Recently, you might have seen think pieces from a few big publishers about why they’ve made the decision to “move away from Medium”.
I wanted to write about this because it’s not just another trend in the shifting landscape we call content. It’s a byproduct of some pretty fundamental stuff to do with how the internet works in 2019.
It’s about ownership. And what do you own on the internet? Well, we’d like to think we own our data (more on that later) and we definitely own our content right? The stuff we create, publish and share: that all belongs to us.
Yes. And no.
In his 1996 essay “Content is King”, Bill Gates remarked:
“Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting. […] One of the exciting things about the Internet is that anyone with a PC and a modem can publish whatever content they can create.”
These sentiments hold true. What I don’t think Bill Gates or anyone could have predicted is exactly who would be making money off all that content (cough, Facebook, cough). Or, possibly more importantly, who would effectively own it all.
I still don’t think we know the answer to that last bit. Turns out, all is not what it seems when it comes to owning stuff on the internet.
And this is where Medium comes into it.
Content is king, but whose content?
(OR: whose content is it anyway?)
Social media platforms and third-party services (like Medium) make it easy to do exactly what Bill Gates described in 1996. He was bang on the money in that you can publish pretty much anything you can create digitally, and all you need to do it is a device with an internet connection.
The bit that Bill didn’t anticipate is just how much technology that would be created to facilitate all that publishing: all the middlemen most of us are now using every single day.
Think about it: we curate our photos on Instagram, and publish them to even more different friends on Facebook. We document our life highlights and lowlights on Twitter, we share(d) video content on Vine and TikTok.
Platforms like Blogger (formerly known as Blogspot) will ring a bell as easy places to publish all kinds of content.
And until recently, corporates were increasingly using platforms like Medium, over or as well as hosting content on their own domains.
Lately though, there’s been change afoot…
- Signal v Noise left Medium in January this year
- So did Baremetrics
Both those companies were high-profile adopters of the platform. A quick search for “Moving away from medium” throws up plenty of soul-searching in a similar vein.
And I’ve got an idea as to why. There’s Medium’s changing membership model, yes. But there’s also something bigger going on. I think they’ve been contemplating the same thing I have:
What happens to your content if Medium just disappears?
It won’t! I hear you cry. And it’s probably unlikely. But this does happen.
For a substantial and poignant example, I’m winding all the way back to 2008. That was the year AOL
Homesites was removed from the web forever.
They had a deadline by which users had to back up their content, or lose it. And we assume AOL communicated about it well in advance to give people the chance to do that.
But it clearly didn’t work out that way for this guy:
(RIP, rest in pixels) site deaths
When this happens, it’s known as a “site death”, which is defined as:
“When a site goes offline, taking content and permalinks with them, and breaking the web accordingly. Site deaths are one of the big reasons why you should own your own identity and content on the web.”
There are a couple of more recent instances you might remember.
StumbleUpon was a beloved but silly site that basically shuffled the internet for your amusement, and it also had excellent bookmark functionality. Lots of users lost their bookmarks when the site transitioned to the new Mix platform last year.
Grooveshark was a site with a questionable business model, allowing users to upload and share copyrighted music. But the playlists people make are their own in a sense – carefully curated, shared and enjoyed – and they were lost when Grooveshark closed suddenly in 2015.
(I used Wikipedia to tell you about those examples. Imagine what would be lost, in personal contributions and valuable information resources, if the largest and most popular general reference work on the World Wide Web went the same way?)
I’m not saying this is likely to happen to Medium over night any time soon. But it does happen, and it reveals the way ownership works on the internet.
Why does it feel so dramatic?
The way these services are framed gives us the sense that they don’t really box our content or our data in. The metaphors we use to talk about online services (“in the cloud”) give us the impression that it’s not a confined space.
So we use these services in good faith. And it’s easy, because it’s deliberately designed to be easy. To not feel like a trade-off where you get the service and the host get to make money off your data and content. (Even though that’s exactly what’s going on.)
Then, often for a commercial reason completely outside the relationship between the service and its users, that relationship is ended. And in the worst cases, it becomes apparent that all “your” content wasn’t so yours after all.
