Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.


Medium needs Robert Townsend as the CEO

The front cover of the 1988 reprint of the original book, with quotes of opinions about it. Photo by author.

One may point out that Medium just got a new CEO. Tony Stubblebine has been on the job already three months, but the community does not feel any blow of change for the better. He has been saying all the right things but has avoided details. We do not see any lucid plan for reinvigorating Medium. Uncertainty is bad for business. Speculations go up; hopes go down.

Polish people would say that Tony does not appear like someone who could invent gunpowder. Sadly, Medium needs someone of that caliber. It has reached a climax and cannot straddle for too long, with one foot on the pier and the other on the boat.

Medium, the Viagra version of social media

To understand Medium, one should watch a lengthy interview its founder, Ev Williams, gave Jason Henry in March this year. Rightfully, Ev sees Medium as the pinnacle of his life achievements. When explaining the purpose of Medium, he talked vaguely about his ideas for a balanced life, mentioning the creator’s economy. My engineer’s mind noticed the fleetingness of that talk. Notably, Ev was firm (it starts in the 45th minute of the video) that he was not pursuing business objectives in spreading his exalted ideas.

When I joined Medium five years ago, I noticed that its format perfectly fits the void in the mass media market. People distrust the major media outlets; mindless chatting about nothing runs the leading social media outfits. Most authors on Medium are filling the gap between the two. It was not Ev’s objective, but he hit a golden spot; Medium could satisfy the inner desires of people craving authentic, civil cooperation.

We can compare that to Pfizer inventing Sildenafil (UK92480) to cure hypertension and finding out that it was not working well but caused erections. They made a fortune by turning it into Viagra. Medium has the potential to transform social media, similarly to how Viagra has affected medicine. But Ev does not realize that; he tirelessly tries to keep it as a forum to proliferate his ideas. So far there are no signs that Tony would change that policy. Applying this approach, Pfizer should give up on making money on a pill that could help male promiscuity. Instead, it would keep working on making Sildenafil a better high-blood pressure drug.

In Ev’s shadow

After listening to the previously mentioned interview, I knew that Ev’s days as the CEO were numbered. Investors could not keep at the top someone who does not want to run Medium as a business. Sadly, they gave Ev the job to find his replacement. Tony’s biggest flaw is that he is too much like Ev and too little like Robert Townsend.

Who is Robert Townsend?

He was. He died almost a quarter century ago. If he still were around, he would be 102.

The front cover of the first edition from 1970.

In 1970, Robert Townsend became famous. His pocketbook, “Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits,” was a cultural shock. Formally, it was about how Mr. Townsend turned around car rental company Avis, which was not profitable and was dysfunctional at the time. In reality, it was a book about the purpose of life, why we do what we do, and how to enjoy it and still make money.

During my five years on Medium, in many moments, I saw that by applying Townsend’s life philosophy, we could strengthen the business side while benefiting both readers and writers. I sent several emails to Ev with ideas and suggestions, but he did not see them that way.

The purpose of the business

Townsend started at Avis by defining the purpose of the business. It was short, so it would not need to be written; everyone could remember it. Medium does not have such a statement. Even worse, it lacks clarity about who its customers are, writers or readers. Medium needs a leader like Robert Townsend to get that resolved.

With a lucid mission statement, readers and writers, by fulfilling their passions, would act toward the common goal. If that does not happen, the mission statement must be revised as often as needed until it propels the business.

Hookers do hooking

Medium is flooded with articles advising how to make more money by attracting more readers or tricking the algorithm. It feels strange — in my take, readers seek information they cannot get elsewhere. Hence, if Medium helps readers find articles worth reading, it is a win-win situation. The readers come back, and authors get rewarded.

In “How to Write Articles That Will Get Your Audience Hooked,” Jason Huynh spelled out that writing solely for money boils down to hassling readers as hookers do it. It reminded me that, in my youth, back in Poland, we called writers who wrote only to make money “prostitutes.”

There is nothing wrong with making money by writing. But, as many people on Medium would agree, there are more important things in life than money. Mr. Townsend bows again with a surprising explanation.

X theory against Y theory

The essence of his book is in describing how he succeeded by using the Y theory. The X and Y theories of motivation were developed first by Douglas McGregor. The X theory states that workers need strict supervision because they would not be there if they could choose to do otherwise. The Y theory says that workers have their basic needs, such as food and shelter, taken care of by having a job. They seek satisfaction from being respected at work. People want more independence, an opportunity to learn, and an appreciation for being innovative.

With Medium, the Y theory means authors who write purely for money cannot build a huge readership. Medium can thrive only through articles posted with a bigger purpose than making a buck.

Nations worldwide lack meaningful public conversations about the problems we all face. People eagerly want to engage in them, seeking a better understanding and hoping their tiny contribution can make our world slightly better. No one does it; Medium has everything needed to start the conversations today. Success will come from financially rewarding writers whom readers find informative and engaging.

Ev may respond that making the world better is what he has been trying on Medium since its inception. He would be correct, but wrong at the same time.

The front cover of the Polish translation by Stefan Bratkowski from 1974, as I read it then.

A difference between a leader and a preacher

Preachers proclaim their truth. Leaders engage their teams in finding the truth or going as close to it as possible. By the way, leadership is a big part of Townsend’s book. 

On many issues, I disagree with Ev Williams on what the truth is. Let us take racial inequality in the United States as an example. Medium obtrusively imposes on its readers a narrow, one-sided position. There are a few authors frequently listed in the Medium Daily Digest. I have posted several articles with a different perspective; some of which are direct polemics with those promoted writers.

Leaders would recognize the merit of the opposite viewpoint and encourage debate. Preachers would fear the strength of the contrary argument and ensure that it would not reach their flock, as Medium leaders did with my texts. None of my articles about racial issues received that “distributed” mark. Editors assign that mark following the CEO’s directions. It was Ev then.

Why would someone pay $5 a month to read regularly what they already know and believe?

It makes no sense to me, but this is the business concept for Medium as practiced during Ev’s tenure. So far, I have not noticed any change in this concept.

Call me a weirdo, but I skim the articles presenting opinions I agree with. Looking for something new, I pay much more attention to those presenting the opposing views. Similarly, I believe that readers who post comments praising my texts waste my time and theirs. I offended a few by responding: If you like my article, tell others; if you see something wrong, tell me.

In my not popular opinion, blunt candidness is the way to keep Medium vigorous and prosperous. It is certainly not by creating a community of mutual adoration where direct criticism is unwelcome and everyone suffocates in a fog of flattery.

I can do it

Last, the message to those who decide the future of Medium. If asked, I can deliver what I call for above. With my help, Medium can get a CEO as good as Robert Townsend would have been. It would not be me. I would facilitate the transition.

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