Medium, Monetization, and Authentic Incentive Systems

Dan Bayn
Dan Bayn
Feb 24, 2017 · 9 min read

How to reward writers, maybe even with money, for long-form content that contributes to a vibrant and ethical marketplace of ideas.

(or… How to Crack this Nut)

To be honest, I’d started to lose faith in Medium. At first, this platform was everything I wanted in online publishing: simple UI, access to content from anywhere, access to audiences outside my social network… it was like participating in a community blog for the whole internet.

Then came the dark times. Medium turned its attention from content creators to content publishers. Sounds like splitting hairs, I know, but the things that obsess publishers: branding, click-rates, advertising… those are the ways of the Old World. Those ways are up to their eyeballs in perverse incentives and banal commoditization.

That’s why I was so happy to hear Ev Williams say that Medium is changing course, putting their focus back on content creators and finding new ways to get them paid for their work. It’s a tough nut, obviously, but somebody’s gotta crack it, if we’re ever gonna get beyond clickbait and fake news.

Medium Staff needs to put some serious thought into 1) the kinds of content they want to cultivate and 2) the sort of incentives that will amplify writer’s authentic motivations. I happen to know a thing or three about the psychology of incentive systems, so strap yourselves in…

The Challenges

  • Money tends to overshadow intrinsic motivations.
  • Bad metrics make strange bedfellows.
  • Nobody wants to pay for content. (Or do they?)

Fundamentally, we want people to write because they have something to say. We want them to say it well and we want them to reach the audiences who most need to hear them.

Getting writers paid is just one means to that end; it is neither necessary nor sufficient as an incentive system. Any good solution must preserve, or ideally amplify, authentic motivations.

Money is a powerful, dangerous incentive. It tends to undermine more authentic motivations and, when not carefully implemented, tends to reward the wrong things. To understand why, you need to know a bit about behaviorism and the overjustification effect.

Behaviorism is the most straight-forward idea in psychology. It starts with the simple observation that rewarding someone for something (generally) makes them do it more often. Punishing someone for something (generally) makes them do it less often. There, now you understand behaviorism.

Except that I almost forgot about negative punishment. That’s what happens when you remove or withhold a reward. Basically, if I do something and expect a reward, but I don’t get that reward, I experience it as punishment. This plays a huge role in the overjustification effect.

Okay, so overjustification. When you replace a weak, internal motivation (like helping others, sharing your expertise, or contributing to a cause) with a powerful, external reward (cash money, dolla dolla bills, sweet lucre), you should expect an uptick in the rewarded behavior. So far, so good.

However, if the external reward ever stops coming, or even slows down, the person experiences that break with their expectations as a negative punishment. The result is a steep drop in the rewarded behavior, even below the levels of their internal motivation. Powerful, external rewards eventually undermine authentic, intrinsic motivations.

When we start providing cash incentives for writers, there’s a real danger that they’ll forget why they got into word-wrestling in the first place. Such is the way of all things.

Even worse, traditional measures of success tend to steer writers in the wrong direction. Click rates reward enticing headlines over substantive content. Mass markets privilege mainstream audiences over marginalized minorities. The modern news feed has commoditized content to the point that there’s little incentive to build a solid reputation, either as a writer or a publisher. The internet didn’t invent these forces, but it sure as hell amplifies them.

Finally, the conventional wisdom is that people don’t want to pay for content. We’re used to getting it for free and not just on the internet. Broadcast TV and radio made the mass market by giving content away for “free.” Of course, we all know that’s because their real product is us, the audience, and they’re selling us to advertisers.

Yet, crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon demonstrate that people do want to support the content creators, and missions, they love. I believe the real challenges lie in making it convenient and affordable to do so.

A more direct, free market relationship between creators and audiences will benefit everybody. (Except probably advertisers. Sorry.)

Authentic Incentives

  • Incentives shape a community through memetic selection.
  • Amplify authentic incentives to avoid the overjustification effect.

Feedback mechanisms shape online communities by biasing the kinds of content that get shared, read, and rewarded. The traditional method is vague in the extreme: Like, Recommend, Upvote, etc. Medium would be better off 1) deciding what kinds of content it wants to cultivate and 2) crafting feedback mechanisms around those qualities.

This has a lot to do with meme theory, which is an evolutionary theory of human behavior. Imagine every idea out there, every fact or belief or turn of phrase, is in constant competition for survival. They reproduce by getting people to repeat them, to pass them along like viruses (or genes). That’s meme theory in a nutshell.

There are many ways a meme can get a leg up on the competition…

  • Being easier to learn and reproduce.
  • Being spread through a broadcast medium.
  • Providing some benefit to people who reproduce them.

These are the levers that Medium can pull to apply selection pressure in favor of the memes they want to cultivate.

So, what kind of memes does Medium want to cultivate? Obviously, they want content that’s well-written, informative, insightful. Maybe they also want content that’s professional, responsible, or even factual (gasp!). Perhaps being funny or helpful are desirable qualities. These are essential, strategic decisions for the platform.

Next, it’s important to consider the social context of feedback. Hitting the “Recommend” button is a signal from the reader to the public, “I think this deserves your attention.” It doesn’t tell the writer much more than a thumbs-up. Did the reader find my article helpful or do they just agree with me? What did they like about my writing style, if anything? The selection pressure is there, but it’s weak and directionless.

