The Middleman: Medium vs. Platform Cooperativism

Medium describes itself on their about page as, “A customizable reading experience, made just for you.” They are selling themselves explicitly as a platform that is created with the reader at heart, focusing more on good quality content for users, rather than trying to please advertisers. To experience unlimited content, free from all ads and pop-ups, readers need to become members for $5/month or $50/year. If you’re one of the readers who signs up for Medium because you want to support good journalism, your money isn’t actually going directly to the journalists and writers, Medium also takes a cut. The idea of the ‘middleman’ makes us uncomfortable but it isn’t inherently wrong. Medium is simply providing a service that gives people a place to publish and find and audience. I believe that the success of Medium can be used as an outline for a platform co-op that would leave the revenue in the hands of the creators. In order to discuss this alternative business model I will first review why the subscription model is working, then how it could be transferable to a platform co-op model of publishing.

The Medium model has become very successful, proving that people are willing to pay for content that they value, despite the fact that stats suggest many Canadians aren’t willing to pay for news online. People will pay for quality content that they know will be engaging, credible, easy to find, or from a source whose personality they enjoy. This is great news considering the American Press Institute stated in 2017 that, “The future of journalism will increasingly depend on consumers paying for the news directly, as content distributors like Facebook and Google take up the lion’s share of digital advertising dollars.” So why is it hard to get some people on board?

There are many reasons why people are not interested in paying a subscription fee for journalism. Arguments include: they can find the same content for free elsewhere, they can’t justify the purchase given the number of other subscriptions they are already paying for, they can’t afford it, they don’t trust the source, and the list could go on. These reasons are justified but is there another model that has the potential to convert some of these nay-sayers? In comes platform co-op. People are more willing to pay for a publisher’s content when they are aligned with the values and mission of that organization. With discussions rising about Facebook and Google running the advertising game, people are become wary of giving their money to monopolizing giants, but what about a platform that they can own, contribute to the success of and really see how their money is being used? Platform coopertivism may prove to be a successful model for a new subscription\-based publisher to rise up.

Mai Sutton on Sharable defines a platform co-op as, “a digital platform — a website or mobile app that is designed to provide a service or sell a product — that is collectively owned and governed by the people who depend on and participate in it.” Since many of the readers who are paying for subscriptions are interested in supporting the ideas that they are reading about, there may be enough interest to create a platform that is owned and operated by a co-op interested in keeping the revenue within their community, ensuring that writers and journalists are paid equitably for the work they put in, without a middle man taking a cut.

As a publishing student, I see so much benefit in becoming a member of a platform like Medium. The audience, convenience and support is there, but it is a bit unsettling that Medium is walking away with a higher paycheque than the journalists I would be trying to. I believe that companies deserve to take a cut for the services they offer, but this capitalist structure is not the only way of doing business. I don’t think it would be easy to get right, but a platform co-op publisher would be an interesting model to see in action, and one that I could definitely get behind!

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The Medium model is a fair exchange. They provide human-curated content which is properly edited for clarity and brevity. In turn, the user pays for access to this content. Of all such sites, I feel Medium is the most transparent and elegant. Evan Williams and his team clearly voice their dislike of the exploitation of writers and thus Medium set up a pay-wall to judiciously compensate contributors and ask for a fair payment for their effort. I really like the Medium model because it benefits everyone involved: the readers, the writers and the mediator themselves.

Most of my class fellows are hesitant to pay for Medium, which is mostly just text and requires active attention. It is easy to understand why they would rather pay for services like Netflix/Spotify: these services entertain and help unwind. At the end of the day, no one wants to log on to Medium and read some well-written articles.

An article I found on Medium talks about how the platform is the same before and after a subscription. This person writes for Medium themselves and they fail to understand the entire reasoning of this pay-wall. The pay-wall guarantees that Medium’s writers get paid. Medium subscription is like monitored patronage which subscribers take part in. The user becomes a patron to the content creators.

Another reason why I like the Medium model is that it has no ads, which means users’ data is not being sold to bigger companies that will exploit said data to place pesky ads. Services like Spotify that offer “free” versions are not really free either: they take users’ data and manipulate it to place ads, interrupting the user experience. It’s a free market of content that anyone can utilize in order to share their unique thoughts and perspective.

