Updates to our Quality Guidelines for sensitive content
Improving the standard of care for Medium readers, with advice to writers
In this story:
- Why we’re updating our Quality Guidelines
- The updates to our Quality Guidelines
- Advice to writers of sensitive material
- Why should readers care about our Quality Guidelines?
At a good party, the hosts have created an atmosphere and conditions that create a memorable experience for those who attend. A good host makes us feel warmly welcomed—maybe even delighted.
Similarly at Medium, we strive to be good hosts to our guests: you, the readers and writers on the platform. To do this, we take care with how we build the platform and how we distribute what is created there. We take responsibility for what happens at this party, especially since many of our guests are chipping in $5 or even $15 a month to attend.
I want to emphasize that because it underlies everything we do: We take responsibility for the overall experience that people have when they come to Medium.
Your attention is valuable—that’s why so many other companies are aggressively vying for it. We don’t seek it by pushing completely algorithmically selected clickbait in front of you to siphon away your attention. We don’t sell your attention to the highest bidder through advertising. We know that you value your attention as well.
One of the ways we demonstrate this value is through the human curation of tens of thousands of stories each month. We select the best to be Boosted—and many of those stories are recommended to us by publication editors participating in the Boost Nomination Pilot. Our recommendation system uses those Boosted stories, along with thousands of other stories written every day, to present a set of stories we hope will inform, interest, and even delight each individual reader.
(Want details on how that Distribution system works? Read What happens to your post when you publish on Medium.)
Why we’re updating our Quality Guidelines
We evaluate stories using our Quality Guidelines. We look for how writers bring their own insights, based on their own experience, to the topics they cover. We also look for how the article serves the reader — is it worth your time and attention to read? Is it well-crafted — a pleasure to read, perhaps, or structured in a useful way? Does it make some kind of impact on your life?
We also watch for potential violations of the Medium Rules, and flag those for our Trust and Safety Team to look at.
Sometimes stories have met our guidelines for being boosted, but have created a poor experience for some readers (or writers). So we’ve made some minor updates to those Distribution Guidelines in the service of being better hosts to you. These updates are mostly clarifications about how we already curate stories that contain explicit sexuality and violence. We want writers to understand how some of these elements can prevent their stories from being Boosted.
The updates to our Quality Guidelines
Here’s the section we’ve added:
These factors can lead to a story being disqualified for Boost:
• Non-fiction sexuality, or stories with sexually explicit text or images. (Erotica — sexually explicit fiction, poetry, or art — falls into the “Network Only” category below and so is already ineligible to be Boosted.)
• Stories with shocking, sensational, NSFW, or profane titles/subtitles/cover images. Stories we Boost must be appropriate when seen in the context of reader feeds, emails, and other lists.
• Stories depicting explicit violence in a gratuitous way. (Non-gratuitous depictions of violence might, for example, involve historical facts that are being presented in a careful and thoughtful manner — these can be Boosted.)
These factors are considered in context with the rest of the story. We recognize that sex, violence, and other forms of sensitive material are a reality of life, a form of self-expression, and an important element of many stories. We welcome those stories. However, the writer’s ability to handle these elements in a way that also respects Medium’s readers is part of the pattern we look for in the well-crafted, enriching, and impactful stories we choose to Boost.
The issue here is one of context: Boosted stories are given high visibility on the site, in the app, and in email digests. It creates a poor experience for readers to unexpectedly have profanity, gore, or sexually explicit material foisted upon them. That makes it a basic courtesy to not Boost this type of content.
We take responsibility for providing a standard of care for the Medium community, the same way a good host takes responsibility for the care of their guests.
Advice to writers of sensitive material
Writers on Medium have a vested interest in our Quality Guidelines and how we apply them, so I’d like to offer some advice to writers about these updates. If you write stories that fall into this territory, there are two basic approaches you can take:
- Option 1: Keep writing what and how you want to write. Your stories will continue to be distributed to your followers. If the story is in a publication, it will continue to be distributed to the followers of that publication. And, of course, it’s also available to readers who find it via search engines or other off-platform sources. A story doesn’t have to be Boosted to be successful.
- Option 2: don’t include the elements above if you want your story to be boosted. You might also consider how to get the same story across in well-crafted ways that are in line with our guidelines for Boost. (More on that below.)
