Places to Put Words Down

Blogging independently, without a guaranteed audience, has always been either a gamble or an outright waste of time, depending on your idea of value. In 2016, though, the activity can seem particularly more ridiculous with each passing month, as the entire rest of the internet conspires to become one giant Platform. Now, with the announcement of Medium for Publishers and with sites like The Awl migrating to the service, the future of writing and publishing online is coming into sharper focus, if it wasn’t already apparent. Trying to answer the question “why not just post this on Medium?” is a joke without a punch line. This is an ecosystem defined by engagement potential, click-thru rates, virality, likes, shares, favs, RTs, and whatever other metrics are currently relevant. Within those parameters, it’s tough to answer the question “why not Medium” if you’re starting to write on your own today. Medium is designed to maximize those numbers – or, to convince you that it has the greatest potential to maximize those numbers.

This dovetails nicely with the developments of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles, which give outlets the opportunity to host their material directly on platforms provided by these tech conglomerates so as to allow for better audience reach, consistency of visual language, reliability, that sort of thing. And when I say “dovetails nicely” I mean that this is positive progress for the companies offering the hosting platform and probably no one else. This kind of consolidation leads explicitly in one direction, as publishers will be gradually forced to concede their independence to the security of these all-consuming silos or else risk financial instability and irrelevance as their stories go unshared, unclicked, unread, and ignored by algorithms that prioritize native content.

Medium brings to the table something a little different, as it has attempted, since its launch a few years ago, to distinguish itself as a place for Serious Writing. It’s also allowing clients some degree of customization over their design and presentation once they make the shift over. So to publishers – like newspapers, for example – who place a premium on being perceived as having journalistic and literary integrity, Medium might be a more palatable option than something like Facebook, which is still a mess like 90% of the time.

This perception of authenticity is important, because Medium’s aesthetic uniformity and trusted branding allow for an environment in which native advertising and blatant promotion can comfortably cohabit with more traditional forms of journalism, essays, personal memoirs, and criticism. It can be difficult to determine, at first glance, which posts on the platform are parts of marketing or political campaigns, for example. Tech people frequently use Medium as a place to share updates and developments on their projects and in their fields of research, which fosters an atmosphere that is sympathetic, welcoming, and lacking in healthy skepticism or criticism. A casual browser of the site might not be aware that this kind of personal, bloggy advertising is happening at all.

This is, of course, the point. Financial insecurity for publishers of writing and journalism on the internet is essentially guaranteed right now, and the prospects do not look to be improving in the short term. There are a variety of reasons for this, but Medium targets the rise of ad-blocking most significantly. Because so much writing online can be read for free, publishers have traditionally relied on advertising revenue to support major portions of their costs. Advertising sucks, though, and its online iterations frequently obstruct whatever a reader is trying to read and hoard their personal information in the process. This is bad and audiences responded to it being bad by ratcheting up their usage of ad-blocking software to such a degree that it is making independent and mid-tier publishing unsustainable. There is no good, clean, easily-implementable answer to this situation at the moment, at least as far as I am aware. Publishers, writers, and all staff involved deserve to be paid. If advertising was the only way to achieve that and readers have dismissed this outright, then we arrive somewhere uncomfortable very quickly.

Well, here is one response to reader frustration with the obtrusiveness of advertisements: just turn everything into a potential ad. This is the motivation behind concepts like native advertising or branded content or whatever your preferred term is, and the Medium-ing of independent publishers will expand on the advertising possibilities significantly. It’s such a crude and cynical solution that it’s also ingenious in its capitalizing way. But it will necessarily lead toward an internet that is more uniform and more boring than it already is. Sites that began with widely different intents and missions will begin to converge into a single style, and the only perceptible difference between any two articles will be the logo on the top banner. This was already happening, anyway, as sites chased readership through similarly-oriented headlines and approaches; what platforms like Medium and Facebook offer is a shortcut to that future.

I think this started out as a post about blogging.

The reason any of this is relevant to blogging is because this is the environment anyone writing independently today faces. So you can sort of admit defeat in one of two ways: you can say “to hell with it” and join up on a platform like Medium and sacrifice some agency in the hopes that your writing will gain traction, or you can say “to hell with it” and write for a less-streamlined platform that gives you more control but guarantees very little audience without external promotion.

I’ve written for Medium before and I may again in the future, but there is something about writing a personal blog that I have always found compelling in a very ridiculous, romanticized way. There are few substitutes currently available for the experience of finding a good blog and sitting down with it for a while. It’s almost like settling in with a book in the way that it offers a specific kind of authored experience. It’s comprehensive as a result of persistence. Sometimes it’s a wonderful reading experience as you discover a writer who introduces you to new and entertaining perspectives. Sometimes it’s an absolute nightmare. Whatever the case, blogging allows for a slightly more unique and personable reading and writing experience than can be offered elsewhere on the internet.

It doesn’t typically offer any compensation, though. Again, I don’t know what the solution is here. Most people probably can’t afford to write tens of thousands of words for an outlet that may never offer a meaningful readership and will almost certainly never offer any money. So maybe continuing to write for an independent blog is unjustifiable. If, for whatever reason, a writer can justify writing under these circumstances and wants to write, anyway, then “why not Medium” becomes easier to answer. Because in those circumstances, what Medium makes its writers sacrifice is greater than what it can offer. A blog can still offer some sort of identity in a way that Medium, for solo writers, can’t. So why the hell not keep plugging away at an island blog, unaffiliated with major sponsorship opportunities and platform integration?

Then again, I’m posting this on one of the most popular blogging platforms that’s ever existed, which is owned by a company worth over a billion dollars. So it’s important to put things in context.

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