I found the same to be true on LinkedIn, where the very best work was being done by ordinary schmos who just wrote well out of self-respect even as their networking abilities were being systematically gutted by the host in favor of preposterous and unreadable gobbledygook by their “INfluencers” whose posts would claim tens of thousands of views within the first few hours.
Ron Collins

Oh don’t get me started on the cesspit that LinkedIn is waist deep in the process of becoming. Like other “social” media (terrible and inaccurate term that it is), LinkedIn is wallowing in virtue signalling. But an interestign aspect of virtue signalling is that it is like “donating” teddy bears to Hurricane Harvey relief groups — it makes them feel good but neither costs them anything nor does good.

If this “quality content” is about who gets rewarded in what way for producing it, then I have to assume you’re talking about some other internet, or maybe you live on some other planet.

Quite the contrary, it is a recognition of the loss of quality filters. I picked up a phrase years ago that is contextual:

The Internet doesn’t make you stupid, it makes your stupidity more accessible to others.

Look at the metrics the bulk of people and organizations “measure” content’s value with: “views” and “subscribers/members”. On youtube you have to really work to find channels that don’t blast “please like/subscribe” in the video itself. The situation you mention on LinkedIn is in the same boat. The entire recommendation system is powering that leaky boat. As a fellow curmudgeon, Ron, I can respect why you choose to write and why you choose to do it the way you do. I can also respect your decision to eschew a financial reward. Personally I don’t do this for money, but frankly wouldn’t turn it down anymore than I would have turned down tips as a pizza delivery driver.

But the current situation fuels the problem you so accurately describe on LinkedIn and any other “social media” precisely because the reward is self-validation via “likes” — something that literally costs the “liker” nothing. This is especially true given how easy it is on Medium to accidentally applaud multiple times. Perhaps that is the greatest irony of the new system: it actually shows how little value the claps actually have.

My consistent experience has been that people write well or don’t based on their own priorities and prerogatives, and the overwhelming majority of the most interesting and stimulating content I’ve seen has come from people who considered the writing of it, itself, as its own reward.

I’ve seen quality from both people who write for the sake of the writing, and those who write for the sake of detailing things. But that doesn’t address the fundamental problem with the “like” system. This is where the optimist in me (hint: the glass is not half empty or half full; it is full) overcomes my inner curmudgeon: we can do better.

In many ways the rising of “like” signaling is a reflection of other disvaforable trends in society. Whether it be “feel good, do nothing” laws (“National <insert something here> (day|week|month)”) or promoting someone because they promote themselves, these preceded the “like”. While it is difficult to confirm a causal relationship, it did in fact temporally follow that once we accepted truly do-nothing-but-feel-good proclamations we then moved on to applauding “do-nothing-good with bad result and feel good anyway” proclamations.

This sequence is mirrored in online publishing and commentary. Many moons ago Slashdot was the place to comment on things. They had, and still do, a rating system where you “moderated” a comment or post by whether you found it “insightful”, or “interesting”, or even “troll” or “overrated”. A positive tag gave a +1 and a negative subtracted one. The maximum value was 5. Moderating was a privilege to be earned via “karma”, and you did not get to do it all the time.

This is significantly more effective in describing quality than clapping does. It increased the quality of the moderation because you had a limited window and amount of moderation. As a result moderators had to weigh which posts merited a moderating action. They also had a meta-moderation system where the same system was applied to the moderation. In essence, “clapping” was not free even if only in perception. Arguably, Slashdot’s “karma” may have been the first large scale implementation of a virtual currency.

That system likewise illustrates an additional problem with the Medium clap/recommend model: there is only boosting. What if you find a post or article is bad? What if it exists merely to insult someone? There is nothing you can do to signal that. The Medium model takes an already detrimental system and makes it worse by only allowing amplification. The echo chamber becomes the feedback loop.

A lot of typing has been done of late about echo chambers. People saying “we” need to get out of our echo chambers are clueless about what systems are in place to perpetuate and reward them. Intentional or not Medium’s system rewards echo chambering, and the new system adds yet more reverb. So long as people build themselves on ephemeral “rewards” that are demonstrated to have no actual value when considered, the less aware and concerned with things that have value and meaning they become.

As long as the “producers” lack, or refuse to accept, the perspective of that lack of value, they will careen toward the cliff. As long as companies continue to ignore that having a product is more viable than having no product other than the reader they will contribute to another tech bubble which will burst. Consider the commentary on Medium about the membership model and paywall. Notice what is missing?

People write that they don’t like the paywall and don’t like the membership bits, but they pay them to benefit Medium the company. Not authors, but Medium. I take this as an implicit understanding from them that they have way to value the people who actually make Medium useful: the people who write on it. In this regard Medium is rather comparable to a labor union which also runs the business, rather than a platform that recognizes the actual value in the field.

If the phrase “irrational exuberance” has ever fit, it is in every Internet “like” system, even more so in ones where the “likes” have no counterweight, and especially when the “likes” have been inflated as Medium is doing.

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By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.