By Yanni Ma
The entity I have chosen to analyze is Medium. Medium had a transformative effect on our use of the internet as it changed the way people publish online. The design of the platform and the tools it provided changed the conventional social contact between the writer and the reader, and increased users’ engagement with the content. The site emphasizes the quality of its content by introducing innovative business models including ‘Total Time Reading’, organization-by-collection and the Clap system. Partnering with Creative Commons encourages collaboration and sharing across social networking sites. Medium, as a democratic platform, gives a powerful voice to minorities, which contributes to the diversity of online content.
What is Medium?
Medium is defined as an online publishing platform (Owen, 2019). It is an example of social journalism that refers to a hybrid media model consisting of content from professional journalists, contributors, and readers. In August 2012, Evan Williams, former chairman of Twitter and Blogger, launched Medium as a platform that initially enables users to create content longer than the limit of Twitter’s 140-character (Owen, 2019). According to Williams, the platform was designed as easy-to-use and emphasis the quality of its content.
The background of Medium
Medium is owned by A Medium Corporation (Dash, 2013). According to the Alexa Rank, the platform ranks 88 in global internet traffic and engagement. It provides products and services for more than 90 million readers every month (Hempel, 2015). One of the most significant partners of Medium is Twitter. Users must have a Twitter account to post content on Medium. Medium only supports writing from Chrome, Firefox or Safari Browser. Because of these limitations, this site is mostly used in the United States, Japan, and India (Alexa, 2019).
As an online publishing platform, Medium has partnered with substantial publications such as The New York Times, Financial Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, and The Ringer (Owen, 2019). These publications provide high-quality content for Medium’s member offering (Owen, 2019). The platform has hired individual writers and eminent editorials such as Jessica Valenti, Douglas Rushkoff, and Siobhan O’Connor (Owen, 2019). According to TrustRadius, the main competitors of Medium are WordPress, Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Blogger, Jekyll, and Weebly.
Medium initially had no human managers and adopted a corporate structure called ‘Holacracy’ (Doyle, 2016). It is a method of corporate governance in which all decisions are made systematically. However, this governance approach was abandoned as it failed to deal with large-scale projects (Doyle, 2016). It was replaced with conventional management operating by humans (Doyle, 2016) The platform was initially free for accessing all content, but it introduced membership for $5 per month later in 2017 (Owen, 2019). Users of the platform are bloggers, publishers, advertisers, amateur and professional writers.
Designing the future of blogging
Before Medium was launched, short-form content was widely favored by online publishing sites. It is also common for most social networking sites to create feedback elements such as ‘recommend’ and ‘response’ buttons, allowing users to link sites to their social feeds (Product Habits Blog). Medium, however, supports long-form content that offers users an innovative and meaningful way to engage with content. What is interesting is that Williams designed multiple tools and products that allow writers and reads to interact with each other, which popularizes long-form writing.
Readers can comment on a specific text when they read, which will be shown later in the margin (Hempel, 2015). The writers can decide whether they want to make them visible to larger audiences (Hempel, 2015). Also, readers can give specific compliments by highlighting portions of the text (Hempel, 2015). It is meaningful for both readers and writers to see what is considered valuable. These tools not only increase users’ engagement with the platform but also break down the barriers between writers and readers.
The metric of “Total Time Reading”
For many other media websites, their metrics focus on measuring the size of audiences. Typically, websites that have a large audience base will draw more advertisers, which is the key rationale of the attention economy (Halavais, 2013). These websites, therefore, are optimizing for revenue by maximizing the size of audiences.
The operation of Medium’s business model, on the other hand, challenged the attention economy. Williams introduced a new metric called ‘TTR’ as an indicator of the health of the website (Davies, 2013). ‘TTR’ is an abbreviation for ‘Total Time Reading’. This metric measures the total amount of time that audiences spend reading on the website (Davies, 2013). It is argued that the numbers that the standard web metric collected only offer some insights into a site’s popularity. They are poor indicators of engagement for writers and readers. For a content-focus platform, therefore, adopting a metric that can reflect the level of engagement is more meaningful.
Medium’s mission on leveraging content
Dave Winer, the father of the blog, defined blogging as the ‘unedited voice of a person’ (Dash, 2013). It refers to the reverse-chronological structure that many social media platforms adopted such as Twitter and Facebook (Dash, 2013). Typically, the newest content is always ranked on top of the page. It gives readers an expectation that more content will be published in the future. Even though the reverse-chronological structure indicates an ongoing relationship between writers and readers, it has been the main cause of stress for writers.
