaints for many people is that the “good stuff” is ignored. That’s true, but you can’t say it’s hidden. It’s like going into the refrigerator and looking at what’s in front of the shelf at eye level. Don’t say there’s nothing to eat if you’re not willing to put in the work to look around and find something tasty. Here’s a recap I wrote about how to find great unknown writers:

How to explore Medium:

Step 1: do a search for a topic you like. Seriously, people, if you can Google “best fire retardants to use when extracting flaming gerbils* from your ass,” I think you can type into the space next to the magnifying glass icon and find a topic.

[CLARIFICATION: Medium’s search tool is like any other search engine — it’s just a crap shoot. Depending on how you word your search, you may have wildly different results.

For example, I was trying to find an article I really liked, and wanted to quote the title. When I typed in my first paraphrased title, I didn’t find the article. When I changed the search by adding one word, or including the author’s name, the article came up on the list.

Keep doing searches until you find what you want. It can be a laborious process, but it’s like anything else with regard to computers, “garbage in, garbage out”]

Step 2: read through the comments. There’s gold in them thar hills. I can’t tell you how many great writers I have found by reading their comments. If they can write something hilarious or thought provoking in a paragraph or two, there’s a good chance they’ve got the goods. Which leads me to the final step in getting your Cub scout badge in finding online nourishment:
Step 3: read profiles to find articles they have written. Just scroll down through their writing history (or, if they have one, a personal archive located just below their profile). And take the time to read a few articles. I’m sure you’ll find something you will like, even if you find a dud once in a while. Hell, one of my favorite stories about my dad has been almost completely ignored by the readers of Coffeelicious. Could 94,000 people all be wrong? F*ck yeah, they are. That’s what writers do. We speak to our truth, regardless of whether anyone else likes it.
*No animals were harmed in this Google search

#4 Following

This is another nuanced piece of Medium’s social media programming. Some people follow everyone in the hopes that everyone follows them back. Some people follow new writers as a means of encouraging them. And some people follow others because that person is immensely popular, so the assumption is they must be a great writer.

There are a lot of ways to follow and be followed, and while I understand the reasoning between each method, I’m going to explain my methods, based on how Medium’s algorithms work and how I use the platform to build my own community and to support new or unknown writers.

  1. Who I follow: great writers who deliver on a consistent basis; people who have really good taste in what they read and recommend; and, a small number of new or inexperienced writers who I try to encourage.
  2. Who I don’t follow: writers who focus on areas that aren’t my normal cup of tea (regardless of how well they write); writers who follow huge numbers of writers, but have few followers themselves; and new writers who aren’t consistent.

Here’s why. As explained above, Medium’s algorithms determine what kind of articles you will see.

The problem of quality: If someone is following thousands but has very few followers, I don’t want my feed flooded by all the writers they follow. There’s no way you can like thousands of articles, without giving up a lot of the stuff you love.

The problem of choice: If you follow hundreds or thousands of people, you are going to be flooded with stories and sifting through them will be too much work. It doesn’t make you a snob to have a huge following but only follow a small group of people; you have no choice over how many people follow. If I learn about two or three new writers in a week and want to follow them, that’s fine.

Freakonomics did a wonderful podcast on the economics of choice. Whether it’s electronics or dating sites, there is a sweet spot for choices. Too few and we are limited and will feel like we haven’t found the beset option; too many and we are paralyzed by over analysis and the dread FOMO.

The ideal group size: In addition, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. He suggested that there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Dunbar’s number is proposed to be about 150, and we see that historically in things like village size, unit size of armies and notions of appropriate company size.

I feel the same way about Medium. I’ve got a small group of online friends I have developed over the last few months on Medium. We comment on each other’s writing, bounce ideas off each other or riff on some in-joke. We are part of a small community within Medium. This is our table in the Medium cafeteria and we can define ourselves however we want, because it’s own hearts and minds that determine who were are, not that horrible hair style, or the wrong clothes or all that acne from high school. Well, maybe none of that has changed, but we’re online so who’s going to know, amiright?

