I was a fairly early user of Medium, joining the site in 2013, and I found the platform an interesting one. The first piece I ever published on Medium, literally on the day I was invited to use the platform in March of 2013, was a nice modus operandi for my career in the years since—a case for writing things for free on the internet … but only if you think you own it. I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job of sticking to my guns on that general point as internet writing has become a larger part of what I do.
But Medium the company has seen a lot of evolution since that day. Models that the company once leaned hard on (like publications—twice!) have now been cast aside. Layoffs and battles over unionization have also been fairly pronounced over the years. The initial promise of platform effects has been a bit hard to come by as well—back in July, my pal Simon Owens, who had a whole lot of followers on the platform, ended up quitting Medium because he felt it was no longer providing any value.
It feels like Medium the website has never been a stable force in a writer’s life, even though what professional writers want more than anything is the stability of knowing they can do what they like doing while getting paid for it.
So when I heard about Medium’s latest round of changes—particularly a new referral program, as well as limitations on who could join the existing partner program—I was of two minds about it. In one sense, I’m one of a handful of people who has made some real money from publishing on Medium over the years, though certainly collectively not enough to buy, say, a new car. (Maybe a used one with a little rust on the underside.) I have seen what happens when a piece successfully hits on the platform, and the impact it can really have.
But on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder if Medium, in having to rely on writers to bring in referrals to get paid, have now flipped the value proposition. In 2013, the entire goal of Medium was that, if you were a writer just starting out, and you kept at it, Medium could bring you some eyeballs in a way traditional blogging hadn’t been able to. Now, Medium needs the influence you can bring in to ensure that it can make the program viable. And that clearly favors people who already have an audience—an audience that they can monetize more effectively in other ways if they so choose. Now granted, from a consumer perspective, Medium is arguably a better value proposition than signing up for a Patreon. Rather than just getting one guy’s thoughts, you get access to an entire network. But it still is a significant change in execution.
So I kind of go back to the post I wrote way back in 2013, on the day that I joined Medium. Is writing to bring in referrals for Medium still writing for yourself? You’re not writing for free, but you’re building the community for Medium. I’m not sure I have the answer. But as a writer that have been there since nearly the beginning, I’m hopeful that this is the last big change in model for a company has seen far too many of them.
But something tells me this might not be.
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