avatarMarsha Adams

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Fuck Your Friends

And your cliquey, classist culture

This is a polemic against Medium, not any of its readers, especially mine.

In July of 2023, after a little over two years and two hundred stories, I was considering quitting Medium. It was (and still is) too hard to gain traction. My views were low, my earnings were low, and I was dispirited.

In August, Medium changed its algorithm to encourage ‘quality’ writing by rewarding engagement, and I got a huge boost to my earnings and my ego. A huge boost to a small number is still a mediocre number, so I was hardly making a living from writing, but I had made four times what I’d earned in previous months, and obviously Medium thought I was writing quality stories. I decided to stay.

Of course, in September Medium adjusted its algorithm, presumably because there was more quality on their site than they’d imagined, and no one had run the maths before changing the algorithm, and they’d paid out far more in August than they wanted too. My earnings halved, but they were still twice what I’d been making before August, so while I was disappointed, I was also encouraged to continue: I was a writer of quality, after all, just a poorly paid one.

Then in December, Medium launched its new ‘Friends of Medium’ scheme, designed to further reward quality, and my earnings crashed back to July levels. Now — as judged by Medium — I’m writing crap for peanuts.

So what is quality?

In a story I wrote about the boost nomination system, I suggested Coach Tony couldn’t define ‘quality’, he just had a vague idea of what he wanted to see on the site.

Ariel Meadow Stallings, a product manager at Medium, commented on that story, insisting that Tony had defined ‘quality’, publicly. She linked to a Help Centre article (Medium’s Quality Guidelines: How real humans review stories for Boost) which proved me right.

The definition of quality in that article… isn’t. It’s a few statements of the bleeding obvious (stories ought to be written by a human who understands spelling and grammar) combined with vague notions of ‘reader enrichment’.

Perhaps quality in writing is indefinable and unmeasurable. Maybe Tony knows it when he sees it, like porn. Or maybe he does have a definition, but he’d prefer not to set it out in black and white.

Even on Medium, numbers count more than words

I did some arithmetic with the new Friends of Medium membership rank. Don’t worry if you’re not mathematically minded, I’ll hold your hand as I walk you through it. If you really hate math, skip ahead to Assumptions or Conclusions

I arbitrarily picked some ‘random’ and obviously inaccurate numbers to simplify the maths, and I invented a crude approximation of Medium’s payment algorithm, but none of that matters because the point isn’t the numbers at the end, it’s the relationship between them. That relationship would remain the same even with real numbers and a more accurate and complex algorithm.

Suppose Medium has one thousand members, who all read. Some will also be writers, but how many isn’t relevant. Imagine ten percent of those readers become Friends of Medium. Ninety percent remain ‘ordinary’ members. So: one hundred Friends, and nine hundred ordinary readers.

Ordinary readers read ten stories a month. Friends are more active, and so read more; let’s say thirty. So total ‘reads’ in a month is twelve thousand:

(10*900) + (30*100) = 12000

And let’s imagine that Medium is generous — hey, it’s all pretend — and they only take a dollar of everyone’s membership for themselves. But they’re also greedy, so they take four times as much from the triple membership of Friends of Medium. So $4 of ordinary membership goes to writers, while $11 of friend membership does. Medium’s payout pot is:

(4*900) + (11*100) = 4700

That’s $4700 shared between twelve thousand reads, or 39 cents per ‘share’.

4700/12000 = 0.39

But ordinary members only bestow one share per read on their chosen authors; Friend members confer four.

So total shares are twenty one thousand, at 22 cents per share.

(10*900) + 4(30*100) = 21000

4700/21000 = 0.22

A read from an ordinary member is worth 22 cents, while a read from a Friend earns a writer 88 cents.

4 * 0.22 = 0.88

So if a writer is read only by ordinary members, they take a roughly 44% cut, which is given to writers read only by Friends. Those writers get an increase of approximately 125%.

