I’m browsing Medium right now after skirting around it recently. I have been hesitant to explore despite knowing it may be a good source of online writing, but I gave in today.
Scanning through an abundance of articles, it’s exciting at first because this may be what I have been looking for — writers of diverse backgrounds and personalities speaking on a number of topics. I see a wide range of subjects being discussed, and it seems like I have plenty of options to choose from.
Personally I know I have a problem with picking the “right” content to consume. I’m the person who is indecisive while scrolling through Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, etc. I worry about choosing the ‘wrong’ thing to watch and therefore regretting how I used my time.
So this bad habit struck me again as I scan through Medium. I went from seeing a lot of candy from the window to figuring out how to spend my $3 (or three free articles permitted by Medium’s free membership) in the most rewarding way. After all, bad candy sucks.
So while I am admittedly indecisive and others may be perfectly content with Medium’s vast options, it strikes me how I am comparing Medium with binge-watching platforms. Scrolling through Medium feels almost exactly like it:
- Homepage surfacing some popular content chosen by editors or tailored to your preferences
- Content to choose based on picture, title, tagline, author and length
- A ton of stuff trying to look like the other and becoming a mosh pit of good or bad mixed together
Just looking at the home page and exploring other sections, there is a multitude of coronavirus / COVID-19 works on display. This is fair given the world’s circumstances as of April 2020. But I’m only using that as an example.
If I make my way to ‘Human Parts’, a curated section about personal growth and life advice, there’s a lot of overlap. Less so than the home page serving up articles probably designed to accrue the most clicks, but there’s few standouts to immediately catch my eye. On top of it, I see a lot of practices that make me frustrated with all of the writing outside of Medium: vague catch-all titles and ‘call to action’ hooks.
- “How to Handle the Stinky Fear Juice”
- “Read This If You Can’t Figure Out Why You’re Not Motivated”
- “5 Tips for Handling Existential Fear”
I’ll be fair and admit there are just as many articles on the page that do not rely on those online writing tropes. But Medium touts its ability to tap into “the brains of the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter.”
For a platform “where words matter”, those kinds of titles should be banished to your local news station’s website instead to accrue some Facebook likes thanks to their social media intern.
I’m definitely nitpicking on something that may not be such a serious crime in the world of writing. We all want people to read what we have to share. But ideally for a platform like Medium, they should leave those kinds of practices at the doorstep because the rest of the internet is filled with this kind of crap. This is the crux of the issue as to why I am struggling to find good writers online — the internet is the wild west and Google is an imperial army allowing it to exist under its dictated conditions.
Google and search engines as a whole are rewarding articles that go for the same formulaic bullshit I highlighted above. “How to” articles. “Top 5” listicles. “Read This If [Your Keyword]”. It can be a successful formula for blogs and online media, but you also have to draw a line at some point. Because if everyone begins competing with their ‘listicles’ and ‘how tos’, the quality control will falter. And the reality is that everyone is already competing with Mad Libs articles while the concept of quality control for online writing is already a few generations extinct by now.
The internet is wonderful for its openness and the fact that anyone can compete on fair ground to earn an audience is a great idea. But it’s funny how I am suddenly understanding why ‘old media’ worked the way it did despite its obvious flaws.
Take a news publication for example. With journalists assigned to different niches and teams, it gave publications the foot soldiers needed to cover a wide range of topics. They probably wrote in a similar way as the ones I ranted about above, although hopefully a little less fixated on working a ‘focus keyword’ into the article at least a dozen times. However, every publication had an agent of quality control always in place: the Editor. They were the ultimate masters of what goes from draft to print. They assigned titles for most articles. They were the most brutal in reviewing your best work and sending it back to the drawing board. They established a pedigree for what got your work seen by the public eye and seeing the condition of writing as it exists now, I can understand the need for them.
Of course I mentioned obvious flaws as the reasons why “old media” is a term spoken of in the past tense. The New York Times is now on equal footing with Buzzfeed; CBS as leadear of broadcast television is getting lapped by Netflix; XM Radio is barely being heard over the podcasts hosted by everyone and their uncle. All of those champions in old media took advantage of their position in the market and abused it. They thought they owned their audience’s minds, eyes and ears by also owning the technology / channel through which it was consumed. They also corrupted the position of Editor as an agent of quality control, perverting it into an agent of ratings and revenue and political agendas.
So everyone is back on equal footing thanks to the paradigm shift in how the majority consumes media. But look to the above rants as to why equal footing isn’t exactly a good thing when all online writing is trying to earn money through AdWords, referral links, sponsorships and more.
Is there a solution? Medium seems to present itself as one, as I was hoping it would be. The concept as I understood it was to encourage better writing by creating a walled garden, where the wild west was kept outside and the community within could vote on what it really wants to read about. Plus it’s a clean interface with minimal advertising and a paywall to limit itself from the masses.
But I guess these automated measures cannot really serve the function of noble editors. They try with a section of Editor’s Picks, bringing to the surface articles that meet their pedigree. But therein lies some of the problem — editors now have to look for completed writings instead of facilitating their creation from its first abstract steps. So the reality is… there is no pedigree. There’s just a star sticker for the special classroom kid of the day.
Medium frustrates me because it serves the function I am looking for – a centralized place to find real writers publishing articles that are not inherently competing for fodder. But it is unsatisfying because I don’t know if any of this writing is actually good or what I want. There’s too many writers writing about too many of the same topics as one another, with no point of reference as to which are actually good or of the style I am looking for. Just have to take a stab at a few dozen random articles until I find a writer I choose to follow. Locating a writer I can enjoy is progress, but is this really the best way to achieve that?
I don’t know, but it sure doesn’t feel like it.
Update: This article from The Verge published a day after I wrote this highlights Medium’s editorial problems. Should make my point for me.