Why ❤️ trumps 👏

A critique of Medium’s new clapping interaction

When I first entered Medium.com, I was in awe.

Someone had finally found a graceful way to translate long-form text, my favorite media (and the most important for humankind) from the analogue world into the digital world.

This translation is one of the most fundamental and hard design challenges of the digital times, and Medium’s approach was the first that felt entirely fit to me. The generous, white-spaced layout and typography, for example, is a masterpiece. It is a rare and much needed nod to all the masters of graphic design that came before us, a heritage that the rest of the web unfortunately insists to ignore.

The rest of Medium’s UI is similarly filled with details that reveal a deep intention not only to build another blogging platform, but a place that celebrates the essence writing, publishing, reading, and learning. While most other content and social media platforms currently focus on posting and sharing as their primary calls-to-action, Medium purposefully chose the words publish and recommend. Why? Because that simply has more fitness with the world of written media: People might share memories, photos, emotions, and cars, but they recommend books, articles, and sources of information.

Similarly, in Mediumland, you don’t save content for later, you bookmark it. You don’t follow pages, but publications. You don’t comment on articles, you write a response to them, and start conversations between authors and readers. Small choices like these might not be consciously noticed by most users, but they are definitely part of what helps create a sense of home in successful products.

This is why their recent change from recommend to clap feels so off to me.

No one claps for articles. I have cried over articles, laughed while reading many of them, and recommended the best I’ve come across. But never have I clapped while or after finishing a piece of text. In fact, just picturing doing that feels embarrassing. What humans do clap for are live performances, songs, speeches, and birthday parties.

Just like booing, clapping is an useful feedback tool for an audience to react to some part of a spectacle. Artists listen to this feedback in real time and optimize their performance accordingly. Medium acknowledges this inspiration from live audience behavior in their release article. At first sight, I thought the clap button would provide exactly that: a way to give authors line-by-line (as opposed to real-time) feedback, just like in Facebook and Twitter live streaming products.

Real-time feedback in Facebook Live

But what I found puzzling about this is that line-by-line feedback is already supported in Medium via highlighting and margin comments, which are both gestures people already relate to long form text consumption. Not only are these behaviors in Medium aligned with their offline counterparts, they are enhanced by the collaborative, online nature of a digital platform. I really don't understand how these two behaviors, coupled with the binary ❤ and responses at the end of articles are insufficient for content relevance analysis, especially if you count in natural language processing which I'm sure Medium if capable of doing.

Annotated book. Similarities to Medium’s interface are not coincidences, but signs of thoughtful design.

From a reader's point of view, the old way of recommending something meant more than just cheering for the author: it meant the text resonated with me so much and I’m so confident about it that I now want more people, my own audience, to share this experience with me. Clapping may sound fun at first sight, but to me it doesn't fulfill this richer, emotively charged purpose that recommending did.

Likewise, as an author, it was very satisfying to count up the exact number of people truly engaged with your content. Now, what is left to us is a random number of applauses, a much blurrier indicative of true appreciation. Do I get more claps when my readers are bored and have nothing else to click on? What if they have to quickly jump out of a train, leaving no time for those 50 intended claps before their phones are back in their pockets? Getting one ❤️ per reader didn’t bring such uncertainties.

Furthermore, if someone told you “The show gets regular over 15-minutes-long stand clapping” it would make perfect sense. “The audience claps on average 1.235.535 times”, on the other hand, wouldn’t make any sense to most people I know. Even more absurd is imagining an artist having their audience stop clapping after they’ve reach 50 claps. This imposed, artificial limit in the interface is, to me, a clear symptom of design inadequacy. The interaction, the metric, and the target behavior feel, unfortunately, incompatible.

Keeping a product too connected to something old as print technology can be called upon as skeuomorphic. But to me this is a rare case when skeuomorphism is not only adequate, but was being executed with grace. Medium was, so far, conducting a perfect mix of references to the past with the advantages contemporary technology.

I understand and praise Medium for trying to come up with creative ways to surface high-quality content from the mass of irrelevant noise we’re embedded in. And of course, just by looking from the outside it’s difficult to understand the restrictions and requisites of the process they’re going through. Maybe there’s a bad manager trying to push some metrics up. Maybe they’re getting ready for time-based content like audio and video. Maybe this is just one of those changes I’ll be ranting about for a few weeks and then get used to and love. Who knows? But it’s a shame that in this process Medium had to spill some ink over the pages of its crystalline, cohesive story about written content.