5 min read

Why did Medium fail?

Someone on Hacker News posed the question “why did Medium fail?

The post quality has deteriorated, and it feels like I'm reading the same posts over and over again. Not to mention the stupid paywall which is infuriating.

Why did Medium end up like this? In the beginning it was pretty good but then it started to wither. Is there any way for a platform like Medium to keep up with high quality posts while also paying their writers well?

The current CEO of Medium replied with a thoughtful answer. Small excerpts below:

1) Lost our way on recommendations. When I showed up the company was convinced that engagement equals quality. That's not true and it gets even more pronounced if you pay people to game your recommendation system.

2) Got lost thinking about the creator economy, when we should have kept thinking about doers. … For a lot of topics, personal experience trumps everything. Not to knock creators, but by definition full time content creation gets in the way of having personal experiences that are worth writing about.

These answers make sense on the surface level, but I think they misunderstand why people dislike Medium, and why Substack is doing so well.

The frustration of Medium

Substack splits its content into two distinct piles: paid and free. Readers understand when a piece is free, and when it is paid.

The ‘paid’ badge is the only item with color in the newsletter design—in many ways it is the most important piece of context about this piece. It’s the most important because I know that I should not share a paid piece because people will not be able to read it. If a paid piece of content is shared on Twitter, it’s usually with a few screenshot excerpts and an exhortation to subscribe.

This is fundamentally Medium’s biggest problem. There may be a great piece of writing there, but if I share it I don’t know if someone else will be able to read it. And even worse, the person considering clicking the link also has no idea if they’ll be able to read it. And worst of all, the author writing on Medium has no idea if any potential reader will be able to read it.

The identity crisis of Medium

There are two broad types of people writing online:

  • Hobbyists: people who have something to say and want the quickest and easiest way to write and publish
  • Content creators: people who want to get paid for their writing

On Substack these two groups file neatly into their product offering. Hobbyists create a newsletter that is explicitly free, and boom their writing is published. Content creators create a paid newsletter, and mix in some free pieces to expand distribution.

Not to knock creators, but by definition full time content creation gets in the way of having personal experiences that are worth writing about.
- Medium CEO

Almost by definition, if you’re not a full-time content creator and you want to share a story, you’re unlikely to want to get paid for it. If you are a full-time programmer sharing a story about programming, you don’t care about getting $100 for a piece of writing. You care about sharing your story with your peers; having people read what you wrote. The career returns of having your opinion heard and shared outweigh a small payment from Medium by many orders of magnitude. And the random paywall on Medium fundamentally gets in the way of that return.

Said another way: hobbyists don’t want monetization, and content creators want to control monetization. Medium’s monetization hurts distribution for hobbyists, and hurts control for content creators.

A path forward for Medium

This is armchair quarterbacking after thinking about it for like 30 minutes, but there’s a path forward that feels like it’d tackle some of the major issues.

The primary problem with Substack is that it is expensive. I currently pay $110/year for two newsletters. I’m happy to do that—they’re excellent newsletters—but it’s hard for me to imagine increasing my spend a lot more for more content.

Medium has a chance to be the bundler to Substack’s unbundling of content creation. To trot out the cliche: “there’s only two ways to make money in business: one is to bundle; the other is unbundle.”

We’ve been living through the Great Unbundling: every TV channel gets its own app, its own subscription. But the tide is turning back to bundling. There’s the Disney Bundle (Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+), the Apple One bundle (Apple Music, Apple TV+, Apple Arcade, etc.). (Stratechery feels like the authoritative modern chronicler of bundling and unbundling—here’s their topic page for it).

If I were Medium I would move to become Substack, but bundled.

Authors explicitly choose whether a post is paid or free.

Hobbyists can post free articles quickly and easily, with the knowledge that their content will be pleasantly readable and shareable by everyone.

Content creators can post a mixture of free and paid articles, growing an audience that is too small to monetize on Substack, but big enough to be bundled with other writers of a similar draw.

Medium could take paid content and aggregate it in to a curated magazine-style offering. Every (https://every.to/) is taking some version of this approach on a smaller scale with seeming success.

I’m certainly hand-waving away a tremendous amount of complexity. How do you determine what writers get paid? I don’t know how Medium previously handled this but I suspect this is actually a unique differentiation where they have years of experience handling varied size payouts to different writers and is a space that Substack would struggle to follow them.

There’s still the question of Medium existing within the messy middle of content. High-end content creators will still go to Substack because they have enough draw to get higher direct payments. And posting a Substack newsletter will always contain a certain cultural sheen because it’s “good enough for the big boys”.

But the reality is that Medium already exists within this messy middle—if that’s where they’re going to say, then they should try to smooth off the sharp edges and narrative dissonance they’ve built around their place there.

Mea culpa

There are probably already smart folks at Medium who have explored this train of thought, and there are probably very good reasons to not pursue it that are invisible from the outside. I tried checking out Medium's current pricing strategy but their pricing page is behind a login screen, so my understanding of their monetization may be out of date as well (but is probably more similar with how other casual users picture it).

I just think the vision presented by the current CEO has its own problems, and won’t solve some of the core tensions that have caused people to move away from Medium (myself included!), and have a broadly negative perception of it.

I think Medium is attempting to solve a worthy problem. There is a cohort of writers who want to make money, but aren’t big enough to do so in an unbundled fashion. It feels like figuring out what that potential future looks like is Medium’s big opportunity, and I hope they can figure it out.