The Hidden Medium and the Unanswerable

Gaze behind the veil

Ev Williams decided to post the “hey, kind of what’s going on with this subscribing stuff” post behind an obscuring wall. Some of you have read it, and some of you have written about it. Or more accurately, some of you have written some stuff you made up taking Ev’s original post as an inspirational theme, then spun off into vast realms of the made-up when talking about what the money will be used for, how it’ll be distributed, pretty much anything to do with it — beyond the fact that you’ll get a “new and improved dashboard” which improves on the current front page.

Given that mine looks like this…

… it doesn’t seem like I should trust them with that kind of power.

(Yes, the only sidebar content I see is Feminism 2.0. Want to wager on what kind of content I consistently down-vote and signal my disinterest in?)

But in his infinite wisdom, Ev decided that not only the original post be obscured but any commentary on it, too. I don’t hold with that, so I decided to bring what was in darkness into the light.


It’s based on the premise that, instead of yet another never-ending feed, people would be much happier with a limited set of carefully curated stories, chosen by experts among topics we care about.

This might sell to me a little better if, at any point, Medium Curators had been shown to be capable of selecting stories outside of a single silo of topics and politics.

First you have to prove that you can provide me a service before I’m interested in paying for it. I know this is a radical thought, but that’s the one I’m rolling with.


We will be routing 100% of the revenue from founding members (those who sign up in the first few months) to writers and independent publishers who have important work to do. Those who have hard-won expertise, do exhaustive research, and think deeply.

At least according to the current curation group that you have in place — which has already proven itself to be really terrible at selecting content that I’m interested in, which I have literal years of experience seeing the failure of. Why should I suddenly believe that for $5 a month you’ll suddenly discover entirely different groups of curators with different interests and understandings who will agree with me on who has “hard-won expertise, does exhaustive research, and thinks deeply”?

Further, doesn’t the end of this paragraph suggest that if I don’t subscribe for $5 a month to Medium, I will be at the mercy of a “highly optimized algorithm chum being slung by the truck load by low-cost content purveyors?” Is that how you really want to describe the content that not subscribing will be surfacing? I’m fine with it if you do because that would seem to be a fairly accurate description of quite a lot of it — but I’m not sure that you actually want to say that out loud.


as a founding member, you’ll get to help tell us what’s most valuable and how we spend that money

So I’ll have the opportunity as a founding member to pay you to ask me what content — that I very well may be writing myself — is most valuable and how you should spend the money that I give you?

You do understand the issue of perverse incentives, right? You were just talking about how “media is broken” and somehow, magically, over the last several years you are in no way responsible for any of that brokenness and Medium certainly has never engaged in any of the behaviors that you consider broken and providing incentives for things that you suggest people don’t actually want — but now that you’re taking money to essentially do the old shtick of the print magazine again, with the example of other media properties which have tried to take the subscription model online in exactly the same way and done absolutely nothing, I should believe you?

Should I? Really?

Don’t I actually have an incentive to tell you to spend that money on me and my writing, personally? And don’t most of the other active Medium users have a hand in creating content on Medium, who then have the exact same motivations? And, let’s take this further, those on Medium who don’t actually create content but who would vote to give content creators actual money for providing curated content — are they incentivized to begin cranking out whatever kind of content that can be most optimized to Medium curators’ tastes?

Basically, doesn’t this set up a perfect environment for rent seeking behavior of the worst kind?


Look, guys — I’m going to be honest with you. Do you know why I read Medium? (If you’ve made it this far, I’m going to assume that you care at some level.)

Because of Publications like War Is Boring and Scott Myers’ “Go Into the Story”, and sometimes because of the rather good discussion by software developers about how and why they made certain decisions or have leveraged certain features in programming languages to achieve rather impressive things. It’s because Medium is one of the few places where people feel comfortable creating longform content in a place where it is even remotely discoverable and easily read. (Yes, I miss the days of Google Reader and the simplicity of getting RSS feeds in a single place.)

I don’t read it for the Medium Staff who, with a consistency which would impress any newspaper editor or master of legerdemain, managed to find stories I absolutely, positively, without question have active distaste for whenever they put in front of me. I don’t read it for the rampant and insular political bias expressed by a goodly number of Medium writers who do anything outside of technical subjects and who continue to do so obsessively because that’s exactly what the Medium Staff keep slamming at the top of the front page. I don’t read it for the trendy clickbait. I don’t read it for the top fives and top tens.

I write on Medium because — and here’s the shocker — I like the interface. That’s it. The clean, minimalist, functional interface for writing is why I do any sort of writing and publication to Medium. It’s not because I believe I’ll find an audience; in fact, given the general inclination of my writing outside short bits of fiction, I’m exactly the kind of person who doesn’t get a following on Medium. It’s not because I believe the people who run the site have my best interests in mind; I can observe from the system that they’ve set up in terms of article promotion that they have pretty much the exact opposite of my best interests in mind. It’s not because the community is so awesome. I’ll let you guys come up with your own follow-up for that.

Now Medium wants $5 a month to possibly pay writers who I might like, but probably don’t, who produce content that I might want, but probably don’t, some portion of that $5 a month, aggressively undefined, and to provide me a front page which contains things that I actually want to read, theoretically in opposition to the front page which I have now.

I’m not the only one that thinks this is kind of stupid, am I? I can’t be. It’s impossible.

The funny thing is that I am generally perfectly happily inclined to drop $5 a month on something that actually provides a useful service to me. I might even be willing to drop that much money on a really nice blog editor which let me write my posts in a comfortable environment, presents them well, and is very reactive — but I won’t do so if it’s attached to a curational and editorial organization which has gone out of its way to prove that it can’t be trusted with my money to give me other things that I want. That’s just the way it is.

Again, I can’t be the only one that feels this way. I just can’t.

A web developer friend of mine has offered to give me a new blog for my birthday, one with a handcrafted, clean presentation style, proper RSS creation, integrated comment system, a solid editor which speaks both complicated Markdown and Fountain (for screenplay format), and allows transparent cross-posting links to Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and elsewhere.

Why shouldn’t I move over to such a platform? Why shouldn’t anyone?

If I could give $0.50 a month to War Is Boring (or some other fractional dollar amount to any random Publication) I’d feel like I was getting more benefit than just giving a straight up $5 a month to Medium. That might actually be a useful way to use the money that subscribers give to the system. Give a cut of it to the Publications that they read or the writers that they follow. There have certainly been other platforms which have tried to do such a thing, but few of them had a built-in content generation community like Medium. You’d think it would be a no-brainer.

Instead — we learn nothing. Instead, unlike the vast majority of content on Medium, you can’t even give feedback directly on the article which needs it most.

That should bother you.

It bothers me.

Like what you read? Give Alexander Williams a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.