The Social Journalism Conundrum & Why Medium is Doomed

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The Social Journalism Conundrum & Why Medium is Doomed

Everything that’s wrong with contemporary writing.

Re: Ev Williams Sent Me A Letter And I’m Considering A Migration

Man Yawning

Azim, rarely do I reply to articles because comments waste time and serve no purpose since they become lost in the digital ether, but your article concerning writing on Medium warranted discussion. You should not take this discussion personally since most Medium writers deserve the same harshness.

You discuss migration as a “symptom” of the problem then claim there is the hope of gaining an audience by writing two articles weekly. This argument (besides meaningless) is counterintuitive since voluminous writing created the article “how to gain more audience or how I made $3274.41 passive income last month” that caused you to cancel your Medium subscription. Erroneous thinking aside, you brilliantly exemplified the pervasive decline of quality literature propagated in a self-serving writing community.

Not once in your article do you discuss ways to add value to the reader or possible solutions for acquiring a better readership. Instead, like many articles on Medium, you uniquely describe what writing’s craft does for you and couch this discussion in a positive talk that reduces the mundane to significantly tiresome reading.

“I felt a sense of sadness. I missed writing. So I returned to Medium. ‘Creativity heals me and others’, said the author Julia Cameron.”

Perhaps Cameron is correct, but your cure violates every aspect of creativity, vividly seen in your article’s poor structure, near incoherence, and lack of meaningful topic. With the abundance of problems facing the world, one would think no end exists to the choice of subject matter, but instead of choosing an important issue or even entertainment, you decided to write about the decision to migrate from Medium. An excellent choice evidenced by thousands of fellow applauding writers adding to the derivative content disaster. Bravo!

Don’t worry, Azim. You are not alone. Medium’s pages swell with derivative writing with such volume that people dedicate publications to writing about writing and how to make piles of cash. But this is the cure that you spoke of, right? Write two articles a week and publish in as many publications as possible to build readership. So effective is this method of churning out literature that I mute publications as the only means of blinding myself to, How to Make Millions on Medium or Ten Sure-Fire Ways to Write a Great Article and Gratitude Makes You Happy.

Please don’t mistake my words for anger because I grieve with insult. The many years dedicated to honing reading and writing into an occupation feels tragically wasted witnessing you and others post thousands of quota-filling articles, especially while quality-driven writers struggle to be heard above the publishing din. The situation endlessly saddens me because not even basic grammar and punctuation's total disregard hinders the rewarding of redundant, unresearched writing. Perhaps this problem shows the inherent flaw of social journalism that mandates all writers are equal: however contradictory for having an applause system. I don’t know, but for sure, an imitative-article assembly line will only get you an artificial audience of writers seeking quid pro quo applause and followers, adding to the very problem you felt worthy of describing.

Thoughts on Improving the Medium Publishing Platform

My recent article “No, you shouldn’t publish on Medium” caused some stir, with several friends seeing my departure from the site negatively. My technical friends feared SEO loss, but transferring articles maintained traffic volume. Even more surprisingly, content that had no traffic on Medium received visitors. Only halfway indexed by Google, and my traffic already surpasses what I had on Medium.

My literary friends claim I should stay on Medium because leaving worsens the problem of poor content. I reject this claim because if my articles enriched Medium’s audience, I would have garnered internal traffic from subscribers.

They also claim I didn’t give Medium a fair shake and judged the entire site based on my small sample. Accepting this claim, I renewed my Medium membership to try again.

Sadly, I am already patting myself on the back for being accurate in my original assertions of Medium. In a little more than a week, I joined a small publication, Write Under the Moon, which published my article on Buddhism, a popular topic gaining two internal and two external views on Medium. On my website, articles about religion engage dozens to hundreds of monthly readers despite having very niche topics. Social commentary pieces garner much more, especially if controversial.

A 30 day snapshot of a religious article with a niche topic.
A 30 day snapshot of a religious article with a niche topic.

