Thoughts on Improving the Medium Publishing Platform

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.


Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash

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