Instead, I recommend (heheh) inviting readers to compliment writers on their writing. “Well-Written” is a direct, qualitative signal from a reader to a writer. The same goes for compliments like “professional” or “insightful.” Compliments encourage readers to reward writers for doing things the platform wants to cultivate. It’s focused and strategic.

Finally, compliments would help prevent overjustification by explicitly tying rewards to authentic motivations. Getting a compliment like “Well-Written” appeals to my desire for skill mastery and esteem. Being told my content was “helpful” or “insightful” appeals to my desire to help others. These are the motivations that make writers write in the first place.

Reputation Systems

  • Public recognition helps memes spread by vicarious reinforcement.
  • Increasing the visibility of a writer gives their memes more opportunities to reproduce.

The road to an effective online reputation system is littered with corpses. From follower counts to karma to Klout scores, the world has yet to see a truly effective form of online reputation tracking.

So, why bother? Compliments are an effective, strategic way to provide qualitative feedback to writers, but Medium wants to do more than help individual writers get better; they want to build a community of good writers. That means spreading those good writing memes far and wide.

Like most social animals, we have an innate ability to observe the experiences of others and learn from them ourselves. Bearded capuchin monkeys learn how to prepare and crack nuts by watching each other, then trying to duplicate the observed behavior. On average, it takes them eight years to perfect the skill.

Obviously, human beings blow that away. We can pick up new behaviors by observing them only once, if they’re simple enough, cuz humans are awesome. This process is called vicarious learning. Here’s what it means for Medium: By publicly recognizing top contributors, the platform can shape the behavior of other writers.

Medium should aggregate each writer’s compliments and display those metrics as part of their profile information. Imagine a little “Well-Written” badge that appears below an author’s profile pic. Now, imagine you can click on that badge and get a list of all the best writers on Medium, as determined by readers. That’s the meme machine I wanna see.

There are intricacies, here. You only want to recognize top performers in this way, and you don’t want these metrics biased by audience size. You want an honest, accurate indication of quality. That means normalizing the metrics, tracking the standard deviation, and only recognizing writers who land on the high end of the curve.

It should go without saying that you want to track each compliment separately. It can and should be possible for a writer to earn renown for their humor or insightfulness without being “professional,” for instance. You want to clearly signal to other writers when an article is being recognized for one thing and not another, in order to avoid reinforcing the wrong memes.

Such considerations will become especially important as Medium begins linking these metrics to cash rewards.

Demand-Driven Monetization

  • Allow readers to make monthly donations that get distributed among the writers they compliment.
  • Allow curators to attach donations to their collections, signalling demand for certain types of writing.
  • Provide recognition for readers who donate.

Time to make it rain! I think it’s pretty clear that people want to support their favorite content creators, they just don’t like paywalls and microtransactions. Can’t say I blame them. Artificial scarcity blows as a business model. (The only thing worse is advertising!)

Medium should provide a membership tier for people who want to support content with a recurring, monthly donation. Medium would distribute that user’s donations among the authors they compliment each month. The recurring donation takes the hassle out of microtransactions and there’s no need to place anything behind a paywall.

This membership tier would be for users who want to take an active hand in steering the Medium community. Their judgments would have an outsized impact and their support should come with a little recognition. Imagine a “steering committee” badge displaying beneath your profile pic. It’s a little thing, but it amplifies those authentic motivations and provides vicarious reinforcement to others.

Monetization through Content Curation

The weakness of the above approach is that it can only act on content that’s already been written. A truly demand-driven approach would allow readers to signal what sorts of the content they’d like to see on the platform. Sounds like a job for content curation!

Imagine that you could create a collection on Medium and attach a monthly donation to it. That money would be distributed among the authors whose works you add to the collection each month. It would also act as a demand-driven signal to authors: “Hey! I’m willing to pay for content like this!”

Medium should aggregate this data and provide a visualization that writers can use to track these demand markets and identify the best opportunities: topics with a large ratio of pledged money to current supply.

In particular, I think monetized collections would be a great way to support journalism. Say I wanna see more reporting on the Bowling Green Massacre (joking!) or the Dakota Access Pipeline. I’d create a collection about it and start adding articles. Not only am I giving a boost to those authors, I’m demonstrating to other writers exactly the kind of writing I’m willing to pay for.

Even better, Medium could allow readers to donate money to each other’s collections, amplifying the demand signal. Collections would come into their own as mini-publishers, but they’d be funded directly by readers.

Avoiding Overjustification

On their own, these demand-driven approaches could easily fall victim to the same metrics-obsessed, “remember to like and subscribe” bullshit that plagues other platforms.

Medium needs to ensure that monetary rewards are tied to qualitative feedback that supports their mission. In other words, they must be explicitly tied to compliments.

When a writer sees $$$ land in their wallet at the end of the month, they need an immediate rundown of the compliments and collections that paid off for them. Are they getting paid because they’re funny or because they’re professional? Are they getting paid for reporting on a specific topic? Appealing to a specific audience? These points will be easy to drive home with a few visualizations.

Remember, we want Medium to remain a platform for people who write because they have something to say. We just also want them to get paid. And to become better writers in the process.

Maybe I should write an article about setting achievable goals, but this is the nut everyone wants to crack. And we gotta crack it, because the media ecosystem we’re living in now is unsustainable.

It’s not too late! Medium can still be on the leading edge of this transformation.

Remember to like and subscribe ;P

User Experience & Behavior Design

Social science for the social web.

Dan Bayn

Written by

Dan Bayn

User Experience, Behavior Design, and weird fiction.

User Experience & Behavior Design

Social science for the social web.