What I’m trying to stress here is that I believe you should go ahead and write about these topics on Medium, and that it’s not our intent to tell you to avoid edgy topics. And, honestly, if you’re writing with a singular goal of having every story Boosted, you’re going to get in the way of yourself as a writer. Writing matters; you can and should have loftier goals than simply to get Boosted on Medium.
All of that said, there are ways for writers to cover topics that involve violence, sexuality, profanity, and similar elements and still get Boosted. Here are some tips on how to maintain a standard of care for the reader when writing about sensitive content:
Give extra attention to your titles, subtitles, and cover images
Algorithmically recommended content has trained writers to use clickbait titles, subtitles, and cover images. This works against your chances to be Boosted on Medium.
Review your story after you’ve written it, and consider if these elements (1) promise something that your story actually delivers and (2) promote your story with a sense of decorum.
Think about how your story is going to appear in different contexts on Medium. Writers spend a lot of time in the individual story interface, but a reader’s impression of the story can be quite different when it appears on Medium’s home page, in email digests, in publications, and within other contexts.
This is why we’ve added a note in the new guidelines: Stories we Boost must be appropriate when seen in the context of reader feeds, emails, and other lists.
Avoid the urge to shock or trick the reader
This applies to titles, subtitles, and cover images as noted above, but it also applies to the rest of your story. You’re about to share something sensitive with another person — the reader. What effect is it going to have on them? Dramatic writing is fine, but are the details there because they serve the reader?
I’m not a huge fan of trigger warnings myself, especially when they start by proclaiming “Trigger warning!” almost as if it were an attractive feature. There are more skillful ways of handling sensitive content, but a trigger warning can be better than nothing.
Sometimes writers use titles or statements that sound shocking or controversial, but then follow it up with a story that lays out a different line of thinking. “How I Murdered My Mother”, for example, on a story about personal growth through Internal Family Systems (a symbolic/conceptual sometimes used in psychotherapy). That’s a pretty benign example, but if you extrapolate it out a bit, you can understand why we’re sensitive to how these headlines appear to readers in their email, apps, and other spaces.
Focus on the reader
Ask yourself what your story is doing for the reader, and what you can do to improve the experience for that reader. At Medium, we prize the connection between writers and readers.
We do recognize that writers must often write and publish material that helps them with their own personal growth — that’s a good thing. Those stories can be quite graphic and disturbing; we don’t censor them. However, that type of story is often in far more service to the writer than to the reader, and so they rarely qualify for Boost.
Remember: in our quality guidelines, we’re looking at how the story might enrich and impact a reader’s. Focusing on what you are offering the reader is a key way to shape your story in this direction.
Why should readers care about our Quality Guidelines?
Much of our writing about how we distribute stories and our Quality Guidelines is oriented toward writers. But readers, too, should be interested in how we distribute stories on the platform, because that’s really where any content platform reveals how it sees its relationship to consumers.
The way we curate and distribute content on Medium is an evolving process to do something dramatically different from other platforms. We insist on a high level of respect for our community.
Most platforms present content in a way that solely rewards engagement and popularity (or advertising dollars — but let’s set that aside since we’re completely ad-free). That type of algorithmic system offers a clear-cut way for writers to create content pieces that optimize for the algorithm rather than for the reader. I’ve gotten the sense, through comments here and elsewhere, that some believe that the preponderance of these completely algorithmic distribution systems is some kind of evidence that we should do this at Medium, too.
What they’re missing, however, is that we are not building the same thing that all of the other content platforms are building. It’s not our intention. We — with you — are building something different. For writers and readers alike, Medium can serve as a complement to those other platforms. But it is different. At Medium, we prize stories by humans, for humans.
The party we’re building for readers and writers at Medium is one where we greet readers warmly, introduce them to great writers they haven’t met before, and engender conversations with writers who might become new friends. Those conversations might become very spirited… we don’t shy away from controversy, or from broadening readers’ horizons in less-than-comfortable ways. We also don’t reward toxic attention-seeking and we don’t allow bad actors to destroy the experience for others.
The big picture
Our Quality Guidelines create a framework for decision-making on an article-by-article basis, but that granular decision-making is always done in support of our mission is deepen people’s understanding of the world through stories filled with human wisdom.
That’s the kind of party we’re throwing, and you’re invited to join us.