What are you doing, Medium?
Struggling to make an impact in a world of vanity metrics
At 8:32 am I got a push notification from Medium, right around the time I was getting my morning coffee.
I can’t remember the last time Medium sent a push notification — almost no one has been recommending or responding to my Medium articles lately — so this caught my attention.
Check out Sex 2.0, a collection of stories selected by our editors
Really, Medium Staff?
[Wait, are you still reading or did you click away to read about sex robots??]
Of course, this is coming on the heels of Ev Williams announcing 50 job cuts and a vow to “renew Medium’s focus” on “a new model for media on the Internet” that goes “beyond ability to attract a few seconds of attention.”
But if your goal is to revolutionize the metrics of the publishing industry, a push notification about Sex 2.0 feels very Web 2.0.
What exactly are you doing, Medium?
More than three years ago, Pete Davies wrote in Medium Data Lab railing against vanity metrics. He said that Total Time Reading (TTR) is Medium’s “Only Metric That Matters.” (Davies has since left Medium, and is now at LinkedIn.)
“Away from the publicity glare of the Valley tech blogs, every web company should have some not-so-bullshit metrics that guide the business and provide an indication of its health,” he wrote. “Ideally, there is one number to rule them all. At Medium, our number is Total Time Reading, or TTR.”
So to writers and publishers, this focus on reading rather than just clicking felt refreshing. Sustained attention, not just eyeballs, was the metric currency we craved, and it seemed like Medium might just give it to us.
Williams himself weighed in with a post about vanity metrics titled “A mile wide, an inch deep.” He proclaimed he “didn’t give a shit” about followers, but rather wanted to create a platform with impact that “enables people to make an impression on others.” Here’s an excerpt:
Medium had its biggest week ever last week — or so we might claim. By number of unique visitors to medium.com, we blew it out of the park. The main driver was a highly viral post that blew up (mostly on Facebook). However, the vast majority of those visitors stayed a fraction of what our average visitor stays, and they read hardly anything.
That’s why, internally, our top-line metric is “TTR,” which stands for total time reading. It’s an imperfect measure of time people spend on story pages. We think this is a better estimate of whether people are actually getting value out of Medium.
Medium emphasized this focus on attention with a minimalist analytics dashboard that displayed three metrics: Views, reads and recommends.
In 2014, the late New York Times media critic david carr wrote that Medium had become a “fetish object” for writers and noted that author Emily Gould, journalist Ben Smith, entrepreneur Elon Musk and many others had published on the site.
But toward the end of his piece, Carr brought up something that would increasingly become an issue for Medium.
“Still, at a time when more words are coming from more and more sources, it is difficult and expensive to gain attention,” he wrote. “Medium, which doesn’t emphasize writing about celebrities, sports or gossip, will be fighting for mindshare without those clicky attractions. Mr. Williams reveres magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and does not seem to care that building an audience without listicles and LOLcats is hard.”
Soon, there was trouble in publisher paradise.
On New Year’s Day last year, I had the top story on Medium. “What I learned from 52 Medium articles” bumped The White House from the №1 spot on the Medium homepage, and had more than 1,300 recommends.
It was thrilling! It felt like I had cracked the code for Medium popularity.
But I also felt kinda bad for using a trite formula — a listicle heavy on self-help inspiration. I wrote a confession about being part of the Medium echo chamber — which I justified as a pathway to gain an audience and attention for my body of writing work, including building my newsletter subscriptions. (← another shameless plug.)
I had stepped in the middle of a contentious battle about the content of Medium. Would it become a platform overrun with open letter rants and bloviating self-help? The genres of writing on Medium were becoming cliche to the point of parody, much like Upworthy’s use of the curiosity gap to drive clicks.
Medium itself stepped in to help diversify the content of its website. Gone are the days when the most recommended story gets a coveted position on the top right corner of the homepage. Today, that spot is replaced by editors’ picks and quirky reading roulette.
Meanwhile, writers and publishers are increasingly feeling like they’re getting lost in Medium, not found. Last year, What I learned from 52 Medium articles received 38,000 views. This year, I wrote a another version with that curated formula. I wasn’t expecting the same level of success. But you know what it ended up with? A mere 160 views. 😫
It turns out that people can’t read if they don’t click. Even if 2 billion words were written on Medium last year, that doesn’t guarantee that anyone is reading. Pageviews — often derided as vanity metrics — are still important even if your goal is attention, engagement and impact — or even to get paid. And for many writers, they’re just not seeing the love from Medium metrics.
“I have a pretty good following here, but most of those people don’t interact with me,” journalist Abby Norman writes in a post titled Medium, We Need To Talk :/. “The ones that do? Who have become friends that I support? I don’t do that much here anymore. We’ve taken our conversations elsewhere.”
In the last year, several small and independent publications like The Awl, Pacific Standard and ThinkProgress migrated to Medium, with the promise that they could increase attention and monetize with the help of Medium’s network. Now with Medium’s announcement, the future looks uncertain, though there is plenty of speculation and advice.
That could be true. But this is Williams’ third act after Blogger and Twitter, and he’s already worth billions. None of his projects have ever seemed simply about money, but rather about information making an impact.
On November 9th, the day after the election, Williams retweeted the following tweet.
Maybe it was a note to himself.
In his piece on “renewing Medium’s focus,” Williams referred back to Medium’s original mission, and how its current trajectory was falling short, even if it made business sense.
“The vast majority of articles, videos, and other ‘content’ we all consume on a daily basis is paid for — directly or indirectly — by corporations who are funding it in order to advance their goals. And it is measured, amplified, and rewarded based on its ability to do that. Period,” he wrote. “As a result, we get…well, what we get. And it’s getting worse. That’s a big part of why we are making this change today.”
So that brings us back to the question, what are you doing, Medium?
We don’t know. “It is too soon to say exactly what this will look like,” Williams wrote.
Until he figures it out, I might turn off my Medium push notifications.
Tim Cigelske has reported and written for the Associated Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Budget Travel, Adventure Cyclist and more. Today, he is the Director of Social Media at Marquette University as well as an adjunct professor teaching media writing and social media analytics.