The difference between equality and equity, and how Medium can rise above
There is a flurry of articles and blog posts around the recent Medium news. Everyone seems to be weighing in, and I’ve already done my share.
I saw my views tank last fall, and March has been my worst month to date. This month I will make barely any money. I wasn’t a top earner, but I went from $1200 a month for 10 articles to $50 in a matter of months.
Something is off. There are changes happening behind the Medium curtain, and everyone is speculating. Rumors are just rumors.
Conspiracy theories ran wild on Medium in the first few months of 2021. It seemed everyone was feeling it. Then we all read the strategically vague email from Ev about the employee buyout, just one month after Medium employees were one vote short of forming a union.
There is no need to contemplate if it was retaliation for the union, it is a textbook relation tactic for attempting to form a union. If it wasn’t a retaliation, it was a horrible public relations move. I’ve seen that ignorance happen, though, even at high stakes companies.
Anyway, it didn’t happen. Now we are here. More changes to come in the coming months. Many writers like me who depended on their earning from Medium to pay rent have had to have a reckoning. Do I stay or do I go? More specifically, where do I go?
Are places like Substack the new model? Substack has similar problems to Medium. We can all speculate on what the problems are, but I am going to narrowly focus on one trend within both platforms I think is problematic.
Substack and Medium are both venture capital tech startups. Their top earners in 2020 tended to be white heteronormative men who lean conservative.
This problem could be more about a venture capital tech bro company trying their hand at publishing. (although technically neither Medium or Substack considers themselves a publisher.) Both venture capitalists and traditional media have a history of leaning towards a white heteronormative male narrative.
Medium is also filled with false gods. Self proclaimed gurus who promise and don’t deliver. They aren’t writers, but consider themselves vague titles like entrepreneur, strategist, or consultant. They offer “solution based solutions” for success on Medium, or success in life.
They joined the platform to make money, because Medium isn’t a publisher but a tech company. Medium has filled itself with these people. Startup marketing strategists for solving solutions… or whatever. They prey on struggling people like the snake oil salesman of a century ago, selling fake bibles on the street corner, or some other metaphor for bullshit.
They aren’t writers, and they aren’t honest. They prey on suffering people. People struggling in the gig economy of late stage capitalism. They are as bad as the people who scam the elderly out of their retirement.
Medium has made some of them their top writers, either because these writers had the capital to market themselves outside Medium, or were well promoted within the platform. Either by accident, or accidentally on purpose. It feels my home feed is filled with their jargon.
These writers of late are promising that the status quo is fine. Medium is fine. It’s quality that’s the problem, it’s YOUR quality that’s the problem. One minute talking about the lack of views on their own articles, the next asking writers to stop questioning the status quo, or risk more personal failure.
All of a sudden, Medium began promoting these articles to me on my homepage. They are a dime a dozen. To me, these writers feel threatened. It’s the typical response from the status quo when their station is being questioned. Their defense is a clever trove of shaming the poor and oppressed, and painting themselves the victim.
They know their presence, and legitimacy are being threatened. Now, they feel the squeeze, and they are ready for attack. They are scared, because any changes Medium makes needs to include more voices, different voices. Inclusion is a dirty little word to privileged white cisgender men.
They are rightfully worried about the future. They are worried because there is a possibility Medium could change the voices promoted on their platform to be more inclusive and equitable.
I read an article yesterday from one of these false gods. To paraphrase so I don’t have to quote them, I value their anonymity. The internet is the great equalizer! Readers can leverage that power. Write quality articles, and if they follow their system for success it will work.
There is a lot to unpack here. Suggesting the internet is a great equalizer is as much a lie as the American dream. Pulling yourself up from your boot straps is the greatest lie people believe about their daily lives.
Equality ensures that everyone gets to start out at the same starting point. It specifically implies all things are equal if we all start the race at the same starting point. Suggesting that the internet is the starting point. You have to be careful with the word equality, though, let me explain.
I want to remind everyone that not everyone has access to the internet in 2021, so there is already a problem with the starting line.
Not everyone has doors fly open for them. Medium was funded by venture capital. How does someone get access to that kind of funding? Is it really because they have the best ideas, or because they were born the winner of a “birth lottery.” Their acceptance to an Ivy league school certain, and an internship in congress for their resume, and a life trajectory far different than mine.
My dad was a public middle school English teacher for 40 years. My mom worked the front desk of a hotel chain. She worked 60 hours through my middle school years to protect her job during a buyout, and got laid off anyway. I was decidedly lower middle class. They didn’t have an investment portfolio, they had utilities.
I am a good writer because I was privileged to have that skill be important and valued growing up. It was a privilege. I also had a lot more barriers. It’s nuanced.
