Disclosure: I never had a paid membership; I was gifted one by Medium after a successful piece I published in 2018. “Successful” here means it earned me north of $300 and attracted thousands of readers and claps. I should also note that my successful story, after it drew a respectable amount of external traffic, was selected for “editorial polishing” and promotion at Medium.
While the subscription was active I did marginally more reading on Medium than I do now, but not much. I found the click-baity titles that Medium presented to me every day on my landing page more off-putting than inviting. Today I find the offerings on my landing page even less engaging. I usually stay on the site just long enough to check notifications and responses and review my stories’ stats in some detail once a week.
From my perspective as a reader, the platform’s algorithms for assembling what they infer will be of interest to me are a fail. It’s not that there isn’t some good writing on Medium; it’s just not easy to find and I don’t have the time to go digging for it, especially when good writing is easy to find elsewhere — on The Conversation, for example, or on Substack.
Medium targets a narrow demographic that omits a big chunk of the reading public (including me)
In a rather scathing piece in the Verge its reported of Medium’s readers that “71 percent are white, 55 percent are male, and 53 percent make more than $100,000 a year.” Check and Check on the first two, maybe half a check on number three. But really? Why then does Medium imagine that I would read a story like “The Lies They Told Me in Sunday School.” (Can we leave Sunday School behind already?). Or “San Franciscans Share Apartment Deals They’ve Scored This Year” (I don’t actually live there, or plan to). Or “These 5 Stoic Strategies Will Help You Slay Your Stress” (did I say stress was a problem?).
Medium seems to think I’m a starry-eyed millennial wannabe writer who requires a steady diet of life pro-tips and pep talks dreamed up by my peers. In fact I’m 67, the author of eight books and various papers and chapters on topics in my field. I’ve already done a whole lot of living. Probably three-fourths of it, statistically speaking. So I’m not actually a good target audience for “The One Deadly Freelancing Mistake You Absolutely Need to Avoid” or “My 5 Greatest Takeaways From Being a Freelance Writer for a Year”. Why is it assumed that if I write for a particular audience, I want to read the things that they do? In these cases, I don’t.
I’m an avid and enthusiastic reader; most writers are. I’m also happy to subscribe to publications that offer me value for money and I subscribe to several. Medium isn’t one of them, despite its modest cost.
Neither algorithmic story selection nor editorial curation is working at Medium
The first time I was invited to publish one of my stories in a Medium publication I thought, optimistically, that this was a harbinger of its success. And it was, the first time. Now, after about a third of my stories have been invited to publications or marked for wider distribution, where they still fail to gain much attention, I take a different view. Being invited to submit to a publication may be no more than a desperate publication editor flailing around for something to put up as that day’s quota of novelty click-bait.
There is surely an optimal, workable model that combines intelligent human curation with data from machine learning to present subscribers with headlines and stories that interest them, and this should be the focus of Medium’s efforts. Because it is not working now. For a Medium subscription to be of interest and value to me, it needs to present me each day with the needles, not the haystack.
Why publish here if you don’t get any traction?
Just as Medium doesn’t work for me as a reader, it’s not working for me as a writer either. I didn’t start publishing on Medium to earn money. I have an adequate writing income stream from the royalties of my books and from the monthly column on language that I’ve written for the last dozen years.
What I had hoped to find on Medium was an engaged and engaging audience for the portion of my writing that’s either somewhat adjacent to outside of my area of professional interest — or writing in my field that may interest a wider audience than it normally targets. But I don’t consider it marginal writing by any means. I’ve put some of my best writing on Medium. So it’s disheartening when I put up a piece only to see it fail to gain any traction.
Medium seems to me a case where the lack of barriers to entry has led to the tragedy of the commons. In this case the commons (a reservoir of good writing) has not been depleted; it has just been diluted to the point that it is not recognizable.