Why I Am Moving Work Futures to Substack from Medium

Every beginning is some other beginning’s end | Seneca

Today I am announcing that I am moving Work Futures from Medium to a new publishing platform, Substack. Sign up for the mailing list, here, or subscribe, here.

To get the short version: You can read the bolded subtitles in the following sections if you’re in a hurry and just want the bullet points.

Why Leave Medium?

Short version: Medium has changed its model several time, and there’s no place for independent publications or direct subscription-based writing.

To a great extent, my leaving Medium is due to changes in Medium’s plans, over the years. Medium has pivoted several times after starting with the goal of supporting publishers trying to develop magazine-like businesses on a neutral social content management platform with a collection of innovative social features to attract readers. The company built a few publications of its own, and began to build an advertising network that would support those publications — like Backchannel and Matter — and that other publishers could leverage for revenue.

But Ev Williams decided the ad revenue model was too retro — and maybe he’s right — so he shut that ad network down, sold off or shut down his publications (like Backchannel to Wired), and pivoted to a Huffington Post mega-magazine model, but supported by user membership fees to get access to the ‘best’ content.¹

This has whipsawed a lot of publishers who bought the earlier vision — like me — and who at the least have diminished their expectations for Medium, if they haven’t simply bailed.

The more obvious and direct membership model, where users could subscribe to specific writers or publications, may have been discussed by Williams and his team, but never saw the light of day. Instead, Medium would become the overarching brand — and perhaps ultimately the only brand — and anyone participating was, for all intents and purposes, a freelancer working for an Uber-esque Medium.

I’ve been recruited three times to be part of various writers-for-hire models at Medium, and I tried to play each time. But they kept changing the models at a pace faster than the editorial calendars. I did write one piece for Backchannel, never connected in the second iteration when they were calling for pitches, but I did post a bunch of content under the third era, the current for-fee model.

Note that at different times I’ve been one of the top writers on Medium for economics, futures, and leadership, and sometimes all three at once. But that never translated into any enduring or secure relationship. But that fits the precarious freelancer model, again.

I admit to deep ambivalence about Medium, and my relationship with it. I will remain a reader, since there’s a lot of great writing here. But how much original content I write there remains to be seen. Without the draw of my own publication, it seems like just another LinkedIn or Forbes, except the opportunity to make a few bucks. Just another person moonlighting.

Again, like Uber. I like the ride-hailing service model for its utility, but I don’t agree with its business model, and I wouldn’t like to drive for Uber, I don’t think. Yes, I think the Uber analogy holds. Medium built and manages the platform that connects readers to writers, they set the prices, control the interactions, and run the money side. The writers control nothing except their content, and even that is overseen by Medium.

Did you know that a for-fee post cannot discuss Medium? And that for-fee posts can not include links for signing up to mailing lists, or to tip the writer? Once you put the Uber placard in the window, it all works according to their model.

What About Work Futures, The Publication and Community?

Short version: I am pushing so that Work Futures will continue, but not on Medium, and not as it is.

I started Work Futures in late 2015 on Medium as ‘a virtual institute and global council of work futurists’ and over the intervening years involved several dozen participants, who have contributed their writing and interactions with a community of over 10 thousand followers. Out of a few hundred posts we’ve had over 30 essays with over a thousand views, and a post of mine — 10 work skills for the postnormal era — has over 25 thousand views, alone. And we’ve had, I like to believe, a corresponding influence on discourse about the future of work.

By almost any measure, a small-scale success, at the least.

One of my goals was to create a source of revenue for contributors, including myself. I admit, that lacking any significant source of revenue, I didn’t talk about revenue much with contributors, but I have always hoped to get there. And in fact, that seemed to be one thing Medium was offering: the promise of revenue.

So, looking back, I’m proud of what we did at Medium, but sad that the initial vision — an ad supported publication focused on the future of work — did not materialize.

Also, my thoughts about community have changed. While Medium offers innovative social affordances, like side notes, those affordance aren’t publication-centric. So, if I comment or repost to a post by Esko Kilpi on Work Futures, the comment or repost isn’t part of the publication. It’s linked to the post, yes, and to Esko, yes. But Medium never provided me the mechanisms as a publisher to highlight community interactions. For example, there’s no way to feature interactions like those on the publication’s home page. And this is only one small example.

And now that Medium is moving away from publications, there likely won’t be much innovation there. (Did you know Medium no longer supports integrating domain names with publications? Existing ones are grandfathered, but Medium won’t guarantee they will forever. So, the writing’s on the wall.)