I am especially influenced by Medium’s Do Not Track (“DNT”) browser settings. Medium explains this:

If you are browsing with DNT enabled, you can read Medium in the logged-out state and our analytics will not receive information about you. Also, embeds within a page (such as a YouTube video) will not load without your actively clicking through a DNT overlay. By doing this, we allow you to choose whether any data is sent to a third-party embed before it is sent. If you click into an embed while browsing DNT, it may cause data to be sent to the third-party hosting the embed.

Medium’s answering call to my worries about being tracked through the internet is why I have a soft spot for the platform and the decisions it has taken to keep itself afloat.

 

 

Thoughts on the Medium Model

The with growing dominance of adblock (which has decimated digital ad revenues), it is worth speculating how publishers can adapt by creating models that enable website traffic and monetization without alienating readers. Medium’s recent model changes put into play an interesting structure: a membership model that, for 5 dollars a month, enablers readers to access “the best” of Medium’s content. Before deliberating on how publishing can apply such a model, I want to first look at what is and is not working with the system.

Continue reading “Thoughts on the Medium Model”

Subscription Model in Publishing: Not Like Netflix/Spotify

This week, we talked about the Medium’s subscription model during the class. In The rationalization of publishing, Medium’s founder Evan Williams believed that since publishing could not be supported by advertisements alone currently, a subscription model will be the best solution. He compared this model to Netflix/Spotify and argued that:

  1. People who care about understanding themselves and the world will pay for information
  2. People who care about reading will pay for texts as they pay for videos and audios
  3. People will pay for high-quality content rather than reading free but poor-quality content online

I agreed with his arguments. However, I do not think that TV/music is an appropriate analogy for publishing. In my opinion, reading has a lot of differences from watching TV or listening to music. Therefore, publishers should be careful when applying the subscription model.

First, the market for publishers tends to be smaller than TV or music producers. There are fewer people who read than who watch TV or listen to music.

According to the Pew Research, “Overall, Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months”. Let us assume they spend 10 hours on each book (it is hard to assume the average because depending on the genre and page number, it will take a different length of time to finish a book), then an average American spends about 120 hours on reading in a year and a typical American only spends 40 hours on reading in a year.

Let us look at the data for Netflix. By the end of 2017, Netflix had 117.58 million subscribers. It also claimed that in average, its users watched 140 million hours of content on a day. According to the numbers, the averages time for one subscriber to spend on Netflix on one day is a little over 50 minutes.

Then what about the time that people spend on digital reading?

In 2017, Medium only had 60 million monthly readers (not exactly subscribers) and in total, these users spent 4.5 million hours reading on Medium in per month. This means that each reader only spends 4.5 mins on Medium per month.

A big difference, huh?

The subscription model works for Netflix or Spotify because a huge number of consumers watches TV or listens to music now. For a keen online reader, paying a subscription fee to get the unlimited access to good quality articles is a great deal but how many keen online readers are there? For people who only read four books a year, unlimited access to books is not very appealing. However, they might be one of the one-time book buyers out there in the market which the subscription model does not work for.

Another significant difference between reading and the other two media is that there are better alternatives for readers rather than subscribing to a certain platform. If I quit Netflix or Amazon Prime today, I do not know where to find a better solution. I could go to a movie theatre which only provides me with a few options, or I could pay for a cable which would be very troublesome and expensive to get considering I don’t even own a nice TV now. Without the subscription model, I can still read a printed book, an ebook or listen to an audiobook, either bought by myself or borrowed from libraries or friends.

I am not saying that subscription model would not work for publishers. Except Medium, there are also subscription services for Ebooks such as Kindle Unlimited, Oyster or Scribd. In the article Subscription Services for E-Books, the author pointed out that the sales of physical books are “fairly stable” and he concluded that “the reading public doesn’t get subscription e-book services — or at least doesn’t get them yet”. However, I think the readers did not get the subscription model because the physical books (or the experience of reading a physical book) are still in need.