Frustrated but undaunted, I resolved to post an article a month as planned and continue tormenting myself with Medium’s horrific literature. Opening the browser this morning revealed a wealth of crappy articles haunting my feed. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, Jessica Wildfire appeared at the algorithm’s behest, proclaiming, “I’m not happy with Medium Either.” Reading and agreeing with her article inspired questioning of my tactics, and I decided to focus on the Medium problem more fruitfully than prior discussions. As much as I believe Medium is a doomed-to-failure, overflowing dumpster of bad writing, I feel sad watching the site fail to produce true social journalism. To this end, I believe Medium’s inherent problems are fixable with some creativity and old-school journalism strategies.

The Incestuous Market

Medium’s pay model creates an incestuous market of writers trying to gain readership from each other while vying for the smaller audience of actual readers reserved for those authors commanding the algorithm. I believe this point is indisputable based on observing the algorithm and authors with large followings.

This model’s sustainability requires acquiring more writers willing to pay monthly in the hope of earning directly or indirectly from quid pro quo reading and commenting. The week following my article criticizing this model, Medium enacted a new program incentivizing subscription selling through authors. An interesting approach that ultimately has little chance of success since Medium does not attract enough readers to make this worthwhile. This problem worsens behind the paywall, which deters most traffic from entering after a few free reads. More problematic is the algorithm, which supports the writers with the largest audience by displaying them more than anyone else, thus diminishing other authors’ possibilities of selling a subscription. These problems increase the incestuous market’s nature, making true reader expansion nearly impossible.

There are solutions.

Medium has resisted, thankfully, the advertising approach that fills pages with annoying display and PPC ads. I am unsure why but simple, low-cost solutions with proven track records seem to escape attention.

Consider the old-school magazine design, which Medium’s publications are reminiscent. Medium has the divisions of theme and subject matter but is missing the classifieds. All magazines sold display advertising and classifieds. While this presents some issues, the benefit of charging for ads in the rear of magazines would be enormous with Medium because the company already has a large subscriber base. You could also prohibit the use of affiliate links and instead ask that people buy ad space and link directly to that ad in Medium’s classifieds. No dating personals or user-policed selling (likely the downfall of Craigslist), just straight product or service ads with links. If you want to keep it classy, make it kid-friendly, and don’t allow porn or other possibly offensive material.

Many eCommerce sites built on Shopify and other platforms seek more than a dismal hope of Facebook ads. Medium could offer a massive selling system integrated with blogging and use a subdomain to avoid classifieds interfering with SEO. No display ads, increased revenue, better SEO, and wider audience reach. Sounds like a win to me! Many old-school approaches could improve Medium, and I am shocked Medium has failed to implement some already. Perhaps my example was considered and rejected for other reasons, but doubling down on an unsustainable market of writers looking to earn money will not save Medium.

The Quality Problem

By its nature, social journalism accepts all writing: good and bad. This openness has the benefit of giving voice to many unknown writers but presents serious issues, most importantly, the degrading of quality by placement. Sadly, Medium places skilled writers’ articles alongside the illiterate’s scribbling, and this placement profoundly impacts readership, causing a generalization of negative views about all the writers. At a glance, Ms. Wildfire’s article made me involuntarily cringe, assuming another poorly written article about writing on Medium. This guilt by association often occurs, such as Facebook continuously proving itself uncaring about user privacy and welfare, which transferred to other sites, causing many people to drop all social media, fearing dangers.

Medium direly needs some form of standard in place. Even Wikipedia, the closest thing to real social journalism, had to lock pages and enforce certain standards.

There are many ways standards could be implemented, but perhaps this is where social journalism works the best. The private message feature allows authors to speak with other authors, and maybe this tool’s function could expand to show factual errors or point out grammar issues. While this might cause some flak from the sensitive writers, it would help alleviate many common problems and help to improve the site.

I think most people would agree that an error pointed out is better than a critic slamming them in an article for poor writing.

That Pesky Algorithm

Medium started a new feature that allows readers to choose fewer types of articles. Another intriguing approach doomed to failure. I don’t pretend to know the exact function of Medium’s algorithm, but I can tell you after almost an hour of pressing that button on articles discussing “writing,” it did nothing.

