I know it’s shocking, but last week Medium pivoted again. With little or no warning, it informed publishers using the platform that it was discontinuing their ability to offer paid memberships to readers, cutting off a source of revenue and audience-building for many outlets. The rationale for this latest shift is that Medium felt the memberships offered by individual publications created confusion when Medium itself offers a paid membership tier. That product allows publishers to put some material behind a paywall that extends to the entire site.
That’s reasonable and understandable. It’s conceivable that someone could have been confused when they became a Medium Premium member but then were asked to also become a member of a specific outlet. Still, the capriciousness with which Medium repeatedly treats these changes is remarkable. Over the last three years it’s experimented with one sort of revenue model – both for itself and publications – after another, only to shut down those efforts and leave publishers with their cheese hanging in the wind.
This kind of “let’s just see what works” attitude would be fine if the stakes weren’t so damn high. Journalism is under assault more and more every day, whether it’s from the Google/Amazon/Facebook triopoly that is sucking up all the ad revenue in the industry (the online ad market actually shrunk for everyone but Google and Facebook according to a recent IAB report) or from a president who casually tosses out the idea of revoking the credentials of journalists who publish negative stories about him.
As I’ve stated before, Medium’s problem has long been that it doesn’t know what it is and so has never quite defined what rules it should play by. It wants to be a platform, open to everyone to come and publish their essays and announcements of venture funding. It also wants to be a publisher, curating interesting stories and making other editorial judgments.
The best platforms, though, are both open and dumb. The best publishers are closed and smart. Trying to be open and smart means you’re going to be effective as neither a platform nor a publisher.
Interestingly, that’s the same problem that seems to be cropping up on Spotify. The streaming service announced last week it would be removing the music of R. Kelly from certain playlists and other promoted slots. That music was still available on the service but, in the wake of another wave of allegations of serious sexual assault against the rapper, it wasn’t going to push it to the forefront in any way. This was couched as part of a new “Hate Content and Hateful Conduct” policy. Of course there are issues with how universally or stringently this policy is going to be enforced given there are scads of musicians and artists whose music or other conduct doesn’t pass moral muster in many ways.
In both cases you have corporations making, in some manner, judgments that impact the financial future of those impacted by their decisions. Medium is about to leave another batch of publishers dangling and looking for ways to fill in an unexpected revenue gap. Spotify will put a restrictor cap of sorts on the potential earnings of problematic artists.
Of the two, Spotify’s is perhaps the more defensible. Entertainment vendors of many sorts have long made decisions on what is or isn’t appropriate for promotion. Record stores, when those were a thing, might stock a particular album known to be offensive in some manner but might not put it in the “Hot New Releases” section because they want to sell it but not act as if they were endorsing what was happening. Just recently, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction resulted in not only the stripping of various honors and memberships but in cable channels and streaming providers pulling “The Cosby Show” from their lineups.
Even with Spotify’s slightly understandable position, it’s worth noting how much power “smart” platforms have. If it wants to get out of the editorial game altogether it could stop curating and promoting certain playlists or albums and let people explore and build their own experience. Make the front page customizable by each user instead of a selection of recommendations.
Medium too could simply just cut this out and stop promising to save the internet, dropping the facade of truly being interested in the future of journalism. Let people build their own front page experience and stop using engagement as a way to surface new material to them outside of search.
Neither is likely to do so, though. Nor will Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Apple or any other site/network that wants to “aid in discovery” or some such. They’ve all sold people on the idea that they have the best recommendations. Plus, if they stopped presenting these recommendations they’d have little or no justification for collecting the amount of user data they currently do, which would impact their own advertising revenue.
Give me dumb platforms any day of the week.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.