Medium is the Tiktok of Writing

The digital world is optimized for views, but does that work for written content?

If you don’t use Tiktok (I won’t go into the rabbit hole of whether you should or shouldn’t), it’s simple: popular videos of 1 minute in length or less surface to the main page (called the “For You” page), and continue in an endless feed as long as you continue to swipe (swiping up brings you to the next video in the feed, swiping down, the previous). The For You page is a unique paradigm in social media because it is the one of the few instances where the primary feed of any app features content to which you do not explicitly subscribe. Think of Instagram — we scroll through our homepage, which only consists of posts by people we follow (and ads). Facebook — same concept. But with TikTok, your “Following” page is almost secondary, rarely touched because the “For You” page is so stimulating — it’s the excitement of always coming across something new and unexpected that makes TikTok tick, if you will. With that said, following people becomes almost a bookmarking tool, as opposed to a curation mechanism.

Meanwhile, another application you may be familiar with, does something similar: Medium. Go to your Medium home page right now, and you’ll notice that there is only one small section, called “New From Your Network” which shows you content from people you follow. The rest is based on either A) your specified topics, or B) what’s popular.

I’ve broken down Medium’s main page by color: red = popular (TikTok style); green = following; blue = subscribed topics.

This is very similar to Tiktok, in that Medium assumes that what many people like, everyone will like. But does this curation model work on Medium as well as it does on Tiktok? To figure that out, we’ll have to understand…

Why does this model work for TikTok?

The reason feeding people popular content to which they do not subscribe works on TikTok, lies is the reason for using TikTok.

Maybe I’m way off base here, but I’d go out on a limb and say that most people using TikTok are not doing so to inform themselves or to gain a broader perspective on the world. TikTok is meant for entertainment, and entertainment only. It’s pure adrenaline, humor, silliness, and thirst (yeah, I said it).

While there are certainly accounts on TikTok that intend to inform, they rarely appear of the For You page unless the method in which information is conveyed is done so stylishly and concisely such that it can capture the attention of the generation with the shortest attention span in human history (not criticizing, just science).

Therefore, to determine whether such a model works for written content, we’d have to ask ourselves why we read.

But it’s deeper than that.

Written content, by the nature of it, is often a bit more serious in theme and subject matter than visual content. This is because someone has to have a slight investment in the topic they are reading about in order to engage with a piece of content for an extended length of time. And what better way to assure that investment in present in a reader, than to write about topics people care deeply about — politics, social issues, global affairs.

Written content should not be treated as entertainment by default.

Sure, I enjoy reading funny, satirical, or lighthearted pieces. But humor is harder to convey via text, and so we see less of in written format than video. Some of the great comedy writers in history, were also some of the greatest writers, period.

And comedy is something that can be generally appreciated because it is (usually) less provocative than content which is intended to convey a certain view or belief on serious matters going on in the world. Therefore, TikTok creators are less likely to trigger their viewers, knowing that their content has the potential to be presented to anyone across the platform, according to what the For You algorithms chooses to curate.

So to answer the question, should content on Medium be fed to us by virtue of its popularity to a general audience?

I would say, not at all.

Out of all of the Daily Reads medium has selected for me over the past several months, almost every single one has been about #COVID19. I don’t think I’ve read a single one. Maybe it’s just me, but I prefer to get my pandemic updates and health recommendations from more legitimate sources, and not in opinion piece format. Medium would be wise to understand which topics a user does not tend to read about, so that even if such topics are popular on the platform as a whole, it does not recommend those pieces of content to readers who will not engage with them.

Medium should be less like Tiktok, and more like YouTube.

YouTube’s main page is a mix of content from people you subscribe to, along with uploads that are similar to that to which you subscribe. In my case, there is rarely any overlap between what’s found on the “Trending” tab, and what’s on my YouTube homepage. For many of us who may not fit cut and dry into the mainest of streams in terms of entertainment consumption, this model works beautifully. So, sure, I’ll go to the trending tab and listen to a new Bieber release once in a while, but I like to keep my home page populated with the stuff I consume regularly, e.g. background music for my work day — which, needless to say (I hope), is not Justin Bieber.

I think it’s safe to say that the dynamics of written content are very different from that of visual content, and different yet from TikTok content. Medium should understand that, and adjust its features accordingly. That would not only be a welcome replacement to the inefficient recommendations system and daily reads, but also bring more attention to smaller, niche publications and writers. Because if there’s anything the world needs more of, it’s a diversity — not consolidation — of ideas, beliefs, and opinions.

I put all my writing out without paywalls because it’s more meaningful to me to share my knowledge and inspire others to do the same. If you’d like to support my mission, please consider buying me a coffee.

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