An open letter to the new Medium CEO, Tony Stubblebine, and Medium’s investors.
The short answer is: Yes, it can.
This article continues my previous essay, “The future has the great past, but the present stands in the way,” where I argue that our future depends on the media’s focus on searching for the truth, not on promoting this or that political orientation. In its approach, Medium, as an open platform, has everything it takes to become that agent of change.
To get there, we need to find answers to the following questions:
- Do Medium’s leaders and investors see that opportunity?
- Would they have the audacity to explore it if presented with it?
- Even if pursuing that opportunity, do they have what it takes to succeed?
What is the problem?
It seems that everyone complains about the media. Some claim that Fox News and radio personalities like the late Rush Limbaugh started misinformation in the media. Others see their rise as a needed antidote to the left-leaning major media outlets.
Many of us hoped the internet would bring democratization of media, making all of us better informed, ergo wiser. The opposite happened: The public, distrusting the mainstream media, turned to a galaxy of self-proclaimed gurus all over the internet. More people than ever before found comfort in the information bubbles. They like to hear repeatedly what they already believe in and distrust outsiders who shake their bliss.
Media experts see the problem in the technicalities of the information delivery. They would advise better ways of marketing one’s message by making it more appealing and, therefore, more convincing. Behind that approach are the conceit of the elites and their scorn for the masses. They fall for the illusion that their money can manipulate public opinion any way they want.
In my previous article, I argue people are “not that stupid, maybe stupid, but not as much” – as the text of the old Polish cabaret song goes. Most of them smell the rotten meat in the media, but – like the girl in that song – they might go along with this or that view, having no better option at the moment. But a deepening distrust of media is the only remaining effect.
Each media outlet professes its version of the truth, trying to outbid others. I disagree with the consensus of experts supporting this model. In my view, all our current political problems arise from and reflect the divisions in media. We should replace it with the media assisting the public in searching for the truth. But my view goes against the presumed wisdom of the establishment.
Medium has a shot at fixing media
So far, nothing indicates that the leaders and investors in Medium see it. In his emails to new subscribers, Ev Williams, the founder, until recently the CEO, and now the chairman, wrote that Medium exists to “deepen understanding of the world and spread ideas that matter.”
It is noble to assist others with deepening their knowledge. Still, that phrase about spreading ideas that matter – we can guess, to leaders and investors at Medium – shapes the editorial policies. Articles and authors recommended in the Medium Daily Digest have a clear ideological leaning. Medium has become like all other media outfits; politically, it is a narrow-minded indoctrination. It is annoying that many good articles that do not align with the preferred ideological orientation do not get the exposure they deserve.
There is a striking similarity between Medium and Huffington Post, now known as HuffPost. Both started as open platforms; both became one-dimensional political media outlets. If Medium does not reinvent itself, it will end up as a third-tier internet portal, like HuffPost and many others.
Investors avoid politics and media
This is a practical attitude, but only until politics undercut the economy. Then, investors have two choices: invest in fixing the politics to reinvigorate the economy or play along in the corrupt system, sliding the United States on the path that Argentina took about a century ago.
The populist overtone of Medium’s political inclination results in a flood of malcontent articles claiming that for so-called regular folks everything has become horrible and will only worsen. That doom-and-gloom porn radically contrasts with investors’ generally positive outlook. For example, people at Andreessen Horowitz do not share that bleak vision dominating on Medium. They claim that they back bold entrepreneurs, building the future through technology. On www.future.com, linked from their corporate website, they proudly share with the world what they do and how.
Medium is one of Andreessen Horowitz’s investments, and Benjamin Horowitz is on the board of directors. We can assume he had a say in the recent change of leadership at Medium. But media are not even listed among the focus areas on Andreessen Horowitz’s website.
