What Medium’s New Payment Model Means for Controversial Writers

Good news for unpopular opinions is good news for society.

M. K. Fain
Oct 23 · 4 min read
Photo by Rosemary Ketchum from Pexels

There are probably some voices you don’t want to hear: trolls, men’s rights activists, gun nuts, flat eathers, anti-vaxxers... each person has their personal list of too-controversial topics. Lots of people would rather these people not be given a voice or a platform, and there are solid arguments for that in some cases. Yet, most people rarely have to consider what it would be like to be on the other side — what happens when you’re suddenly the one with the controversial opinion?

Although Medium can often feel like a happy liberal bubble, real “social justice warriors” who are out there fighting for positive changes in society should know the value of a controversial opinion as well as anyone. Women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay marriage all started out as controversial and unpopular opinions. Without the ability to spread these ideas, the movements would have suffered.

On a platform like Medium, we’re not dealing with the question of free speech. Medium is a private corporation that has the right to censor speech that it finds in violation of its community guidelines.

Yet, Medium is also a marketplace of ideas. Under the current/previous payment model, the ideas that pay here are those that everyone already agrees with — or those that are just edgy enough to be interesting, but not challenging enough to the status quo as to be a true threat. Since many writers are using Medium to supplement their income (or, in some cases, as a full-time income), writers have until now been disincentivized to write controversial pieces. Instead, most writers write what they know their audiences already agree with — it’s the best way to get those precious green claps.

Now, the new payment method stands a chance as changing that, opening the door to a range of controversial ideas that previously wouldn’t have paid well enough.

Rather than focusing on claps/fans as the primary metric of payment, Medium announced that read time will be the new driving metric for payment. Other writers have already started trying to figure out how this will affect their incomes — it’s a big change, and we’re all teeming with excitement about the possibilities.

Personally, though, I’m most excited about how this new system will open the marketplace up for new ideas. Prolific Medium writer, Shaunta Grimes, touched on this in her analysis of the changes:

Starting October 28, if you ‘hate read’, you’ll be adding to the author’s pay check. Which means, I’m afraid, that we’re going to see more posts designed to garner hate reads just for that purpose.

Rather than seeing this as a bad thing, though, I see this as an opportunity. For the first time, Medium writers may be incentivized to branch into areas previously deemed “too controversial.”

In an article for Fearless She Wrote, Darcy Reeder picked up on what this could mean to feminist writers, like myself:

I’m about to unblock my trolls. They can read all they want now. Because, guess what trolls, you’re paying us now for the privilege to read our “irrational,” period blood-soaked musings!

I can relate to Darcy’s experience. Recently, a feminist post of mine went viral on a right-wing app, garnering over 16k “hate reads” from men’s rights activists in less than 24 hours.

Screenshot of the day my post went viral among right-wingers

These “hate reads” had a similar read ratio (around 50%) as my other posts, yet I only received about 200 claps total. The readers were certainly engaged with my content — I have multiple nasty and even misogynistic messages in my inbox to prove it. Yet, despite driving a massive amount of readership to Medium with that piece, it will pay out about the same as all my other articles.

As someone who has been in controversial activism for a while, I’m used to the internet shitstorm. But how many writers are willing to tolerate tolling, abuse, and harassment that bleeds into the real world for pieces that barely make any money? Honestly, we shouldn’t have to.

There are many, many amazing feminist writers on Medium who are willing to write about controversial topics. Still, I can’t help but wonder how many of us self-censor, thinking, “It won’t get many claps if I write that.”

The move to focus on read time rather than claps is going to help writers feel more confident that putting their controversial ideas out there might just be “worth it.”

In a world desperately in need of progress on many fronts, I can only see openness to new ideas as a good thing.

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M. K. Fain

Written by

M. K. is a feminist writer with a background in grassroots activism and psychology. http://marykatefain.com Support on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/mkfain

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