Still, I am just as good of a writer, and probably more qualified than these guru tech strategy self help “bros” writing about curing their anxiety through their meditation retreat in Fiji. If I had access to an enormous investment opportunity to build out my best ideas, and if I was paid to finish my memoir, I would have had a lot more exposure. It’s natural to assume I would have a lot more success, even if my content was mediocre.
Everyone knows mediocre writers on Medium with thousands of followers.
Instead I’m here writing at my kitchen table listening to my distraction monster’s preschool YouTube videos about the planets while trying to type out content. I worry I can’t pay my rent, and feed my children.
Don’t think for a minute equality has anything to do with the internet. Firm handshakes happen before people even line up at the starting line. Opportunities are based on luck, and luck sometimes has to do with privilege. Luck is a lot about having the right skin color, dating the right gender, and being born without disabilities.
Here’s the thing about equality, it is only meant to level the playing field. It’s only about offering to start everyone at the same starting point. It’s not equity.
Equity is about giving certain people extra accommodations (that’s what it’s called in education) to achieve equality. I’m only 5’2 inches, but my partner is 6’ 2 inches. If we were starting an actual race (like running with our legs) at the same starting line, they would evidently win because, hello long legs. Equity is giving me a boost somehow during the race to mathematically configure our leg lengths so I ran a slightly shorter race based on stride.
My partner might object, and defend their position. They just want to keep winning, winning feels good. My partner wouldn’t do that for real, but it’s easy to see why these false gods are on the defense. They like to win, and as long as they keep crying Medium is equal, and spreading the lie that it’s individual failure that’s cause for lack of success, they can keep fighting equity.
These writers know their success can’t last. They are shiny and beautiful, but shallow and thoughtless. They prey on innocent people, people like me. Except I’ve been writing about social justice for twenty years, and I can spot bullshit like it has a giant red circle around it.
I’ve had to fight for everything I’ve ever gotten, I am used to being pitted against a broken system. Medium is broken. They lost a lot of credibility when they offered celebrities an opportunity to write on Medium, and earn money without having to pay the $5 a month fee.
Yeah, even the CEO of Costco pays a yearly membership. That’s equality at the very least.
We live in a rigged system where someone can buy themselves into being an influencer, and can buy themselves into the rigged system.
Medium has a great opportunity right now. They are at a crossroads, and they can go on to promote the status quo. The white males that used their platform to promote their crappy writing courses with information you can get free off the internet. I know who they are, and I believe Medium does, too. I’m guessing, but it would be silly if they didn’t. Medium isn’t stupid.
Ev’s email stated that Medium would become more focused in the future into supporting indie writers. If Medium is interested in equity, that would be an amazing step forward. Injecting accommodations (that’s what they call it in education) to promote equity on the platform means promoting good indie writers who aren’t able to secure venture capital.
If someone knows how to do that, comment in the responses. Seriously, I have ideas.
Medium doesn’t want to be a publisher, but if they really want to disrupt traditional media then don’t go the way of traditional media. Placating the white male heteronormative perspective is following in these footsteps.
Also, don’t pick marginalized perspectives that still fit that narrative. Yes, that happens, too. I have a long rant about this I’ve been meaning to publish, but picking marginalized voices that fit these narratives only celebrates meritocracy. It doesn’t promote equity, but encourages the status quo.
This means Medium needs to do more than just promote more articles from indie writers.
It needs to be fully invested in shaking up the system of systemic oppression in traditional publishing and venture capital. It can’t be afraid of having discourse about what media should look like in the future, and taking a risk. It can’t be afraid of having those conversations with quirky indie writers, or supporting emerging writers in some way.
They also can’t be afraid of making someone angry. I just think they are making the wrong people angry right now.
Snake oil salesmen will always be a part of culture, and their garbage could be a treasure for another- you can’t define taste. Their rhetoric will continue, and perhaps get wilder before all is said and done, but Medium needs to figure out if they want to be a company of snake oil salesmen, or a company of writers.
Medium can have a future showcasing equality and promoting equity within the platform, but they need to stop listening to startup marketing tech “bro” strategists entrepreneurs who are selling bibles on every corner of the internet. Their days are numbered, and they know it.
I have absolutely zero idea what’s happening behind the scenes at Medium. I am just small writer, also in the literal sense (5"2" people). I am a nobody, just a good writer with a story to tell who hopes to make it on Medium. The only way I get to “make it” on the platform is if Medium changes to be more equitable. I least I hope so.
That’s why I’m championing this idea, because it’s better for all the small people (in the metaphorical sense). In the changes ahead, I am hopeful they will look closely at this issue, and aim to do better. I just hope they listen.
Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer living in Seattle. She writes about parenting, mental health, the foster care system, and social justice. She is the Editor of TURNED UP, and @Aninjusticemag. Joy’s work has appeared in Mamamia, Scary Mommy, and YourTango. She hopes Medium editors will read her article all the way to the bottom because she is a great writer looking for an opportunity on Medium. She likes contracts.