I talk about these issues with everyone willing to listen. A friend of a friend is an angel investor who lost significant money invested in a social media venture. It was a “me too” imitation of Facebook with a twist. My friend arranged a meeting, and that investor told me candidly that in recent years, investors in Silicon Valley have lost at least $500 million in failed social media startups. “There is no way to beat Facebook; no one even looks for potential opportunities,” that person concluded. Then, that person took as a delusion my suggestion that the mainstream media, not Facebook, should be the target.
Again, I disagree with the prevailing opinion that Facebook and social media are the guilty ones in the spread of disinformation. If the mainstream media fulfilled their duty in assisting the public with finding the truth, all the misinformation on the internet would be irrelevant. The mainstream media failed us and are eager to blame Facebook for their faults. As one might guess, I wrote about it as well.
A quick look at the websites of the major Silicon Valley investment firms confirms what I heard from that investor; there is no appetite for investment in media because they are political. Only the lowliest tabloids can remain apolitical; any other publication, whether it likes it or not, is political. Interestingly, in recent months, under the pretense of helping the beginning writers, Medium has promoted a lot of gibberish. It is sliding toward becoming a tabloid.
Turning Medium into the largest worldwide tabloid is a valid option for investors. It is less risky than making money by offering intellectually challenging material aspiring to build a better future. Will investors go after the easy money, or will they risk more to end the dysfunctional media as we have them? Time will tell.
Medium has no uniting purpose
Ev Williams managed to attract (I am guessing, as the number of Medium members is not publicly known) a few hundred thousand writers from around the world but did not create a community. Medium is a virtual bazaar in the middle of nowhere, with other vendors being the primary buyers. All these writers came not because Medium offers what they desire. They are at Medium because no one offers anything better.
We have civilization because in all of us is that inner drive to make the world around us slightly better. To accomplish that, we need to communicate with each other. The mainstream media is now a one-way lecturing. Many newspapers have eliminated the comment sections on their websites. Others have them moderated, which is a euphemism for censorship. People desperately yearn for the chance to express their disdain for our dysfunctional politics and share their ideas on how to fix it.
Medium attracts them all. But bringing a million people to a Speakers’ Corner and letting them all talk simultaneously about everything is unproductive; it brings frustrations. It is embarrassing that supposedly the most innovative people in Silicon Valley could not develop any coherent concept of turning all the intellectual potential on Medium into a virtual think tank.
Fixing the immigration problem can turn Medium into a community
Medium can become the next big thing by uniting its members around one issue affecting almost everyone worldwide. Without changing anything else, Medium can select one subject, where editors would encourage and promote articles discussing how to fix one problem. I suggest fixing the American immigration conundrum. We have it primarily due to the century-long misinformation in the mainstream media.
It can start with a contest for the best ideas. Polemics should follow. Some protocols mimicking the academic-style debate need to be observed.
I recommend immigration as the first because the absurdities of our current policy are well-documented. If Medium brings them to light, the elites would not be able to ignore them. Making immigration work again will revitalize the American economy. It would affect the world’s perspective on human migration, helping people seeking relocation due to war, injustice, or climate change.
All writers and readers on Medium will have satisfaction from participating in the task of bettering the world. Feeling empowered, they would replicate the same format in fixing problems in their communities, nations, or worldwide. Medium would become a community of doers who troubleshoot world problems in public view.
If Medium gets recognition as the place conducting a sincere discussion about immigration, there will be an easily measurable increase in membership and web traffic related to that subject.
Medium is a business but does not operate as one
During my five years on Medium, it has experienced a few drastic shifts. It seems that Medium lacks clarity about who its customer is and what the product or service is. Interestingly, Medium does not have an official mission statement. The closest to it is what was put in the bold message from Ev’s emails about spreading ideas that matter. It belongs to an advocacy group, not a business.
Medium’s writers and readers can unite around the concept of the perpetual search for the truth. If it becomes the mission statement, then readers observing that as it happens are the customers. They will get all the arguments for and against the issue in question in one place. They would be able to participate in the process by posting comments, assuming that Medium would have policies encouraging writers to respond to readers in the comments section or the follow-up articles.