Okay, I got an online calculator to do those figures for me, and I don’t know the equation, but trust me: 22 is nearly half of 39, while 88 is about two and a quarter times 39.

Reminder: these numbers are arbitrary, and the calculations operationally imprecise (but mathematically accurate). That doesn’t matter: the nature of the maths means you can plug in any numbers you like, tweak the ‘shares’ however you like, and you’ll get a similar result:

Money moves from writers read by ordinary members, to writers read by Friends.

The impact may be more or less than in my example, but it’s inevitable.

So what? We knew that, right? We may not have consciously thought about it, but we knew: there’s only one pot, and while Friends pay more into it, the authors they read take out a little extra, and that extra must come from everyone else’s share.

Assumptions

Friends of Medium — members who are willing and able to pay extra to read Medium — are likely to read more stories than the average member, and are likely to be drawn from particular social classes who have more discretionary income and more time to read. And so they’re likely to be middle class, tending towards upper middle.

Ordinary members, on the other hand, will tend to be working class, or lower middle class.

Interests — and so, reading habits — are influenced by social class. Writing interests are related to reading interests, and so to social class. And people tend to read writers whose voices they recognise: writers from a similar social class to them, with shared interests.

Bonus ‘assumption’: the management of Medium are mostly upper middle class.

Conclusion

Friends of Medium — mostly upper middle class writers — get a raise. The rest of us — working class and lower middle class writers — take a hit. Which makes the Friends of Medium scheme a wealth redistribution mechanism in line with much of current Western politics: taking from those who have less, to give to those who have more.

Bonus ‘revealed preference’: Medium’s actual, hidden definition of ‘quality’ is ‘nice writing which speaks to us’.

Authors whose stories speak to Medium management (and people like them) are rewarded. Authors writing for everyone else are discouraged to various degrees. Some of those discouraged writers inevitably give up, leaving more eyeball time to be shared among Medium’s friends, and so encouraging more writing aimed at those friends.

The end result is more stories are written which speak to Coach, and Buster, and the rest of their bubble, while less is written for the plebs like me.

Medium’s idea of ‘quality’ seems to be ‘exclusivity’, which itself is a very upper middle class conceit.

Still, it’s a fair system…

It’s already been established that if you’re friends with a boost nominator, you are more likely to get boosted, and so likely to get more views. Nominators are chosen by Medium for writing or publishing the ‘right’ sorts of stories — the ‘nice’ stories which nice, middle class people read — and they usually get a bigger bonus than the boosted author, but both bonuses come at everyone else’s expense.

Boost nomination is a system ripe for cronyism and corruption, but I’m sure that doesn’t happen. What does happen is more of the right sort of people are encouraged; and more of the wrong, discouraged.

If you’re friends with a Friend of Medium, you’ll get a little lift when they read your story [Thank you, you two. You know who you are, and I appreciate you.] but it’s a lift which comes at the expense of pushing everyone else down. I’m not saying you and your friends should become Friends of Medium and read each other’s stories, but once again, it is a system… cronyism… corruption… doesn’t happen… etc.

Medium is another social media platform (like Twitter, pre-X) which wants to be a publisher but doesn’t want the legal responsibilities of actually being a publisher. It can’t profitably review every story before it’s published, so it’s dreamed up a model which will encourage some content over others, while still being able to hold its hand up and say it doesn’t pick and choose stories. The ‘right’ sort of stories will naturally rise to the top, and Coach Tony can hold his head up in polite society.

Medium is free, of course, to reward writers as it chooses, just as writers are free to stay or go depending on how valued they feel. I’ll probably stay, at least until they change the system and kick me in the fud again, because I have to write, and I have to know I’ve written. But I do wish the moral authoritarian upper middle class would learn the other golden rule:

Let people like what they like

This is the second in a series of stories I said I wouldn’t write. Apparently I am writing some of them. I blame wine.

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Friends Of Medium
Classism
Wealth Redistribution
Reverse Robin
I Didnt Write This
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