The Current Direction of Medium

I read the CEO of Medium’s comments to determine where the platform is headed.
Mar 22, 2023
6 min

It’s easy to get frustrated when the platform you read and write on is frequently updated. All it takes is one change to reduce your livelihood to nothing more than a tip jar. However, change is inevitable, and fighting against it is unproductive. Instead, this story aims to show you the current direction of Medium so you can adapt accordingly.

Medium is a social publishing platform that readers, writers, and publications use. The platform operates in the United States and is owned by a corporation. This ownership is significant because it means that the company’s direction is influenced by shareholders who communicate with the CEO to execute their vision. So when it comes to determining the current direction of the platform, there isn’t a better source of truth than comments from the CEO himself.

That’s why I have compiled comments from the CEO of Medium to give context to the platform’s new and future changes.

Who is The CEO of Medium?

Tony Stubblebine is the new CEO of Medium. He describes his background in HackerNews comment #33239047 (October 17th, 2022).

“I am a programmer, I’ve written a programming book, I used to work at a tech publisher (O’Reilly). From O’Reilly, I know a lot about how to build a system around programmers that puts out important and accurate information.”

— Tony Stubblebine

How Does Medium Make Money?

HackerNews comment #34747055 (February 10th, 2023)

Since Medium is a company, it needs to be profitable, so its current profitability will determine how drastic a change it makes to current operations. HackerNews comment #34747055 indicates that the subscription model — which works similarly to YouTube Premium — is sustainable. However, Medium’s CEO believes revenues were historically used to pay people for “low-quality click bait and content mill articles”.

Rumors have circulated about the platform’s commitment to pay publishers. The purpose of this decision may be to incentivize more curation activity on the platform. Based on the details from the CEO’s comments, this curation will be used to promote “high-quality” stories. So curators will be paid, and writers may have their pay adjusted.

What Does The CEO Think About Medium?

HackerNews comment #33138458 (October 9th, 2022)

The current CEO of Medium believes that the platform was headed in the right direction at its inception, but in the wrong direction before his management. This statement is significant because it defines what the CEO of Medium deems “high-quality content”: Stories from experts who don’t have time to build an audience.

“I want to hear from people that don’t have time to build an audience. You don’t learn programming, design, marketing or entrepreneurship from a journalist. You want to learn those things from other experts. At least I do. By definition, experts are too busy being experts to be full time writers and audience builders.

A person with one great thing to say should be able to show up on Medium with no following and get that thing read by thousands of readers.”

— Tony Stubblebine

Are The CEO’s Comments Reliable?

HackerNews comment #33239047 (October 17th, 2022)

In a HackerNews poll, 88% of participants voted that there was a negative stigma towards stories written on Medium, and the CEO agreed with the complaints of the participants.

“I love that the result is basically unanimous. I agree with nearly everything here.”

— Tony Stubblebine in HackerNews thread #33223222

In the same comment, the CEO of Medium highlights their commitment to the technical audience.

“We have syntax highlighting coming out in a week or so and I’ll do a bigger post then about what is changing for technical readers and authors.”

— Tony Stubblebine in HackerNews comment #33239047

Syntax highlighting was added to Medium on November 10th, 2022. The implementation of this feature shows that these comments provide an accurate signal for future updates to Medium. So what other changes can be predicted from the CEO’s comments?

What Is The Current Direction of Medium?

HackerNews comment #34747015 (February 10th, 2023)

The CEO of Medium is still influenced by the HackerNews poll, where 88% of people voted that there’s a negative stigma to stories on Medium. HackerNews comment #34747015 (February 10th, 2023) provides perspective from the CEO on how Medium has yet to fail, but still has “lost its way”.

Changing the Recommendation Algorithm

In the first section of the comment, the CEO explains how Medium “lost its way on recommendations”. In technical terms, this means that its recommendation algorithm wasn’t sufficient at placing “high-quality” stories in front of readers. The CEO claims that this happened because the previous belief at the company was that “engagement equals quality”. So going forward, the recommendation algorithm will weigh “engagement” lower to promote stories.

