Writing On Medium Made My Writing Worse

When you find yourself writing about shovels, it's time to move on.

Medium is the 800lb gorilla of writing sites. The internet is peppered with links to articles and stories that people have written on Medium. Its popularity is primarily because it has an effortless way to pay authors for their work, and a large built-in audience for writers to gain exposure. It also has a business model that encourages click-bait and topic convergence that ultimately discourages unique content. Instead of raising the bar for content on the internet, Medium keeps the bar squarely in mediocre land.

I am writing this post because of a recent exchange on social media. I use the Fediverse as my primary social media and the Fedi is disproportionately populated with early adopters at this point in its evolution. Within early adopter circles are technical people and, in the case of the Fediverse, vulnerable groups that have left mainstream social media because of the toxicity those platforms encourage. This group is largely averse to internet tracking and snake oil salespeople. So, when one of my followers asked me why I only post 3 of the 5 weekly posts of my tech newsletter the “One Time Pad” on the web and the other 2 only to free subscribers, I knew I had to spend some time explaining myself properly. I think I did that and I liked my answer so much that I want to expand on it a bit, and give it a more permanent home in my Death By Tech newsletter archive (that’s this post).

The ratio

The 3:2 ratio is somewhat arbitrary. I chose to post five items per week in the OTP because I feel that is sustainable. Unlike Death By Tech, which you’re reading now, the OTP is a quick daily newsletter with “the one thing you need to know today about internet security”. That is a rich topic and provides enough content for five posts a week. Of those posts, I decided I’d like to lean towards giving away more content publicly, so the 3:2 ratio is a good way to go.

The reason for restricting two posts at all is a deeper topic. The short answer is that I've decided I'd like to build an audience that is interested in my work rather than just throwing stuff out there into the ether.

The longer answer

The longer answer is that I've been writing articles and blogs and books and magazine pieces since 2003. I've never tried to build an audience such as a mailing list before. The lesson I've learned, and the reason I'm doing it now, is because I have finally acknowledged that I find writing to anonymous readers to be unsatisfying and it has degraded my work. When I have no clue who I'm writing to, I tend to write more clickbaity stuff, or about topics that I don't necessarily know well just to get the clicks.

This year I've decided that I'd like my audience to be comprised, at least in part, of people who have taken some small concrete, manual step to express specific interest in my work. I can't see any other widely accessible way to do that except for the good old tried and true mailing list.

How Medium makes writing worse

Here’s a quick primer on how Medium works for writers. Each time a writer posts a story (everything is referred to as a “story” on Medium) the writer can choose whether that story is free for everyone to read or if goes behind Medium’s partial paywall. The partial paywall allows readers without a Medium account to view 2-3 posts per month and then it puts up a paywall encouraging them to subscribe to read more stories.

Writers are paid only when a paying Medium subscriber reads their story. There is no money for free readings by either logged in free Medium users or reads from the anonymous internet. Therefore, writers that want to make any money on Medium must put their work behind the paywall, but doing so does not mean a writer will make any money.

Exposure on Medium

Medium is a very busy place and it’s very hard to get your work in front of paying Medium subscribers. I have had articles on Medium with several hundred views in 24 hours, but they all came from a LinkedIn post or a Fediverse post and none of those readers were paying Medium subscribers so I made nothing on those posts. If you want to make any money, you need paying Medium subscribers to read your work and no other reader matters.

In theory, writers can build their own audience by attracting followers. However, we’ve all had that experience at some point in our life of trying to build a following on a very busy site like a Twitter or a Facebook group, and the reality is that it is hard. The busier the site, the more noise, and the harder it is to get noticed. Medium knows this and has a solution for any writer to get more exposure through a process called “curation”.

Medium has a bunch of humans that read all the posts that writers put under the Medium paywall. These humans are called curators, and if they like an article, then they will add it to a list of topics that Medium subscribers follow. When that happens, you tend to get more views because your story hits people who have expressed an interest in that topic, even if they have never heard of you and do not follow you.

There is another way to gain exposure to new audiences on Medium and that is by publishing in Medium publications. Publications are pages run by Medium members that cover certain topics. The publications build their own subscriber base and if your story is accepted, your story goes out to all the publication’s subscribers. Stories can be both curated and accepted into a publication, those things are not mutually exclusive.

While both curation and acceptance into a publication are nice, it still does not pay the author any more money. It has the potential to do so because both processes put the piece in front of a lot of users. But, those users aren’t necessarily paying Medium users and there’s no money for the writer in that case.

How much money do writers get paid?

This is the weirdest part of Medium, but I acknowledge that I don’t see a better way to pay writers with the system in place. Medium subscribers pay $5/month or $50/year. Medium must take some of that money to keep the lights on; to make this example easy, let’s say Medium takes 20%, or $1.00. That leaves $4.00 to spread out among writers.

If a subscriber reads a single post in January, that post will get all $4.00. But, if that subscriber reads two stories, then each author will only get $2.00. And so on. I don’t know about you, but I would easily read 5 stories a day over my morning coffee which, excluding weekends, is 100 stories a month which means all those authors get 4 cents from me for every read.

I had a story that had a single read and made 26 cents from that one read. On the other hand, my best read story had 500 reads and made $4.40.

The perfect storm

Let’s put this all together. Medium has developed a system that:

  • removes the control from writers as to how much exposure they can get from paying readers so writers have to hope to “get noticed” by readers.

  • has a completely opaque curation system that determines what articles get pushed into busy reader spaces so writers have to hope to “get noticed “ by curators.

  • supports publications that, for the most part, have no way for writers to contact and express interest in contributing, so writers have to hope to “get noticed” by publications.

Are you seeing the trend? Writing on Medium is less about actual writing and more about trying to get noticed. That makes all but the most Buddhist of writers start to lean towards clickbait, writing about popular topics instead of ones they are knowledgeable about, and publishing too often in a rush to get curated or pulled into a publication.

Here are some examples of the stories that are on the front page of my Medium account this morning.

  • “Hey, Bookworms, This Site Will Pay You Up To $60 To Review Books — No Experience Necessary”

  • “Password cracking is easy, here’s how to do it” (complete with hoodie image)

  • “My top 5 productivity apps”

  • “Bored? 7 fun things you can build”

  • “35 things you should never say to an Uber driver”

We have two obvious clickbait titles and then three listicles. I thought the general public had caught on to listicles and they were not catchy anymore, but here we are.

As you can see, this isn’t really a compelling list of topics that I want to read. They stink of clickbait that is doing its best to get me to read it so the author can get paid. It’s not compelling content and I am guessing they don’t represent the authors’ best work. But because of the way in which Medium pays writers, this is where the playing field is. Writers aren’t rewarded for slow, thoughtful, well laid-out posts that take deep dives. Writers are rewarded for “getting noticed”.

I tired of the Medium rat race almost immediately. When I found myself writing stories on buying shovels and useless skills I still remember from my Navy years, I knew it was time to move on. I much prefer the smaller, but deliberate audience I have now and I enjoy the time I spend building my reader base by honing my craft rather than trying to get noticed.

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