There’s a lot of reasons people are down on Medium, Ev Williams’ ongoing whatever-the-hell-it-is. It’s a platform! It’s a publication! It’s a platform for publications! It’s a clean, clutter-free reading experience, except for all the clutter!
There have been a few great stories written about this; my favorites are reporter Laura Hazard Owen’s “The long, complicated, and extremely frustrating history of Medium” and acerbic typographer Matthew Butterick’s “The Billionaire’s Typewriter.” (He occasionally updates this, most recently linking to Owen’s article.) Butterick critiques Medium’s design from an ethical standpoint, which turns out to be bang on point with Medium’s ultimate underlying problem:
Medium thinks it’s a brand.
What most bothers me when I click on a Medium link these days isn’t the increasingly dispiriting design (nothing says “great reading experience” like fixed-position bars at the top of and bottom of the window imploring you to sign in and/or pay money and/or download the app). No, that annoyance has been eclipsed by watching ever more articles on Medium go behind a paywall. You can only read three “premium” articles for free a month, just like The New Yorker, like The Wall Street Journal, like The Atlantic.
And indeed, when you go to Medium’s upsell page, they’re pushing articles written by the sorts of authors you’d expect to see in a New Yorker issue: Roxane Gay, Dave Eggers, even Margaret Atwood, and namedropping publications that offer a selection of “curated” articles on Medium.
So, their value proposition is:
- Publications you’ve heard of also publish their stuff on our site, like they do on Apple News! Think of us like a Readers’ Digest for hipsters. (Some of this content may be original, but a glance at Medium’s page for New York magazine shows that the only difference is that everything they put up on their own site for free is behind a paywall on Medium. Which, to be fair, is fucking brilliant if they can get away with it.)
- Authors you’ve heard of published what may or may not be original content on Medium at least once! This piece from Margaret Atwood is from 2017, and she wrote a couple other things here in 2015, but it’s Margaret Goddamn Atwood, people!
- By paying us, you get access to a whole world of other content from people you’ve never heard of, “curated” through the editorial mechanism of those authors clicking a checkbox saying “put this behind a paywall and let the checks roll in, please!”
Butterick asks what he dubs “the $132 million question”:
Who’s going to pay $50 every year for this? People dissatisfied with the unlimited free clickbait available elsewhere? Gulls, rubes, and saps? Dogs with credit cards?
While the aspiration to become the premier literary journal of our time by aggregating blog posts seems relatively new, this belief in its own essential brandness, its brandosity, forms Medium’s original sin. If you have a Medium account, your “front page” when you sign in isn’t a list of new articles from people you follow, like a Tumblr dashboard or, heaven forbid, an RSS reader. Goodness, no! Instead, it’s a Netflix landing page: articles they want to push at you, articles popular across the network, articles “recommended” based on your history.
The design changes over the years, but the fundamental notion that you go to Medium™ to read Medium™ Stories remains. What makes a story a Medium™ Story? Who the hell knows? Medium™ surely doesn’t. They can’t. They have no control over their own content. Can you imagine Automattic deciding that because dozens of well-known authors run blogs on WordPress.com, they should charge $50 a year for access to blogs hosted on it? Hey, you can get three free reads a month to get a sense of what the WordPress editorial voice is like! This is essentially what Medium is doing, except that you get only one theme and don’t get to give your blog a title. (There was a point you could create a “publication” on Medium, which meant “give your blog a title,” but that’s gone, along with the ability to use custom domains. Remember: Medium thinks it’s a brand.)
In what’s probably their thirteenth or fourteenth pivot at this point, Medium has brought back the idea of edited “magazines” with staff writers hosted there. They’ve done this before and the results were, what’s a good word, ruinous, but Owens quotes Ev Williams’s statement to Bloomberg in December 2018: “We are going to significantly increase our investment in original editorial in the next year, and we are absolutely not going to pull the football away this time, Charlie Brown.”
I don’t know. Maybe there’s something I’m missing. If you’re paying for Medium, I’m genuinely curious why, and if you think you’re getting value out of it. Also, I’d like to know if you’re a Golden Retriever with an Amex.