The reason for this issue likely stems from confusing the algorithm. I click on lots of different things and very well might be giving the algorithm mixed messages. Like me, most people search in a manner oppositional to algorithm efficiency, highlighting that algorithms are not the way to social journalism.

Discard popularity or traffic volume as the determinant for providing reading choices since it does not work well and unfairly raises some writers for arbitrary and often misleading reasons. If most Medium writers had real readership or followers, the algorithm would not impact their stats, as many have complained. Their audiences would continue finding them through Google or Bing, and more importantly, their supposed followers on Medium would continue clicking on them.

I don’t exclude myself in any way from this argument, evidenced by six months of nearly six hundred articles generating 15,000–18,000 monthly reads and making no money on Medium. More importantly, Medium added no benefit to me selling books or gaining readership on my website. Transferring those articles to my website, I acquired all that traffic plus returning readers and sales.

I had no real audience on Medium.

Algorithmic choices based on volume are not expressions of popularity since showing visitors what’s popular increases that popularity. Celebrities prove this point since their followers don’t confine themselves to just social media and search the web to learn about their favorite artists. The real question asks how to make search practical for the user.

A menu system would help tremendously with options such as Newest to Oldest and Most Popular using tag relevance. For sure, a new search method is a challenge, but I’m sure it is attainable using limited menus in combination with algorithms to create a fairer playing field.

Improving Medium

As Ms. Wildfire alluded, if Ev Williams is serious about the relational model, this system needs emphasizing in other ways, such as writers coaching one another to produce higher quality content while deemphasizing the current relational model’s money-making focus: a shift requiring a new revenue stream. There are many possible solutions, but more than anything, Medium needs a creative revolution to alter the current direction, which appears bent on more of the same methods that have not worked for Medium or the writers.

No, you shouldn’t publish on Medium.

Social Journalism's Paradox & Faux Audience

A popular social journalism site founded in 2005, Associated Content, Yahoo purchased in 2010, replaced with Yahoo Voices then shut down in 2014. Called a "wasteland of writing" reincarnated from past media company failures by Farhad Manjoo on Slate now aptly describes the Medium disaster. However, Medium's literature dystopia shadows Voices with a traffic-based pay model that only pays for internal traffic, creating the unsustainable membership of more writers than readers. Ultimately, a membership issue that led to the downfall of Voices and other social journalism companies despite their willingness to pay for all traffic. Not only did Medium's subscription system fail to deter dollar-driven authors from quid pro quo clicking and commenting, but they also worsened the practice. Like Yahoo Voices, Medium superficially appears as a publishing and money-making paradise, but beneath the followers and applause, the technology bias inherent in social journalism makes the site a publishing hell worsened by the imbalance of writers to readers.

Social Journalism's Paradox

Social journalism has many issues with the credibility of information and author, but perhaps the worst problem stems from social journalism not being social at all. Social journalism, like all social media, provides an unequal playing field, resulting from a biased content ranking system. Social media’s content-sharing conceptualization told us by companies like Medium, Facebook, Twitter, and many others, describes a system where people can publish and find readership alongside anyone, professional or not. This imaginary world clarifies when examining the algorithmic bias that drives content ranking.

Google’s gold standard for search ranking, which all search algorithms incorporate, is supposedly “organic search traffic," defined as someone typing into the search engine “something” and returning results which the person clicks on and arrives on the webpage in question. I say “supposedly” because for all the bullshit search engine companies talk about organic traffic, the most important determinant of "organically" ranking a page is traffic volume. The logic driving this ranking system assumes large numbers of visitors to a webpage equates to good content. You can post thousands of articles and still have low traffic because no matter how well-written your article, having no traffic means you rank low in the search engine, keeping you from getting traffic. The absurdity of this measure applies to social journalism, which in many ways worsens the problem.

