Medium has a Quality Problem

October 30, 2013

Medium is beautiful. The team behind it created one of the cleanest text editors on the web, a sleek reading experience, and powerful analytics for the masses. The platform they created has encouraged hundreds of people to read, write, and share thoughts and ideas that otherwise would never have even existed. Their creation is nothing short of amazing, and now it’s dying.

Since launch, Medium has published a ton of quality stuff. But that quality is declining, and I’ve been noticing less and less posts being shared and discussed. While the number of posts is rising, the actual quality of those posts is getting worse. Why are all the good writers leaving?

The real question you should ask, the one Medium should have been asking since day one is, “Why do people write online for free?” Good writing takes time, and without some sort of reward it’s unlikely someone will stay at it for long. This reward doesn’t have to be selfish or material: People write travel blogs to keep in touch with family and friends abroad, and they write journals to clarify thinking and reduce stress.

There are a million reasons to write online, but the one most commonly shared is personal branding. A strong personal brand can translate into a higher salary, better career opportunities, and a sense of worth to the community. It’s why the most famous people in any industry aren’t necessarily the smartest, they’ve just branded themselves as the smartest.

So, how does Medium help my personal brand? Well, my profile links directly to my Twitter profile, so that’s good. But how do readers even get to my profile? My name is in a light grey, and in the smallest font on the page. It’s secondary to the content, and tertiary to the Medium brand. No one can even see it, let alone click it.

Well, so what? Plenty of successful publishing platforms constrain writers to a unified style, and are still very successful. How does the Huffington Post get away with it? How does Svbtle draw quality posts by quality authors, all while pushing it’s own brand? These sites offer something in exchange for personal branding, something that ties directly into personal brand: prestige. Not just anyone can write for Huffington Post, your post has to be selected. Svbtle’s network contains a curated pool of established writers. When I see a post is branded by one of these sites, I assume a certain level quality before even reading the post.

he's so proud!

Think of it like a symbiotic relationship. Good writers contribute to the site, and the site gets a good reputation because of it. Now the writer feels important and distinguished, and continues to write good content to further brand both himself and the site as “high quality.”

Medium pretended to offer this with a closed beta, and for a while it worked. People were lining up to be invited to this new exclusive platform. But as they opened to the masses, the prestige wore off. Since anyone can write, it’s no longer a point of pride. Worse, the site raises questions on the writers legitimacy. “If you were a real writer, you’d have your own blog/site/anything by now….” The good writers eventually wise up and leave, and we return to the original point.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch. No one writes for free, and Medium should have understood this before designing a site around content and not authors. If all they want is to get the average person interested in writing, then I applaud them for choosing something so nobel. But their goal is to create a network of writers and a variety of content, and it’s not looking great. Without the prestige of a curated network or the self-expression of Tumblr, convincing users to stick around is going to be an uphill battle. And the talent won’t stick around to help them fight it.