In early January, 2020, I joined Medium, a platform that is widely used by writers. Medium enables you to post articles, stories, poems, etc., and have them available for others to read. I thought this would be a great space to get some exposure for my writing.
The platform shares some characteristics with social media. You can follow other writers, comment on their stories, and indicate that you like their stories. Writers can form into groups around a certain publication that might share common interests. Publications have moderators (editors) who can accept, deny, or ignore writers seeking entrance. Topics of posted items cover a fairly wide range. Users have a feed based on their interests, receive notifications, and can opt-in for various email summaries, much like other social media sites.
Unlike other social media however, Medium is mostly free from trolls, and operates from a place of respect for others. Users being human, this isn’t universal on the platform, but it’s nothing like the burnt forest of insults you can find on Twitter and Facebook. It’s refreshing to have an opportunity to read others, find their thoughts enjoyable and/or helpful, to be able to have an opportunity to discuss their work, and to publish your own.
Still, from I’ve been able to see so far, Medium is not a breeding ground for creative writing. Medium authors publish a lot of content, which, as the word suggests, is anything that fills a container. Some of the more common fillers are articles on how to improve: your writing, your chances of monetizing your work, and the breadth of your article’s distribution. There’s also a plethora of articles regarding relationships, dating, personal growth, and job improvement. Personal memoir is also quite popular.
Fiction and poetry, while present on the platform, represent a minority. The readership of Medium seems to be more interested in the typical “blog” topics that can be found in all corners of the internet than in creative writing. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it simplifies the discovery of the content, as it’s all under one roof. However, writers such as myself who prefer to work with fiction and poetry are at a disadvantage when it comes to reaching potential readers.
The problem with content in my opinion is that it all sounds the same. It’s great if you want to learn something new, such as you might from an instructional book, or if you want to get advice on the best way to improve your chances of having a successful first date, but writers, for the most part, have adopted a formula and a writing style for these topics that makes it difficult to distinguish one writer from another.
For instance, the previous sentence. It’s practically a commandment when writing internet content to always use short sentences. Sixty-five words in a single sentence, no matter how well written, is usually considered fifty-five too many. In order to include as many readers as possible, internet writing aims for readers with a very basic reading level.
Unfortunately, I understand why. Literacy levels in the United States (and the world, in general) are not impressive. According to the latest adult literacy study conducted by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies in 2001-2012, more than half of adults in the United States can only read at a fourth to fifth-grade level – or lower. About thirty-six percent can read at a sixth- to eighth-grade level, and only twelve percent can read at high school level and above.
Depressing news. Factor in fiction’s metaphoric and allegorical devices and you quickly reach a point where only the so-called elite are willing to dig in. Therefore, according to most articles about writing, you not only need to keep vocabulary and grammar harnessed to a grade-school hitching post, but you must keep the presentation of your message there also.
I don’t consider it elite to be able to read and write at a higher level than average. In fact, until recently, I wasn’t aware of the shocking percentage of adults who aren’t able to do so. I’ve been going along in life for quite some time, aware that literacy problems exist, but blissfully unaware as to the magnitude. Yet even after learning about the numbers, I don’t consider high-level literacy to be elite. I consider it a normal function of the human brain that many can achieve. It’s possible many don’t want to though, and that of course is a horse of a different color, the one you can only lead to water.
Another thing I’ve learned in the last several weeks is that Medium readers don’t seem to mind that the same topics appear daily, sometimes by different authors, sometimes by the same. Many produce content as if there’s a race, and yet there’s only so much advice you can give on any given subject. Or, only so much you can take. Still, it gets repackaged, and read, as a summary of another summary, or an individual perspective that’s worthy of the individual, but lacks the essence of originality. The essence of originality I find lacking at times is not the author’s perspective per se, for that, by definition, is a characteristic of the individual, but rather the recipe with which the author’s perspective is presented. The various recipes that advisers present aren’t all the same of course, but they tend to use the same ingredients in nearly the same proportions.
Overall, Medium is a good platform and can be used for many hours of enjoyable reading, but it is difficult to cut through the noise. I’d like to see better preference filters, and the ability to specify content you actively want to exclude. On Medium, as with any large platform that retains basic aspects of social media, popularity begets algorithmic popularity; certain authors and topic float to the top. But popularity and quality are not the same.
At least not for me. Popularity, by definition, is that which appeals to a large portion of the population, whether that population be a community, a country, the world, or the virtual world of an internet platform. To do so, it must appeal to the middle, or perhaps slightly to the left, of the bell curve. Something is popular because it appeals to a perception that the average person possesses. For me however, when I read, the commonplace is usually boring.
While I don’t dismiss certain things just because they’re popular, neither do I automatically assume they’re of higher quality. Frequently, there’s nothing wrong with a popular item, but its quality level is still around average.
I like to read work that is done well, but is also different from most work. As I’ve explained above, due to the nature of articles for the internet, this generally means fiction and poetry for me. I have been able to find outstanding and unusual fiction, but it takes a lot of digging.
In general, I’d like to see a fiction and poetry renaissance, whether solely on Medium, or across the internet. However, with lowering literacy and the increasing tendency to write to that lower literacy level, it may be a long time coming.
Meanwhile, I’m going to keep doing what I do. I suppose if I were writing for the money (which I have done), I might need to stick to the formula and come to a halt at all the four-way stops. That way has value, too. At my age however, there’s other things I’d rather be doing, other worlds I’d rather be visiting, and other authors with whom I’d rather connect.