When Medium launched five years ago, founder and CEO Ev Williams made the bold claim that the blogging platform (or as it was originally conceived, publisher) would be "a beautiful space for reading and writing - and little else".
Now it is 2017, and we have numerous examples of how the platform is no longer living up to the promise that "When you write on Medium, you’ll know that your words and pictures will look great on any device; they’ll automatically adjust to the latest technology and even get better over time."
For starters, there's the sharing dickbar. This is the name that John Gruber gave to the persistent menu bar that mobile visitors see on Medium's website:
Medium seems to continue to grow in popularity as a publishing platform, and as it does, I’m growing more and more frustrated by their on-screen “engagement” turds. Every Medium site displays an on-screen “sharing” bar that covers the actual content I want to read. This is particularly annoying on the phone, where screen real estate is most precious. Now on iOS they’ve added an “Open in App” button that literally makes the last 1-2 lines of content on screen unreadable. To me these things are as distracting as having someone wave their hand in front of my face while I try to read.
Here’s an annotated screenshot (and threaded rant) I posted to Twitter while trying to read Steven Sinofksy’s WWDC 2017 trip report on my iPad Pro review unit last week.
But as annoying as the sharing dickbar may be, it's still limited to only pissing on mobile users.
Desktop visitors, on the other hand, are forced to give up precious screen real estate to a persistent nag bar and menu bar. It's gotten so bad that Matt Baer has developed a Chrome extension to fix the problem:
I've gotten a little tired of showing up to a Medium-powered site on a non-medium.com domain and getting badgered to Sign Up! or Get Updates! when I'm already a Medium user. It's also annoying to have a vertically-small reading viewport because the top and bottom nav bars don't auto-hide. I know -- Who owns a 12.1" laptop anymore?, right? Well... today I decided I couldn't abide that anymore, and made a Chrome extension to neutralize these user hostilities.
Now, I wasn't really aware of these issues because I quite sensibly avoided the problems by subscribing to Medium-powered sites in my RSS feed reader, BazQux (not an affiliate, I just love it enough to name drop).
But even in a feed reader, I am still harassed by Medium. Many articles are interrupted by related post widgets and nag bars that beg me to support the site.
In fact, I frequently see both in a single article, with long articles being interrupted as many as five times. I didn't use to think anything of it, but Baer's plugin reminded me that we had originally been promised a clean reading experience.
Here are Ev Williams's own words:
Medium is a beautiful space for reading and writing—and little else. The words are central. They can be accompanied by images to help illustrate your point. But there are no gratuitous sidebars, plug-ins, or widgets. There is nothing to set up or customize.
When you write on Medium, you’ll know that your words and pictures will look great on any device; they’ll automatically adjust to the latest technology and even get better over time.
None of that is true any more, which brings me to the real point of this post.
The thing about Medium is that it was founded in 2012 by Utopian idealists who thought they could fix all the ugliness on the web while letting the commercial and financial problems solve themselves.
It didn't work.
Now it's 2017, and Medium is the poster child for how all the ugliness that its founders hated - the pop-ups, the interrupted articles, the persistent sharing dickbars, etc - all of that ugliness is absolutely necessary because it is what is really keeping the platform alive.
Take away the sharing dickbar and social shares (and thus page views) will drop. Remove the related post interruptions and page views will drop. And if sites stop begging for support, revenue will drop.
Sure, you could have a platform without all that ugliness, but it's not going to make any money (unless you bill users, and even then ... ).
All it will be is a cute noncommercial idealist experiment that was launched as a hobby. There's nothing wrong with idealist hobby projects - it's more or less what keeps the open source community viable - but that's not what Medium's founders wanted. No, they wanted to beat the ugly web by flouting the rules. They wanted to show that they could win without having to corrupt their site with the detritus they hated.
Now it is five years later and Medium has found the rules apply to Medium the same as everyone else.
image by vanclooster.maarten