My goal is connection, not monetization: As someone who is not trying to sell seminars or get rich quick schemes, I don’t need thousands of followers; I couldn’t possibly keep track of them. That’s not to say that I would tell people to stop following me, or not mention that they should buy the collaborative book I put together featuring the quotes of over 50 online writers (talk about herding cats!). The point is, there is a huge difference to me personally between a group of friends and a group of fans.

If I ever got famous enough as a writer where I couldn’t answer every request and comment, I would have to reevaluate my online community relaitonships at that point.

Popularity comes with unseen costs. The average person is not set up to deal with minor “celebrity.” One new writer hit a nerve in the community with her piece “I was never raped, but…”, and received almost 4,000 hearts and 277 responses. If you get 4,000 hearts in a year, new writers would probably be overjoyed. Just to give you perspective on what that means, she must have had 20–40,000 reads, and at least double the views. She was overwhelmed with the response. It’s time consuming to read and respond to 277 comments. If you do anything more than ten times, trust me, it becomes a grind. (Just putting together an email list for the 50 contributors of our book took me a few hours, and it’s still not complete.) So now, you’re still an unknown, unpaid writer, but you feel like you have the obligations of a NY Times bestseller, minus the agent, publisher, assistant, webmaster, etc. With that kind of notoriety, you will also begin to attract the sharks and trolls that prowl around the internet, so now there is a psychic and emotional cost when the vitriol starts to roll in. All I’m saying is, be careful what you ask for.

Who can I take under my wing? Most new writers are very self-conscious. They will read and lurk on the outside, afraid to join in some of the wacky collaborative fun I’ve had with our little group of cynics, subversives and degenerates. We’re not making our living writing, people. If you can’t have some fun here, what’s the point?

[Side rant: We’re all innudated with sh*tty news on a constant basis. We know about tons of problems facing our families, our communities, the nation and the world. But you can’t be on a soap box 24/7. And if you are, then you should step off the damn box and start working on a problem in the real world. If you think you’re going to start a political revolution by liking posts on Facebook, instead of doing campaign calls, get used to seeing big gold shiny letters erected on the front facade of the White House.]

When I find new writers who have something to say, I try to support them. I highlight, comment, follow and recommend them to others. When I say recommend, I don’t mean just hearting them, I’m talking about writing a story that mentions how great they are, like I’ve done here, and here, to give a couple of examples. I also praise other established writers and recommend their writing, as I’ve done here, here and here.

Don’t be afraid to cull the herd. When I first started out, I did what most people do. I read the super popular posts that were in my feed, and then followed the massively popular authors. After a while, I realized that these articles were overly repetitive, and full of repurposed content. In some cases, the articles were unbearably stupid. So I decided to unfollow certain writers in the hopes that I would no longer see all their stories in my feed.

[UPDATE: Based on one question I received, here’s a better explanation that I wrote to someone else about the same subject]

What kind of interaction do you want? Another thing to consider is whether the authors are responsive. If you compliment them and they respond and recommend your comment, that’s great. But if you point out a different perspective they didn’t consider, and they ignore you in those cases, is this someone you really want to be friends with?

Do you want your feed clogged with garbage? Medium’s software looks at any writing as a story. If someone you follow writes anything, regardless of its length or importance, it goes in your feed. If they recommend anything, regardless of its length or importance, it goes in your feed. That is one of the huge complaints on the site with regard to the unholy trio of self-improvement, life-hacks and tech-bro posts that dominate Medium — even if you don’t follow these writers, if anyone you follow recommends their stories, they still show up in your feed.

The only way to avoid the clog would be for everyone, including the content marketers (whose sole purpose in life is to get the maximum number of views, reads and rec’s) used unlisted stories and private notes for their responses. In the words of that well-known basketball media legend Jalen Rose:

Some people just like everything. You may be flattered that they follow you, but when your feed is clogged because they like everything in the world, maybe it’s better to cut that flow by unfollowing them. It’s something to consider.

Conclusions

As with any manual, I have probably forgotten to answer some questions that everyone was asking. So guess what? Ask a question in the comment section below. If it’s a good one, I will update this article so others can get help.

Next time, we’ll discover the power of archives and publications.



There are too many people who need help in figuring out Medium; that’s why I’m asking for the maximum number of recommendations possible to get the word out. With your help, we can support lots of other, less experienced users.
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