Overall, I think the subscription model will work for publishers, but only to a certain extent. In the publishing world, the subscription model will not be as dominant as it in other fields such as TV or music.

Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last

Within the service sector of the economy, the emerging  system of ‘platform capitalism’ relies on “self-employed” workers using a platform (be it hardware or software) that is owned by a third party entity to facilitate their service delivery . This results in a situation wherein labour is sold directly to the consumer rather than an employer, using the platform as a proxy  to establish the guise of self-employment. The result is that there is no real change to the fundamental relationship between labour and capital, yet many of the standard operating costs are shifted to the employee, who also forgoes the benefits and protections that centuries of class struggle has carved out for the traditional wage labourer. Continue reading “Platform Coöperatives and Online Publishing, Together at Last”

Platform Cooperativism Takes to Publishing

I’m going to take a stab at applying platform cooperativism to publishing, which I actually don’t think is that much of a stretch from established chapbook/anthology cultures.

It starts with five authors. No, it starts with only two. They’re best friends. They went through writing school together, but they haven’t had any luck submitting their work to literary journals. They’re frustrated with the gatekeeper system, so they decide to publish a chapbook together using their own money and limited understanding of design/layout. It’s a bit ramshackle, but it’s a sincere effort. They tell their friends and they bring some by to small art spaces around the city. Some of their friends express an interest in putting together a similar project, so the next time around, there are five authors. With the growth of the group, their reach also expands, and they’re gaining the interest of writers and creatives outside of their immediate social circles. They start to think of themselves as a collective. They stumble over involving people that they don’t directly know, but the city is small and the people interested are still friends-of-friends, so they start holding meetings and thinking about putting together another chapbook.

From my understanding, the story so far is one that many independent presses more or less have in common—it’s also analogous to various artists throughout history who have been unable to find mainstream success, so they’ve broken out and done their own thing instead (for one very notable example, check out the history of the Impressionist movement, following the initial Salon des Refusés  of 1863.)

How I’m imagining this venture could mature into a platform cooperative, however, is if they continued to publish anthologies as opposed to  collections or pieces written by one person. I say this because it seems more compatible with the cooperative model—in the Shareable article, “What is a Platform Co-op?” the contributors talk about the importance of the platform providing a service or selling a product, as well as the centrality of the platform being collectively owned and governed.

I think it takes a great deal of goodwill and organization to set something like this up, but perhaps the collective could be run by an editorial board and an executive board. People on both boards would be voted in, and every member of the collective would contribute a certain amount of money. Collective members could submit pieces for inclusion in that year’s issue, and the editorial board would decide what to publish. A portion of proceeds would go towards supporting the publishing etc., but anything earned beyond that could be paid back to the collective members.

Obviously this sort of idea is only scalable to a point, but I do think it’s possible. It almost feels like a hybrid between a Patreon-like model and a true platform cooperative, but I think it’s the most realistic way to apply the idea to publishing.

Work Cited

Mai Sutton, Cat Johnson, and Neal Gorenflo. “A Shareable Explainer: What is a Platform Co-op?” Shareable. August 16, 2016.

 

Subscriptions and Ads… not such a bad thing

I’ve never really felt compelled to subscribe to any sort of magazine, newspaper or online community. Partly because of there hasn’t been anything I’ve been interested in enough to do so and I guess the idea of having to pay for content that I could probably find a way to get for free seemed silly. This weeks class and reading made me reflect on how is this different from my subscription to Netflix, Spotify, or Adobe. A subscription to something like Medium is far less expensive than one of these other things I currently subscribe to. I would say perceived value has a lot to do with the subscription choices I’ve made. With all 3 of my current subscriptions, it allows for multiple users which I split with a friend or family member, thus my perceived value of these things increases.

With that said, I do think that a subscription model is preferable as the end user. Although I do understand that not all types of business cannot survive with just one type of revenue model. Having taken up a production/management position for my job in conjunction with this program has certainly given me an understanding and appreciation of how business function. I would say that I used to be indifferent to ads (especially on website). I have become more aware recently how advertisements would keep popping up for sites and products that I’ve visited. While, it’s a little creepy, I do understand that these are the way businesses ensure that products are visible making increasing the likelihood of a sell-through. On a personal note, I would be very interested how they are able to do this!

