The appeal of Medium to a young writer

This is vaguely a bastardization of a tech blog, meaning I also read tech blogs. A this brings a lot of arguments against […]1 platform Medium. Most of these arguments deal with the lack of control Medium gives you/ your writing is hosted on someone else’s server/ if Medium goes down so does your writing, you can’t pick the design. I’m personally conflicted about whether Medium is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Because it certainly has its benefits to a young writer like myself.

As a tech nerd/hobbyist semi-freelance web designer, a part of me rejects Medium for the techy tweak-y goodness that comes with a platform like WordPress or Ghost. I love to tweak the CSS to get this sites look to be just right, mess around with plugins and extensions until the site breaks. It’s just a fun time for me. Plus on Medium there’s no Markdown2, which is an essential part of my writing workflow.

Then, of course, there’s the argument on the web that you don’t own your content, which I read is a very important thing on the web. With any self-hosted option3, I own the words that I’m writing. I’m paying for my own domain, my own server. This gives me a level of artistic freedom I can’t really exercise if I’m letting someone else own my words. As the OG blogger Dave Winer says in his post Anywhere But Medium:

People also post to Medium to get more flow. But at what cost? Which pieces get flow? Ones that are critical of Medium? I doubt it. Or offend the politics of the founder? I don’t know. I don’t see a statement of principles, tech startups usually don’t have them. They’re here to dominate and make money off the dominance. I’m very familiar with the thinking, having been immersed in it for decades. […]

Medium also seems to be about just [one piece of writing], rather than just establishing a fanbase for a site or set of creators. Even Anil Dash, in his praise for the site notes this, comparing it to YouTube:

So what does Medium resemble more, with its organization-by-collection, diminished prominence of the creator’s identity, and easy flow between related pieces of content? It’s simple: YouTube. Though some subset of YouTube users subscribe to channels, most of us just graze through the site when someone sends us a funny video, only barely aware of who even posted a video. Medium is evolving to be the same; We get sent an article that someone wants us to read (or in the case of the recent spoiled-startup-boy essays mentioned in Madrigal’s piece, we get sent an article someone wants us to hate), and then hopefully we click around to check out a few more things.

Medium doesn’t (yet?) support the embedding of its content into other sites, which was essential to YouTube’s wide adoption, but in the core experience by which content is created and discovered, Medium is much closer to “YouTube for Longform” than it is “Blogger Revisited”.

This kind of thought works for magazines, which Poritsky argued Medium is, but not for the web. With a blog you want someone to keep reading, to click further and further onto your site, and eventually maybe become a fan. Medium’s single articles aren’t blogs, they’re articles, smashed into the blob of Medium and not really you.

However, a lot of those anti-Medium sentiments are written by old bloggers and writers who have been in this game for a long time and know how to deal their cards right. As a young blogger/writer4, starting out with nothing behind my name of note, there is an obvious appeal to Medium. In Medium, the SEO I have to try to craft is stripped away to nothing else but keywords and a title, and hope that the Medium content curation will make me known. As Ben Brooks says:

AI may be the future of curated content, of finding what matters, but Medium presents a pretty great step towards that right now. That’s why people like to read on Medium.
And it’s also why people like to write on Medium, as it presents a rare opportunity to easily get new readers. To be discovered.
As a writer the hardest thing is to get people to discover your writing. As a reader the hardest thing is to consistently find content you care about. And if you dive into Medium — it will do both for you.

As Poritsky said above, Medium is very similar to a magazine. Sure, it’s got your name and your writing on it but it’s on someone else’s pages. Which gives it obvious appeal. It’s the difference between publishing a high school zine and hoping someone reads it to writing in your local newspaper. Sure with a zine you get creative control over everything, but that includes getting people to read it. Medium is the newspaper young writers need in this day and age to get known, having our names blurred in with the professionals to give us a sense of place, of belonging, as Anil Dash writes:

This [Medium founder Ev Williams having dropped out of university shortly after starting] is the fundamental nature of Medium: it’s meant to be inclusive and egalitarian. In crass terms, it’s arguing that 10,000 monkeys can make a better magazine than Ivy League editors. In the more charitable terms I prefer, it’s arguing that culture is better for amplifying the voices of those whom traditional institutions exclude, even if that requires giving a platform to those who are thoughtless or negative.

Regardless of which tactic is more successful (and fortunately for Chris and Ev, it’s not an either/or scenario), Medium is at least a reinvention of the traditional narrative whereby the tycoons who win at the beginning of a new technological era plow their winnings into buying up captive media to act as a house organ. Carnegies build libraries, yes, but they don’t usually try to give away printing presses.

As an example of Medium’s power as a magazine, just to see how it would go I let my post on living in perpetual Airplane mode on Medium be published in the Mobile Lifestyle publication. It’s now got 32 ‘reads’5, which is probably more than the post on this website has. It’s still my writing, and I can pull it when I want, but being able to see my stuff being read is a great feeling. As Dave said above, this gives me more flow.

Part of the fun of blogging is playing with your CMS. But that’s absent when writing. I write for fun, but at the end of the day when the spelling is checked and the publish button is hit, what you really, really want is someone to read it, link it, criticise it. Anything to know your time writing was worthwhile. Medium shows me this, with reads being more instantly gratifying than looking at the analytics of this site. And inside Medium’s wall, my writing can reach a wider audience than it can on this blog.

This is a very attractive prospect to this young writer.

  1. I use the ellipses because I’m really not sure what Medium is trying to be sometimes. Is it the future of journalism? Just another blogging platform? Magazine 2.0: Get Wired? Perhaps one of the best ways I’ve head it described as is: It is an unholy amalgam of LiveJournal, Slashdot, The Magazine, and the features section of Rolling Stone. Pretty much in that order. Medium is the medium, reflected back through a funhouse mirror, and that’s a good thing. 
  2. Well, kind of no Markdown
  3. What this site is being published with. 
  4. I guess I’m a writer now, I just got my first rejection the other day
  5. Medium places a high value on reads, as they are how you know if someone actually read your post or just instantly clicked back. For some reason, my most read post on there is announcing the Web Development and Design Discord, with 149 reads. 

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