Words still matter
Five years can seem like a long time. Two presidential elections and three iPhone generations ago, things were different. And that’s when we started Medium. At the time, I wrote:
It’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface of how we can use the tools available to us to connect hearts and minds. It’s also clear that the way media is changing isn’t entirely positive when it comes to creating a more informed citizenry. Now that we’ve made sharing information virtually effortless, how do we increase depth of understanding, while also creating a level playing field that encourages ideas that come from anywhere?
We don’t know all the answers. But we know that words matter (still), so we built a better system for sharing them.
Looking back at these words, it’s clear that some things haven’t changed. Like why we’re here. And what we mean by “words matter.” It’s not just that the written word still has influence and impact, which it obviously does. It’s that the information we consume matters as much as the food we put in our bodies. It affects our thinking, our behavior, how we understand our place in the world. And how we understand others.
What’s even more apparent than it was five years ago, is this: The dominant media ecosystem — in other words, how we get the words (and images) we consume — is no longer serving the needs of people. There’s more “content” than ever. But it’s also harder than ever to find signal amongst the noise and facts amongst the fiction — let alone inspiring ideas and high-level discourse, which is what the internet was meant to be.
What our experience at Medium has taught us — or, really, confirmed — is that great ideas can change the world when you create a welcoming space for them. That diverse perspectives deepen our understanding of complex issues. And that lots and lots of people have a hunger for depth and knowledge — a hunger that is being underserved.
We also understand better than when we started the systemic issues we need to address. It’s not just about creating great tools for writing. We must also create the right reward systems. The current reward system that drives content online looks like this: Attention = Money.
As a result, the path to profit is to manufacture attention more cheaply than what you get paid for it. This is not a dramatically different formula than the media business has historically run on. However, attention is now tracked, commodified, and rewarded in a way that has huge implications. Attention is rewarded, regardless of quality, context, or whether it was earned by conscious choice.
Conscious choice matters. It’s the difference between being a knowledge seeker and a channel flipper. The internet is amazingly well tuned to give you what you “want” — whether you want it or not. If you can’t look away from a car crash, it will surmise you want more car crashes and will create them for you. If you can’t stop eating junk food, it will serve you up a platter.
Is it any wonder we’re at a nadir of truth, understanding, and trust in our media?
It’s not that there aren’t journalists, publishers, and thinkers doing great work and putting it out there. But the realities of the attention economy are very tough for those who create things designed for anything but the widest possible (i.e., lowest-common-denominator) audience. For ad-driven sites, the revenue per reader has been dropping for years (while the experience worsens and privacy disintegrates), leaving little room for research, fact checking, or polish… let alone nuance or complexity. The system demands quantity. It demands speed. And it demands little else — except our clicks.
In summary, the system is broken. The free ride is an illusion. It was never free, and it is going nowhere but down.
Where we’re going
Though we’ve been working on this set of problems since the beginning, this year Medium took a big step toward a new solution. Our subscription strategy is based on a simple idea: By charging readers directly, we can make the experience and the content better, which creates a no-brainer proposition for anyone who values their time. By eschewing ads, we remove conflicts between serving our readers and serving those paying the bills.
And while many publishers are looking towards subscriptions as an alternative to the deleterious effects of ads (a move we support for everyone), Medium is the only “open paywall” for thoughtful content on the internet. Which means, we tap into the ideas and expertise of thousands of the smartest minds on the planet — many of whom made Medium what it is today — to bring fresh perspectives to Medium members. And starting today, anyone can enroll in our Partner Program and earn money based on the depth and value they provide to members, not the fleeting attention they deliver to advertisers. Along with that, we add stories from the world’s best publishers and seamlessly combine it all in an ad-free, personalized experience. The end goal is to offer the world’s best source for important stories and ideas.
The last five years have created an important foundation, but we’re really just getting started. Let’s work on this next phase together. Let’s take back control of what we pay attention to and what gets rewarded. When we do, we can demand more. And we’ll get more. More depth. More understanding. More satisfaction.
Thank you for your support.