So, sometime late tonight on 29 January 2018, I am deleting the Medium publication Work Futures. Note: the posts won’t disappear: they will live on. But the binder will be gone.

Why Substack?

Short version: I needed a single platform to manage publishing, newsletters, and subscriptions. And I was hoping for a company obsessively focused on writers. That’s Substack.

Starting last year, I began to look into a different model of publishing: subscription-based publishing, and especially newsletters.² Individuals like Ben Thompson and Ben Evans had been on my radar for years, and publications like TheInformation were making waves. I was also tracking services like Patreon, Steady, Bounce, and Drip.

In the six months I’ve been on the search for a platform that I could restart Work Futures with a new model, a combination of publishing, newsletter, and subscription services. (For those heart souls that have followed my wanderings in the wilderness, I applaud your persistence.) I’ve experimented with Patreon and Steady, sent newsletters with Moonmail, Revue, and TinyLetter, and created social communities with Slack and Mobilize. I can confidently say that I know more about these tools — their strengths and weaknesses — than anyone should.

The good news is that a few months ago I read about a new start-up that was developing a writer-focused offering, one that would purpose-built to make a single solution so a writer can post public and subscriber-only writings on the same platform, email content to subscribers or a mailing list of followers, and handle the back-office details of collecting money, mailing list management, and other administrivia.

That platform is Substack, and as of today, Work Futures is hosted there.

I’ve been very impressed with the team at Substack, founders Hamish McKenzie and Chris Best, and the tech folks behind them. Substack is in beta, and I think I am the fifth or sixth writer signing with them, so this is new days. In fact, I think I was the first to use some of the new on-boarding tools last week.

I am joining a stellar group of writers:

  • Bill Bishop has been writing Sinocism, an email newsletter about China, since 2011, and was the first to join Substack.
  • Kelly Dwyer has covered the NBA for 20 years, and has joined Substack after 10 years at Yahoo Sports.
  • Mallory Ortberg — one of the cofounders of The Toast, now deadpooled — has launched The Shatner Chatner on Substack.

The Future of Work Futures

Short version: Work Futures is an exploration of critical themes of the future, present, and past of work, an outgrowth and continuation of the focus of the Medium years. However, I plan to invest more interaction with the community, and through regular updates, polls, and Q&A, and a Slack for Work Futures members.

What makes Work Futures different, and what I want to continue is the unique perspective and voice I bring to my line of inquiry:

Unlike a lot of other writing about work, my approach is not rah-rah aspirational mumbo-jumbo intended to motivate would-be business leaders, a recapitulation of the sayings of famous entrepreneurs, or the tired repetition of conventional, oppressive, bronze-age wisdom.
As my decades of writing and research shows, I’m interested in digging into the economics, politics, history, technologies, and future of work, from the viewpoint of the individual, the workforce, and the business, and I have little tolerance for unsupported biases masquerading as universal truth.

Going forward, I will be focused on a mix of long-format essays, daily curation of must-reads, and a steady stream of observations and perceptions. I’ve brought over great deal of existing content, a hundred or so of the most popular posts from Work Futures on Medium, as well as newsletter content from the experiments of the past months. The contributions of others at Work Futures can still be found at their respective accounts³, by the same titles.

I will be also be offering up observations of the work involved building out the new Work Futures, and the new shape of the community, much of which will be free and open. One big change is that subscribers not only get access to subscriber-only materials — like the early versions of the essays forming my work-in-process, A Working Future — but I have launched a Work Futures Slack community for subscribers, too.

Sign up for the mailing list, here, or subscribe, here.

I started this post with a quote from Seneca,

Every beginning is some other beginning’s end.

There is a real snake-biting-its-tail feeling about a time like this, as the line suggests. But there’s also a feeling of disjunction, of puncturing some barrier, of leaving things behind in order to get ahead.

And of course, as the musician Skillex hints, it’s not all up to us:

The future is an accident.


¹ Note that HuffPost recently shut down the 100K+ unpaid subscriber base, and moved to a paid writer model. Maybe Medium has another pivot coming, too.

² Few know that I led a successful newsletter — Business Process Strategies, where I wrote about business process, collaboration, groupware, workflow, etc. — in the pre-internet era, from 1994–1999. If fact, after a few years I bought it from the publisher, Cutter, ran it for a few years more, sold it to John Wiley&Sons, and wrote for them for another year.

³ I have a redirection system set up that I believe will direct you to existing posts, so if you are relying on a URL like ‘http://workfutures.io/10-work-skills-for-the-postnormal-era-2c07a1009a25’ that URL will take you to the new location of that post.