Why I still use Medium

Over on lobste.rs, a discussion about whether or not it is appropriate to add a configurable filter to block Medium posts (based on a percieved low average quality level & complaints about readability, popups, and weight versus self-hosting) has bloomed into a discussion about why people post on Medium in the first place.

One idea presented is that Medium posts get more widely shared because of internal mechanisms (like author following & automatic recommendations). Personally (as somebody who uses Medium as his default publishing platform & considers other platforms secondary), I don’t find that medium reaches a greater audience by default.

There have been progressive changes to Medium policies since I started using it around 2015, each of which have made the distribution impact of any given post worse (starting with various misleading popups for non-logged-in users, followed by the marginalization and limitation of members’ personal feeds in favor of editor-approved content; now, all paywalled content gets submitted to human editors automatically and must be approved by them before it shows up as a recommended story for anybody but your followers!)

Basically, back in 2015 publishing on medium was a pretty good way to get more exposure than publishing on your own website, but today it’s a crapshoot. Users who haven’t registered get a bunch of misleading popups that seem vaguely like paywalls. For the occasional posts that actually are paywalled, lobste.rs by default removes friend links (which are the only reasonable way to share paywalled articles outside the core medium membership).

Promotion of editor-approved stuff is good but not great: I’ve had one of my articles featured by Medium (for which they literally had one of their professional editors go over my whole piece with fact checking), and the promotion did reasonably well (getting hundreds of thousands of reads and netting me maybe a hundred bucks over the year or so that it’s been up), but that’s about a third of the number of reads (and about a third of the advance) of my second-most-popular article there, which was solicited and paid for by a publication (How We Get To Next, a tie in for Steven Johnson’s book How We Got To Now). My most popular article was not featured & owes almost all its popularity to having been posted to lobste.rs & HN.

Why do I bother with it?

  1. It’s a reasonably good source of passive income, and one that doesn’t rely on advertising, ad-tech, or tracking. I’m an advocate of transcopyright as a stopgap measure (until we get something like UBI, at which point passive income will not require active monetization of creative work), & Medium’s revenue model is just about as close to transcopyright as we’ve gotten in well-known existing systems (substantially closer than patreon). I share my posts using friend links, and mirror them on my own website, so nobody is locked into medium or medium’s paywall even if they want to read them, but just the clicks alone from folks who happen to have already subscribed to medium’s member program make me between $4 and $20 a month for my backlog of articles, and I fairly frequently make between $40 and $80 if I’ve published a new paywalled longish technical essay that month.
  2. The editing is fairly pleasant to use, most of the time. (Occasionally they’ll do an update and performance will tank, but the post editor is generally substantially smoother than the input box on twitter or google docs, & basic formatting hotkeys familiar from Word and Google Docs work out of the box.) I’m a long-time dedicated vim user for source code & a perpetual critic of web apps in general, but I actually slightly prefer composing prose on Medium, simply because they put an awful lot of effort into making it smooth even on old, slow machines like mine.
  3. If you’re logged in (and especially if you’ve got one of the various readability extensions, which remove the floating bottom bar), Medium’s reading experience isn’t bad. Much like the kindle, it on one hand does a pretty decent job of trying to simulate paper (down to the kind of slightly fancy typesetting nonsense that’s usually done on professionally printed books but rarely on the web or in word processors), but on the other hand happily makes available useful hypertext features (not native to the web per-se) like user-supplied highlights (which can be shared, responded to, accumulated, made visible to other users on the document, or associated with private/personal notes). Medium posts look like they’re part of a professionally typeset glossy magazine to casual users (which is far ahead of what Blogger posts look like). Being a web app, it’s heavier than a properly-made native version would be, but it’s substantially lighter than sites I use all the time like lobste.rs, laarc, twitter, facebook, every fediverse web client other than brutaldon, almost every news website, and all major webmail systems. (Meanwhile, reading a 15–20 minute article on Medium gives me a whole lot more joy than spending the same amount of time on twitter, facebook, or even mastodon usually, so it has less to prove.)
  4. If you’ve published something on Medium & you export and rehost it, the rehosted copy is subtly but substantially prettier than it would be with default browser formatting, despite using none of the heavy things (like web fonts or javascript event listeners on scroll or click events) that Medium itself uses.

Now, Medium has been on the wrong track for many years. With the exception of the open-paywall concept, almost every change they’ve made since around 2015 has been bad for the writer community there and bad for readers. There’s a good reason that I back up and mirror all my posts from there: I fully expect it to disappear with little warning as soon as the VC money dries up, and I fully expect VC pressure continue to push it into making choices that would boost the finances of a traditional blogging or social media platform but will kill everything worthwhile about Medium (leading to a financial downward spiral that causes that same pressure to increase). In fact, I was playing with the idea of writing a web-based publishing system with support for proper transcopyright under the hood, aimed at the audience of disgruntled ex-Medium users (although I probably won’t because running a company will inevitably suck, but if anybody wants to give it a go they can have my designs & code fragments).

But, for now, Medium doesn’t suck quite enough for me to stop using it as an editor & a side hustle.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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