There are great articles on Medium you never see because articles rank based on topic keywords (tags on Medium) and traffic volume. Medium tries to show people content based on interest along with the highest volume of traffic: a fact exhibited by the algorithm showing more of what you already looked at or more of the same author and similar authors with a higher ranking. When I search "racism in college," this proves true with the top result based on the author with the largest number of followers (volume of traffic) and the closest keyword match.

Keyword search on Medium
No, you shouldn’t publish on Medium.

When I search "funny dog stories" we see the same volume and keyword search issue:

No, you shouldn’t publish on Medium.

This search trait reveals social journalism's bias and ability to create an echo chamber where popular writers and articles rise to the top, with little consideration for quality or diverse viewpoints. This problem extends beyond Medium to all algorithmic searches that value traffic volume and keywords above other metrics, reflecting a worse technology issue.

Traffic volume's value as a metric comes from the ease of measurement. As much as tech companies love to discuss how their advanced algorithms can read and judge content quality, they cannot stop derivative and poorly written articles from ranking. Wikipedia articles rank at the top of search despite their propensity to be poorly written and inaccurate, and similarly, Medium's top-ranking articles often brim with mistakes and awkward language. A necessary evil in social journalism because writing's subjective nature means quality filters will exclude large amounts of literature since algorithms cannot recognize many differences between stylistic choices and good grammar.

In any search model, the highest-ranking content results from keywords searched, but more importantly, the volume of people landing on web pages –– traffic. Tech companies cloud this limitation to make you believe they know what you want when in reality, they show you what they think you want based on what you already viewed and what has the highest traffic. How do you algorithmically measure what people want to read when they may not know what they want? Facebook, which invasively digs through your personal information and computer to determine what you like for advertising purposes, fails to deliver a reliable marketing model or method of determining popularity. You could post a million posts on Facebook and get almost no response, no matter the quality. Social journalism is worse because sites like Medium rely on even less information based on keywords and limited profiles, but even if Medium employed invasive data mining like Facebook, it would still prioritize content in the same manner –– traffic and keywords.

Still, Medium fails more than Facebook when considering Medium's content ranking limits to internal traffic, meaning paid subscribers. You can generate thousands of visitors from the web and make nothing. I can prove this with almost six months of wasted effort posting articles that generate fifteen to eighteen thousand reads per month, paying less than five dollars because all the traffic comes from external search engines.

Six Months of Wasted Traffic and Effort on Medium

So, if the gold standard is traffic, then certainly I achieved the goal, but on Medium, this success doesn't matter since I generated external traffic. One might ask, "If Medium's algorithm works to raise articles in search based on traffic, then why is there no internal traffic on my articles?" Because Medium doesn't have a real audience, and the fake audience causes the algorithm to reward them with more of the same self-serving content they seek.

Faux Audience

Seeing thousands of readers landing on my articles and not getting paid for this traffic (which benefits Medium with the potential of new subscribers) clearly shows the road to building an audience. Build an internal audience by gaming the system.

Acquiring thousands of followers and making money is possible for a social journalist producing low-quality content by joining the melee of quid pro quo following, commenting, and applauding. If you gain thousands of followers, no matter how you got them, you are more likely to gain additional followers and rank higher in Medium's search because sheer numbers drive your popularity or traffic. I say "more likely" because the strategy is not foolproof since you now play a numbers game futile for most writers. Not only will you spend time following many writers and applauding their stories, but you must write content daily or weekly. Most good writers don’t absurdly expect to pound out an article a day, but even more outrageous than mass content production, writers must write content Medium subscribers desire.

Medium Publishing
What is that content, you ask?

That pesky algorithm looks for popular content, and surprisingly, on a platform geared for writers to make money, “writing” becomes the obvious subject for articles, and even more specifically, “writing about writing on Medium.” Countless publications and articles about writing fill Medium’s search pages, even when you don't look for them. Any reader entering Medium becomes inundated with these singularly focused and boring articles. Yet, Medium takes no issue with this content because the algorithm curse demands Medium reward imbecilic, derivative writing, as do all social journalism platforms. However well-intended Medium’s purpose began, that impetus devolved into a money-making endeavor, using writers and sacrificing readers. The only way to make money on Medium or any social journalism site is to appeal to the internally focused customer who is generally not a reader but someone trying to game the system. By its nature, Medium becomes sustainable only by generating more writer-customers: a business model that may have merit since many businesses like Amazon's Vella caters to this market.

