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.
When I search "funny dog stories" we see the same volume and keyword search issue:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Article Updated: 10/26/2021