What is engagement? The comment is unclear as to what “engagement” refers to. However, it’s common for people on the internet to refer to engagement as interaction with content: This would include likes (claps), comments, and shares. The current recommendation algorithm of Medium also weighs Read Time heavily, so the CEO of Medium may also be referring to this metric.

What is quality? Considering the context of the CEO’s other comments, quality would refer to stories written by subject matter experts. He boasts of his work experience building systems that “put out important and accurate information”. So by remarking that “engagement doesn’t equal quality”, the CEO is stating that prioritizing engagement on the platform does NOT promote stories written by subject matter experts (who have no time to build an audience).

This is also why fiction and poetry are not promoted on the platform.

I won’t self-identify as a subject matter expert, but I have witnessed subject matter experts copy or rather “get inspired” by my work. I also dedicate time to building an audience for my writing. Based on my experience, informative content doesn’t maintain a relatively high engagement because it’s not relatable. So a system that prioritizes engagement will promote content that is relatable to the majority of people (similar to the news).

The Theory of Relatability observes that “highly skilled audiences are both hard to reach and to appease.” For example, most people do not spend their time reading scholarly articles because they aren’t skilled enough to understand them. People skilled enough to read scholarly articles are often scholars themselves, but the population of scholars for a given topic is low, making them hard to reach. Scholars read articles in their fields with a critical lens to find mistakes, making them hard to appease.

All this to say that it’s not surprising that the CEO of Medium’s definition of a “high-quality” story will not bring more engagement than “low-quality clickbait”. So a problem that Medium may face in promoting “high-quality” stories is that most people don’t care about that sh*tGoogle Scholar is a freely accessible search engine that indexes scholarly literature and metadata from various publishing formats and disciplines: It also doesn’t make money.

How can you take advantage of the predicted changes to the recommendation algorithm? It may surprise you that the front page of Medium only features 6 approved articles by merit of its own algorithm: The rest are placed there by employees at Medium via the Staff Pick’s List. So you can take advantage of the predicted changes by writing “high-quality” stories that are selected by Medium Staff for further distribution.

For more information, read How To Get On The Frontpage of Medium.

Ditching The Creator Economy

In the second section of the comment, the CEO explains how Medium “got lost thinking about the creator economy, when [Medium] should have kept thinking about doers”. In other words, the CEO believes that Medium needs to focus less on “content creators” — who create content for a living — and more on people who do other things. This is because the CEO of Medium believes that a person who creates content full-time lacks the personal experience for “high-quality” stories.

No assertion is made about how Medium is addressing the gripe above. However, it’s implied that the platform will focus less on authors (and their sustainability) and more on individual stories by subject matter experts. Medium cares more about finding first-person accounts of “successful” people and less about being a platform where writers earn a living. So if you are a writer who wishes to make a living off the platform, you may want to reconsider it.

Improving Tools For Curators

In the third section of the comment, the CEO explains how Medium is “putting out table stakes features again” in the context of publications. He references “tools that didn’t get better for a couple of years”, which likely refers to internal tools for publishers since no new tools have been announced for writers.

For a list of tools writers on the platform lack, read What Medium Is Missing.

The Current Implementation Of Medium

The current direction of Medium operates on the idea that humans employed at a single company will select “high-quality” stories (which engage readers) better than computer algorithms that track readers’ actual engagement. This direction is highlighted in the arrangement of the front page, distribution algorithm, and new features such as Boosts. This direction is influenced by the culture of HackerNews, which praises content curation as the reason for its quality.

Should Medium focus on “high-quality” informative stories from experts or stick to the engagement data that shows what people want? Does the engagement data show that people want “low-quality” content, or is that what people were shown with the prior recommendation system? Is it better to create tools that help curators “select” better stories on the platform or help writers “write” better stories?

We'll see.

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