As a Content Facilitator, Medium Must Become More Neutral and Transparent


Question: Does Medium focus too much attention on its own projects, at the expense of the majority of their writers?


Medium has a lot of great authors. Some of these authors are very popular. However, a lot of their continued popularity stems from their writing for the few select publications that Medium itself manages. Consider the topics section that we see each time we go to the front page of the platform.

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I just took a look at the links this morning and noticed that another publication was added. Now there are four Medium run publications out of the total ten categories. I think that from the beginning Medium planned on those four publications, but 40% is way too much. I understand wanting to generate some revenue and having some editorial authority over the quality of articles being curated. However, there’s a problem here. Medium is trying to be a content producer and a content facilitator.

This dual role is creating a conflict of interest. I don’t promote regulation. But I do promote ethical business practice. There’s a reason why electricity companies have been split between producer and supplier. There’s a lot that can go wrong. And something truly has gone wrong when it comes to Medium. OneZero, Elemental, Heated, and Human Parts are indeed great publications. But they are given almost all the attention on the platform. You’re either selected for these publications, or you have very little chance to get widespread attention. A quick look at the featured articles page makes this issue clear. The majority of the featured articles, which go on to receive attention in email, and which are posted to official social Medium social media accounts, are articles from Medium’s own publications.

None of this discussion is to say that things have to be this way. Netflix seems to balance content production and curation fairly well. Yes, they advertise their own content, but they certainly don’t feature it to the point that their own content is almost exclusively what the average Netflix user sees. And even Netflix isn’t perfect, which isn’t surprising. Any time a business acts as both content producer and facilitator, it establishes a conflict of interest.

And Medium does not seem to be balancing its dual role. It is promoting as a place for all authors, but those authors are essentially ignored unless they fit a few specific preferences of the curators and editors, or have some kind of connection which allows them to be selected. This process reduces the ability to be creative with the platform. It forces authors to try to fit a mold in order to get promoted.

Supporting Independent Authors

Aside from the general conflict of interest, there’s also the issue that Medium’s feature system tends to support major writing groups over the average writer. Major publications that have tons of followers on their own platform are being featured as writers, at the expense of smaller authors who need the visibility.

Not only have I seen numerous instances of authors, who write decent content, have their articles declined for curation, but I’ve also seen almost brand new authors, who don’t subscribe to the platform, and who follow very few people, have their sub-par articles curated.

Furthermore, repeatedly featured authors have included large professional publications with a massive following outside of Medium. These publications need zero support from Medium, in order to gain visibility, and yet they have it anyway. The decision to feature such publications comes at the expense of more independent authors.

The Way Forward

Medium needs to change. Medium needs a curation system that is open, and which can be petitioned. If an article is initially declined, a reason should be given, and if the article is improved sufficiently, it should be given a second look. As for the major publications, it’s fine for Medium to continue to promote its own content, but it must do so in a balanced way that does not prioritize its content over the independent authors. Likewise, it needs to stop featuring authors that do not support the platform and which are so wildly popular that they need no help being featured.

Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms are being attacked for their lack of transparency and poor ethical standards. In the case of those other platforms, there’s little to no money being exchanged between the platform and the user. However, in the case of Medium, the authors are clients, and moreover, a lot of authors are subscribers, in part because as an author we should support the platform.

Ethically and potentially legally, Medium is obligated to maintain a balance. Quite frankly, Medium could see itself in a lot of trouble if it does not change. Going back to Netflix, if it were found that Netflix was substantially downplaying other content on its platform, in order to promote its own content, people would freak out, and moreover, the other content creatures might very well file a class action lawsuit. Does Medium really want to deal with an antitrust lawsuit? I certainly don’t want to see it happen. I want Medium to succeed. I still think that Medium can normalize long form discussions, like this one. I think that Medium is a social media platform which has as much potential as any of the top platforms in existence today. But it can only reach its full potential if it is smart enough to do it ethically.

Looking Towards publish0x

I hadn't started using publish0x when I first wrote this article. But I want to take a moment to comment on the platform here. So far, publish0x has done a reasonable job about maintaining neutrality. While it has its bounties and sometimes does share specific interesting articles, it does not act in a highly balanced way, and has not created its own projects that create an inherent bias in the platform. I hope things stay this way. The primary goal of publish0x should be to promote the ability for authors and blog owners to monetize their work, and for publish0x to support itself and its shareholders as a result. The secondary goal should be to connect projects and readers, via the tipping system. Again, it should do so in an unbiased way, within the confines of the crypto-tipping system. 

Extended Argument

It seems that people weren't entirely convinced by my concerns in the original version of this article. The answers to my question on law.stackexchange.com do indicate that Medium is in the clear, but here is my case.

Medium is sort of a content facilitator that charges its users for premium content and passes on part of that fee to authors, when the reader interacts with their work. However, over recent months, Medium has become increasingly focused on their own partnerships and internal publications, to the point where it's hard to argue that there is not an ethical conflict of interest. My question is whether there's a legal conflict of interest.