Events like the demise of Grooveshark and others bring this into focus: using a third-party service to store and share your content is a bit like renting a storage unit for your content to live in.
Except the owner can use your stuff to make money – that’s part of the deal. (It’s not always obvious how the internet landlords make money off our data and our content. They monetise it in all sorts of ways, transparent or sneaky.)
Just like with a storage unit, you could be notified at any time that your stuff will be removed and destroyed unless you find somewhere for it to go, and move it there, by a certain deadline.
It doesn’t sound too terrible in itself, but when you remember that the world wide web is just that, an interconnected system, and not a series of siloed digital storage units, things start to get weird. Because the data and content you leave in that storage unit can be spread all across the web in the name of making money, and if you don’t own the unit, you don’t get to control where it goes.
When you’re building a reputation or a brand, or just living your life, online, you want control over where your stuff goes, and ideally at least a share of any profit it makes. Using third parties often doesn’t offer either.
What makes you, you on the internet?
You are not in sole or complete control of the information that’s available about you, or from your brand, online.
The major third party players are constantly comparing notes and swapping information. They decide what gets remembered, and what’s true.
To the point where journalist and writer Amy Wilentz learned of her own death via Google.
Third parties swan about the place like they own your stuff. And they do.
- Google deletes artist’s blog and a decade of his work along with it.
- Instagram’s terms of service allow them to use your work:
“In connection with paid or sponsored content or promotions, without any compensation to you”
The third parties you use own your data, and they own the rights to your data.
“Users provide every detail of their life to Facebook and… Facebook makes a lot of advertising money off this. The profits are all based on the user’s info, but the users get none of the profits back.”
If we swapped the word “data” for “intellectual property”, this would seem completely ludicrous. But it’s what’s happening. We are again reminded of this snippet from The Economist:
“The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”
The move away from third-party providers is a move towards protecting the future of content and data, as well as its past.
To wrap up: there is no blame
I want to emphasise that this isn’t a trick you were meant to spot. We are all meant to miss it. That’s why signing up to a third-party internet service or a social media platform is so darned frictionless, and they’re all pumped full of dopamine-inducing features and activities.
Most of us are operating in exactly the way the corporate internet wants us to. But that’s not necessarily in our best interests, or in the interest of getting the most value we can out of our online content. (It’s also not doing much good to combat misinformation online.)
How to own your stuff on the internet
As easy as it is to create content using corporate silos like Medium, it can disappear just as fast, and that third-party benefits from all the kudos (traffic, SEO factors) of hosting your content.
Here are some ways to reclaim your data and your content.
Be the source of truth
Don’t let an algorithm take a best guess at who you are. Take every opportunity to explicitly define everything you can about your content, at your source and using open standards. (Structured data strikes again!).
Your content, your choice
Own your content and syndicate it out via RSS, which is still alive and well. RSS can import into many types of applications, mainly Feed readers like ‘Feedly’. This data feed however consumed will always point back to your content as the original and best source.
Define your Data Self (h/t Experian please don’t sue us)
The way you use the web can help you take control of your content and your data, and there are movements to make this easier for everyone.
The IndieWeb Movement
The IndieWeb is all about taking the control of where we post, and how. As citizens of the Web we deserve to own the content and data we so lovingly produce, so why don’t we do it? Why don’t we use our websites as our social hub, publishing on our own site, and then syndicating everywhere else?
– Jamie Tanna @jamietanna
Recomended reading: Why the IndieWeb is so important, by Dan G Millor
And finally: the Fediverse
Sorry if you were expecting an exciting portal for American rapper K-Fed, it’s actually much more interesting, and worth exploring if you’re interested in wresting control from the corporate giants on a more fundamental level.
“Fediverse social networks have many differences from mainstream platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc). For one, all of the federated networks are developed by the community of people all around the globe, independent from any corporation or official institution
Mainstream networks concentrate millions of users on their servers. That gives them dangerous powers of controlling information and hoarding users’ private data, using it for commercial profit.”