Kindle Vella
By the way, this article (concerning writing) I posted on Medium generated more money in a week than the nearly six hundred articles mentioned prior, which was around a dollar.

More disappointment for writers.

Amazon’s new storytelling system, Vella, adds a new dimension to KDP, allowing authors to post stories and interact with readers. The application’s basic formatting, editing, and easy upload features make Vella appealing, especially to writers looking to publish short fiction in a mobile format.

The Library for Vella

Mobile reading is nicely designed.
Mobile reading is nicely designed.

As of July 15, 2021, some functions remain unavailable such as reader commenting and sales reporting. Perhaps Vella is in a soft launch, but Amazon’s lack of communication concerning Vella makes this status a guess. While more features are likely to implement soon, Vella already devolves into a writer-driven marketplace with little chance of correcting. The hope Vella held quickly dissipated into disappointment, realizing Amazon started another writer-focused marketplace similar to Wattpad.

Vella’s marketing scheme targets writers denoted by lack of email marketing (except to authors) and the, oh so subtle, requirement for writers to purchase tokens to earn the favorite (fave) crown.

To earn a little Fave crown by your story you must buy tokens.

To earn a little Fave crown by your story you must buy tokens. Something not done with any other product on Amazon.

This is what the Fave looks like on my story “The Helltorch” on the left. Now I feel special.

This is what the Fave looks like on my story “The Helltorch” on the left. Now I feel special.

Why Amazon chose this marketing approach, I don’t know, but considering the company caters to a tremendous book market, marketing to readers makes more sense than creating a community of quid pro quo false reviewers. More than confused, I am disappointed after spending considerable time preparing for this launch only to find authors posted upwards of sixty episodes on the first day, begging the question of how they accomplished this feat. With a little digging, you easily find these stories reposted from other sites, which is expressly forbidden. Beyond breaking the rules, these are the same authors inhabiting many other writing websites and Facebook groups — not readers. Make no mistake, Amazon purposely designed Vella for serial genre-fiction with only one tag for nonfiction and nothing for literary fiction: a clear welcome sign for this writing community void of real readers.

I refuse to believe literature’s only market founds on writers, yet this cottage industry now rises to new heights under Amazon, which saddens me tremendously. Unlike many writers, I like Amazon because the company opened publishing opportunities for everyone, disrupting arrogant publishers and agents. Amazon’s choice to go this route with Vella feels like a betrayal when they had the power to market to real readers and not capitalize on a self-serving community of writers.

Social journalism's model doesn't provide a good publishing environment for journalists, novelists, or anyone seeking to build readership since quantity ranks over quality. Still, Medium is not the entire problem despite proliferating derivative, poor-quality literature. Neither is social journalism in the true sense of the idea. The problem is a lack of technology. Companies like Medium need a technology currently unavailable. To create true social journalism, readers would need to view the many choices of articles and choose these articles based on what piques their interest, void of any interference that biases results to particular authors. The algorithm disrupts social journalism by showing readers programmatic deductions of their desired reading, using arbitrary traffic and keyword ranking. Showing readers millions of options is a problem of practicality as old as the internet, and as much as tech companies want you to believe in the “intelligence” of their algorithms, they are a long way from creating an application that knows you as a reader and produces truly personalized results. Search based on popularity or traffic volume proves this true because they wouldn’t prioritize this metric if a better way existed. I’m not saying the goal is impossible, but the technology is not there yet.

More than a lack of technology, literature is a very human experience. People don’t read articles seeking reading reciprocation or write to rank better in search engines. Literature provides enjoyment or learning, both if good. Social journalism’s technology-centeredness pulls writers away from what readers value, causing poor quality content further distancing the writer from the reader.


***A week after publishing this article Medium enacted an incentive program for converting external viewers to readers.***

Photo by Beth Hope on Unsplash 

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