General Idea

To put it into general terms, consider three parties, A, B, and C. Party A offers party B and C the opportunity to profit from an operation, where parties B and C are in competition with one another for a finite amount of revenue in a given month (the total available from subscription fees in this case). Further suppose that the operation relies on party C for success (it seems easy to argue that Medium would have trouble surviving if only their own content was on the platform), and that party A provides biased support to party B. Finally, B and C are paid by A, from the revenue generated by the operation, rather than B and C obtaining the revenue directly from the operation's customers.

In such a scenario, there seems to be both an ethical issue and potentially legal issue. However, I am not familiar with any specific civil statutes that may come into play. Does it appear that the above scenario might violate any specific statute? The one potential reason why Medium might be saved from a valid lawsuit is that an author does not have to pay for the service. However, they are providing support, in their aggregate, through the massive volume of writing that they provide to the platform.


Michael Seifert raised an interesting question: "How would this be different from Publishing House A promoting a more profitable Author B instead of a less profitable Author C?"

The difference is that the publishing house does not rely on C's work for sales. To continue this analogy, consider a situation where the publishing house put in a request for chapters for an anthology, where the majority of the chapters came from C, and a few came from B. Further suppose that the publishing house paid its authors based on how many sales the respective authors generated, but almost exclusively promoted author B's website that sold the anthology. Even though readers likely would not purchase the anthology, without the chapters provided by C, because of A's disproportionate support of B, C would receive very little of the revenue stream.


BlueDogRanch made a point that Medium's terms of services "says nothing about being fair, or ethical." Agreed. Its terms of services say nothing, and therefore it does not say that they reserve the right to unfair, unequal, or unethical, biases. If the terms of service stated that Medium reserves the right to unequal promotion of work regardless of whether it reduces the potential revenue by other authors, then Medium would have a greater chance of winning in court, and greater justification for their actions. However, without such statements, it becomes less certain that one should assume that a content facilitator that provides revenue streams as part of a partner program would engage in actions that disproportionately shift revenue streams towards their own content.

From a purely contractual standpoint, things are complicated. It's hard to tell if there's any real contract violation. Medium does indicate that it doe not hold itself to apply the terms of service equally. However, it's not unreasonable to argue that there is an expectation that Medium wouldn't do anything that would reduce the chances of revenue. There are a number of saving graces for Medium, not the least of which is it does not charge authors for the ability to publish on the platform. But there is a major sticking point that must be considered. Medium is under California state law. California has been moving towards considering anyone an employee if an employment entity fails to meet all three of the following requirements.

1) Part A of the test requires that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact; and

2) Part B of the test requires that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

3) Part C of the test requires that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.

Medium passes A and C, but fails for B. Medium is in the business of selling access to articles. Author's are in the business of writing those articles. Currently, these requirements only apply to wage orders. So that would include things like minimum wage orders. Furthermore, updates to the California Equal Pay Act requires "equal pay for employees who perform “substantially similar work,” when viewed as a composite of skill, effort, and responsibility." In Medium's case, it's essentially impossible to guarantee equal pay, but it is possible to guarantee equal opportunity for payment, a garuantee that is destroyed through biased showcasing of articles and publications. 

A Way Out

Medium could restructure its operations however. The main issue is that Medium "owns the readers." In other words, Medium is the one that charges readers for access to content. If, on the other hand, the subscriptions are owned by the authors, things could be different. The exact way in which this setup would work is complicated. I still like the idea of a guild type operation, but it would be very difficult for such a large group of people to function as a guild in the form that I have suggested they take.

On the other hand, publish0x works differently. Sponsors give tokens to the tip pool. Readers then tip the authors. The primary business operation for publish0x, as is the case for many social media platforms, is advertising. So publish0x isn't in the business of selling access to articles, but rather access to potential customers. Therefore publish0x satisfies criterion B, as well as A, and C. 

Summary

By changing the way it does business, Medium could improve itself considerably. As it stands, there are some potential legal risks that the business could face, especially with the strict nature of California's employment laws. However, as many of my readers know, I am an anarchist. I have no issue launching a civil action or protest, but I'm not a huge fan of leveraging the law, though I know Medium would have no problem leveraging it against me if it believed that I was in violation in such a way that it was damaged.

Still, from a purely ethical standpoint, Medium has a major conflict of interest that it has not only failed to resolve, but has made worse by continuing to increase the number of in house publications, which further compete against its larger population of authors. At the very least, I would not be surprised to see authors jump ship, as alternatives like publish0x come into their own. And without that large volume of articles generated from the average author, Medium will perish. Any author that relies on Medium for their income should expand beyond the platform, and also do what they can to ensure that they have some level of "ownership" over their followers, through email listings or social media followings, etc. 

Originally published on Medium. Photo by JJ Jordan on Unsplash.

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Daniel Goldman
Daniel Goldman

I’m a polymath and a rōnin scholar. That is to say that I enjoy studying many different topics. Find more at http://danielgoldman.us


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