As consumers, I think it’s important to understand the purpose and role that advertising or subscriptions has for the publisher and reader. I think it’s very easy to say that ads or subscription shouldn’t exist on site or on any type of medium. At the end of the day it is the means that that select producer has chosen to be able to deliver their content. Hopefully, it’s not overkill! I also think that ads and platforms should be better aligned with each other. To me, there is nothing more off-putting than noticing a mis-aligned add.  Although as we continue to learn, small publishers and business aren’t equipped to compete with large companies, so perhaps they’re not really in a position to be selective with their ads.

To Pay or Not to Pay? Why I’ll Start Supporting Creators

Though I’ve only very recently begun to think about paying for subscriptions (the last two years or so), I can pinpoint the exact moment when my thinking began to shift: I had been complaining to my brother that one of my friends was going to charge me for art I’d asked her to make for a piece of fanfiction I was writing, and had been really upset that she hadn’t offered to do it for free. I had written her a ton of fic in the past, I’d changed my travel plans to visit her in both Germany and Italy during the semester I’d been in Europe, and I’d been shocked that she hadn’t offered to do this for free when I thought we were friends.

My little brother was not sympathetic.

He first asked why I didn’t think my friend should be compensated for her labour, then pushed further by inquiring if I didn’t want to support her in her creative endeavours. I was gobsmacked.

I had honestly never thought of paying my friends for their creative labour before. Mostly, this can be attributed to how I grew up: I was always taught that you don’t charge your friends (or you at least give them a serious discount) because you love them, and that’s just how you behave towards the people you love. Other parts can probably be explained away by the general undervaluing of the arts: even in last year’s federal budget, the Canadian government failed to recognize the precarious position of 650,000 cultural workers, and “some forms of museum funding still remain at levels lower than they were in 1972”. That’s not even considering the fact that the arts are severely underfunded in Canadian grade schools[1]… which is where you’d generally learn to appreciate and value various kinds of art.

Needless to say, my opinions shifted. Later, when I began to consider the possibility of publishing written fanworks in printed anthologies, I became aware that my attitudes towards monetizing print and visual art were also very different. Namely: I believed visual art to be inherently more expensive. I was willing to pay $20 to commission a piece of fanart, but I couldn’t conceive of compensating a fic writer for the same service. For a printed anthology, fine… but where I was willing to pay for art whether I received a print or it stayed on my screen, an online fic was something I very firmly believed was and should stay free of charge.

I think this might have had to do with a subconscious viewing of fanfiction as lesser due to its primarily female reader and authorship—but I think it also had to do with the way Western society values the visual over text. When was the last time you went into a place that displayed and showcased books? Museums don’t tend to have selections of books on display unless they’re very old, and libraries are not viewed as having nearly as much cultural capital as museums. Furthermore, if you want to have access to a special collection, you need permission to do so. Part of the reason as to why this is may also be is due to the fact that text is so very ubiquitous, both in print and online—we’re so used to seeing it that we have certain expectations when we do. I think that a lot of these expectations have to do with form: I expect to pay for a newspaper, so I’ll subscribe to a newspaper. I expect to pay for a print book, so I pay for a print book. But the idea of monetizing long-form content unaffiliated with traditional news sources, or monetizing the creation of online fanfiction, are fairly recent and had been indiscriminately free when I started using the web.

I have never paid for a subscription to any online magazine or blog. I tend to find quick fixes through switching browsers, or moving on to view free content. This is, I think, for all the reasons listed above, as well as the fact that my historical lack of disposable income has meant I’ve had to be very selective in where I allocate what few dollars I have to give. That doesn’t mean I’ll never pay, but right now, my priorities revolve around rent and groceries and allowing myself the odd night out when I spend all day reading on a screen. After I graduate and get a job? Chances are, my priorities will have shifted towards wanting to read long-form articles—ones I pay for, this time, in order to properly compensate authors for their labour.

 

[1] If the linked article doesn’t convince you due to its 2013 timestamp, take a look at this one, written specifically about Ontario and it’s practices (2018).