By contrast, the content of the Medium is organized by ‘collections’, a hierarchal structure created both by writers and readers (Dash, 2013). They are assigned more authority to decide what is seen as more valuable and significant. This helps writers to relieve stress caused by an overwhelming obligation to keep updating. Moreover, with the organization-by-collection, readers are provided a personalized homepage with the most quality content that caters to their interests and preferences (Davies, 2013). There are tens of thousands of prominent pieces already written on the platforms, and most of them are still as relevant today as the day they were written.
Medium embraces CC licenses
In May 2015, Medium embraced Creative Commons Licenses that allow content creators to state some rights they reserved while permitting others to use their work (Park, 2015). These licenses replaced the traditional “all rights reserved” with a more liberal “some rights reserved” (A. Aitken, 2012). These licenses offer a simple and standardized way for users to co-create and share content across multiple platforms (A. Aitken, 2012). With Creative Commons licenses, content creators on Medium can decide how much freedom they want their work to carry. They no longer need to hire a lawyer to draft a license and explain the terms to others. They will be informed when other people create more content based on their work. It is also meaningful for content creators to see great and new things done with their work.
However, there are some problems associated with Creative Commons Licenses. It is arguing that abusive users can easily meet the requirement of the licenses and re-upload the content without contributing anything back to the source. As there is no central system of Common Creative to regulate and control licensed works, the responsibility of complying with the open licensing policy relies entirely on those using the licenses (Bailey, 2015). Therefore, some users may misuse the licenses intentionally, which puts an additional burden on the authors.
Medium’s Clap System
In 2017, Medium introduced a new business model to engage users and reward content creators. It developed a Clap system that allows users to ‘clap’ for the content in the same way as Twitter allows users to ‘like’ a post (Product Habits Blog). However, the Clap system is different from other similar systems as users can clap for a post as many times as they liked (Product Habits Blog)
Even though it supports Medium’s organizing structure by quantifying quality in online content, it also causes some problems. As the amount of compensation writers received is mainly based on how many claps they received, there is little transparency about how claps equate to compensation. Some writers have complained that a similar number of claps for different stories do not equate to similar payments they received. Jay Owens, a writer of Medium, posted a screenshot of her payment, showing that she only received 44.63 dollars for a story with 20000 views (Fustich, 2018). One of her collogues received 4000 dollars for 4000 words (Fustich, 2018). However, the story received less than three-fifths of the claps of Owen’s (Fustich, 2018). To encourage users to post more valuable content, Medium should be more transparent about how they compensate their content creators.
Medium as a reinvention conventional narrative
It is arguing that Medium is a reinvention of traditional narrative. Before the establishment of Medium, it was a new technological era when tycoons would pour their money into buying ‘credible’ publications for their thoughts and ideas. It is admitted that the brand is significant to a small number of audiences, but whether a source is credible is no longer depended entirely on having an old name on top of its content.
By contrast, Medium is a public platform with free access to most content. The nature of the platform is to be egalitarian and inclusive. It not only involves professionals and amateurs but also gives the voices of people whose traditional publications exclude. There are topics about sexual conduct, racism, business and financial scandals, which are hardly reported by mainstream media (Owen, 2019). James Bridle’s 2017 investigation into YouTube kids’ video is a typical example (Owen, 2019). According to Bridle, videos for young teenagers on YouTube include some inappropriate content such as horror, violence, and abuse.
However, democratizing access to the platform has an unintended negative effect. Readers are exposed to misinformation, fake news, and biased information posted by some non-professional writers. For example, a writer posted an article on Medium saying the government was monitoring her family’s Google searches (Owen, 2019). This article was quickly spread to other websites and raised people’s concerns about their privacy (Owen, 2019). It was debunked later as it was an employer working for the writer’s husband reported his history of Google searches to the police (Owen, 2019). Even though Medium excuses itself from problematic content by saying it is a platform but not a media company, it is argued that it should do more fact-checked and take responsibility for what people are posting on the platform.
To relieve concerns, Medium overhauled its terms of service in 2015 (Product Habits Blog). These terms of service explicitly explain how the platform deal with online abuse (Product Habits Blog). These terms forbid any actions associated with hate speech, violence, and revenge porn (Product Habits Blog).
A Final Note
In conclusion, Medium has changed how people publish and interact online. The innovative products and services it offered improve users’ engagement with the content and break down barriers between the writer and the reader. Medium replaced the traditional reverse-chronological structure with organization-by-collection which relieves some pressure of writers and provides users with more valuable and thought-provoking content. The platform has collaborated with Creative Commons licenses to encourage creativity and sharing online. Medium has contributed to the online diversity of media content by offering everyone a platform to express ideas and thoughts. Even though Medium needs to make more efforts in solving its monetization problems, it has changed the way we relate and consume long-form publishing.
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