With that approach, $5 monthly, or $4.17 if paid yearly, can give a reader much more value than 10 prominent Substack subscriptions, most of them $10 per month. That would be a no-brainer; a subscription to Medium would be a must for everyone.
Outsiders can easily publish occasionally when believing they can add to the conversation. In that scenario, the service Medium offers its customers is in placing at the top those articles that present valid points on a given subject. A relevant opinion could be the one that Medium editors disagree with, consider immoral, or are convinced is false. But if an influential entity propagates it, or if a meaningful part of the community supports it, it is a valid point that needs to be addressed.
This brings us to the last of the three questions.
Do they have what it takes to succeed?
In short, they do, and they do not. They do because they do not need to learn any new skills. They do not, because whatever they learned in journalism schools and by practicing or observing the media is what they should not do. Changing old habits is harder than learning new skills.
In his first message as the CEO, Tony Stubblebine assured us he would support constructive conversations. So far, so good. In his interview with Sinem Günel, he tells us about an example of the problem he experienced recently. A novice writer read one scientific paper and reported its findings in an article. Tony was troubled because other scientists later debunked the findings reported in that paper. He assumed the writer did not put enough work into learning the subject.
But it could be as well that the writer had reasons to disagree with the newest science and wanted to reinforce the older message. Then it is up to us, laypeople, to be arbiters in the scientific disagreement. Unless an obvious error or fraud is involved, often those scientific differences have very unscientific roots: ideology and politics.
Tony wrongly believes that readers at Medium expect that he and his staff shield them from false information. I do not expect that, and no one should. Let us assume I am not an expert on the issue presented in Tony’s example but have some interest in learning more about it. If Tony were right in his guess, that article would misinform me. But, if Medium highlighted comments questioning the article’s thesis or if it pointed me to the polemic, I could look at both sides and decide. So could any other Medium reader. I am fed up with the media telling me what I should think. I will drop them all and stick to Medium if it would help me get the information and let me think for myself. Will I be alone in that?
If experts were right, we would not have most of our problems. I can recall texts I wrote with a trembling hand, claiming that the emperor had no clothes, just to find out later that many others had the same thoughts but suppressed them because, if they were right, someone would have said that already. No one did. People from all over the world with anxieties about the emperor’s clothes can build the future of Medium.
Readers expect from Tony and his team that articles presented in the daily or weekly emails are on the basic professional level. I do not want to get what the algorithm believes I might like. I might skim them but would unlikely to read one more article repeating arguments I already agree with. For my $4.17 monthly, I expect to learn something new on issues I know or should know.
We can elaborate further on the details of the approach I suggest here. But before proceeding, we need to hear from Tony how sincere he is about authentic conversations on Medium. He can give us the most convincing answer not by talking but by making one change in the Medium rules.
Blocking on Medium
One may block another Medium member. It means that if John blocks Sue, for him, the Medium experience will be as though Sue is not on the platform. If he wants to do it, it is his right to do so. But, there is no John on Medium for Sue either. She cannot read John’s articles or comment on them, and the Medium community cannot see her old comments on John’s texts before he blocked her.
The current blocking setting gives an advantage to the party who wants to avoid meaningful conversations. This needs to change. If John cannot handle critique, he should be able to make it invisible to him. But he should not be able to stop others from reading his pieces and commenting on them, and should not deprive the community of seeing those comments. John owns the space of his writing, not the comments section; this is the community area.
I have heard that some commentators are nasty, and blocking them is necessary. I disagree. My writing is provocative, and so are my comments. In debates, I challenge people of different opinions. Some blocked me, but I did not block anyone. When people leave offensive comments, they let others know who my critics are and what their arguments are.
Blocking, as it functions now, supports the formation of information bubbles. If Medium is about conversations, this needs to change.