Medium Rare

On being featured by Medium

Calligraphy by Stefanie Weigele

Ok — that was interesting.

On 30 October 2018, Medium featured my essay Why Do All Websites Look the Same?.

Within 14 days, the posting generated 200,000 views, over 100,000 reads, 30,000 claps and over 100 comments. It sparked a lively debate on Medium itself, on Twitter and on Hacker News.

After a couple of days, the whole thing was over — but I would like to reflect on some of the insights I got from the event and want to share my views on Medium as a platform.

It was obviously great to be featured by Medium! I was a bit surprised by the invitation as I have not really written that much. But I had put a lot of effort in all my essays — so it felt nice to be appreciated.

Being featured was pretty straightforward. A bit too straightforward to be honest. The invitation clearly stated that my essay would be tweaked and edited. So I assumed that there would be a lengthy and intensive exchange with an editor and a critical debate on the finer points of my essay. As you can guess — this did not happen. The entire process basically boiled down to “if you want to be featured, click this button”. I agreed, waited a few days — and then the revised text went public. I am fine with most of the edits — but it would have been nice to get a final say or at least a notification from Medium. Neither happened. This is actually my major gripe with the process. Medium could have been a bit more accommodating at that stage.

But as I said: the edits were fine. As I am not a native speaker, I welcomed a critical revision of my text. If you want, you can compare the original version that is still available on my personal website with the one that the Medium editors came up with.

The original title of the essay was “On the visual weariness of the web”. I totally understand that Medium changed it to “Why Do All Websites Look the Same?”. It is less subtle than my original title but it sums up the text in a very uncomplicated manner.

There were a couple of edits that I was not entirely happy with. I am not crazy about the new image as I like the idea of using calligraphy and hand lettering as my key visuals. Furthermore, they deleted the quote from Vilém Flusser which is a real shame. But the rest of the edits are pretty good. They even noted that I misspelled Paula Scher! Kudos for that.

The one thing that really struck me was this: there were no spillover effects. Almost nobody read my other essays. And the increase of web traffic to or the uclab — both prominently displayed in my blurb — was almost nil.

In order to illustrate this point, here is a bit of data:

With 245,000 views and 112,000 reads, “Why do All Websites Look the Same” is clearly my most popular text on Medium. The posting right before that, “Strategies for Design-Science Collaborations”, has 576 views and 178 reads. There is no “K” behind these numbers.

I can understand that the issue of design–science collaborations is probably not a gripping page-turner for a big audience. But the fact that from over 200,000 readers only about 200 bothered to look at my previous posting points to a structural problem at Medium. If just 0.1% of your readers find the way to your next essay, then there is something wrong with the user interface.

The traffic to other websites was also less than minimal. In the first two weeks of November, I had 25 (!) referrals from Medium to I understand that platforms want to keep the traffic within their systems. But a referral rate of 0.01% is a bit of a joke.

On the other hand, I had a strong increase of followers both on Medium and on Twitter. On Medium, the numbers went up from 750 to about 3,500. That’s nice — but I find it intriguing, that more than 2,500 readers are betting on my future essays instead of reading existing ones.

Why Do All Websites Look the Same? is certainly not my best essay. I wrote it because I wanted to present the work of my students. The aim of the essay was mainly to provide the readers with a bit of context. I was actually quite surprised that it went through the roof and provoked so much debate.

The essay is a polemic rant against a lack of creativity in web design. It is not very considerate and certainly not too brainy. (At least not after they deleted my Flusser quote.)

Medium is one of the more thoughtful and polite social media platforms. Most of the comments to my essay were critical, but the overall tone was civil and considerate — at least compared to Hacker News and Twitter. A friend of mine recently compared Twitter to drive-by-shootings which feels fairly accurate.

But still — it’s a bit sad that even on Medium, a polemic rant beats considerate discourse. My essays Design in Four Revolutions and Bringing Design to Science are much more astute than Why Do All Websites Look the Same. I can understand that they are too academic for a wide audience. But it would be nice if there were a space for a more subtle and considerate debate. Not everything has to be loud, dramatic, polarising and provocative. Medium could be a bit more more serious about their mission: “to bring you the smartest takes on topics that matter”. Which brings me to my last section:

While I mostly wanted to talk about the writing experience, I might as well add a few thoughts on the reading and discovery experience at Medium. There are many positive things — but also a couple of negative points that are crucial.

I really like the subscription model. No ads, no “sponsored content”, a transparent business model, readers are customers and not products. My wife would love to have something like this for Instagram. The reading experience is also quite good. Medium obviously cares for typography. The fact that the design team found the perfect underline is a good example for their attitude. And I really like the way comments are handled on Medium. They are available — but not too prominent.

But I am a bit disappointed on how the content is structured and how new postings and recommendations are handled. I applaud Medium for having an editorial team that finds and promotes quality writing. This is definitely the right approach and emphasises the distinction between a serious publication and a seemingly content-agnostic platform like Facebook. But it does not yet work for me. I still find it really difficult to discover great content on Medium.

For my personal taste, the editorial picks are too much focused on the good old theme of human tragedy and triumph. And the algorithmic recommendations produce a seemingly endless list of life improvements (“Why you should read 10,000 Books per Minute!”), design superficialities (“100 insanely great UX tips!”) and tech clickbait (“An iPhone without 17 lenses is doomed!”). Somehow I feel guilty that “Why Do All Websites Look the Same?” fits nicely into this list.

“Featured Collections” — publications within Medium — are an interesting approach to this problem. But so far I have not found one that I really enjoyed.

Most of my online reading is still based on people and publications I know and trust. On Medium, I have discovered a couple of such reading sources. But the interface quickly drowns them out. I fail to notice great postings from people I follow. And the section “New from your network” does not replace an overview of all recent text from people and publications that I follow.

I have actually started using RSS in order to follow authors and publications on Medium. It’s really easy — in the URL just add “feed” before the username — like I am really grateful that Medium still supports RSS. But it is odd, to say the least, that an RSS reader provides a better user experience for following authors than the Medium app or website.

My impression is that Medium is still unsure about its own profile. Right now, it is quite fuzzy. I know what values and world views the The Economist represents. I know what to expect from the New York Times. I enjoy reading the thoughts of individuals like Régine Debatty, John Gruber, Jessica Hische or John Scalzi. I have not found the same attachment on Medium.

To be clear: I have discovered new and compelling voices on Medium and I am sure I will find more. But they are not making it easy. Just simple stuff like going through my followers and checking out their stories is really difficult.

And the fact that very few of my readers found their way to my other essays is a strong indicator for assuming that Medium is focusing more on diverting readers to other stories than to the ones of the same author. Frankly, I don’t think that is a good strategy.

I really like Medium and I wish it well! Right now, it is one of the few decent social media platforms and that is something we should appreciate.

Furthermore, it was a good experience to be featured on Medium! It provided me with a great opportunity to share my ideas and trigger a debate on the web.

Earlier this month, Medium featured another one of my essays — “If Your Favorite Typefaces Were Celebrities”. This time, the whole process was much better! I got in touch with an editor and we shared a Google Doc with comments, edits and suggestions. Medium did not solve all the problems I am discussing here in this posting — but it is good to see that they are listening to constructive feedback! And is is nice that they picked a rather fun and delightful text — and not another rant.

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | |

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