Should I Keep Writing When No One’s Reading

Is implicit bias in the new algorithm for monetization pushing women off Medium

I started writing on medium in 2019, and the algorithm for monetization was changed around the same time. Medium went from an algorithm based on claps, to an algorithm based on time readers spent reading your article. This change occurred right before I started writing.

I wrote a few dozen articles, and some of those articles did really well. Earning me over $500 a month regularly. It wasn’t my full time job, and I was really enjoying writing. Writing three or four articles a month was earning me good money.

In July, 2020, I wrote ten articles and made $1,100. It felt like Medium was really starting to take off for me. I had editors from large online blogs contact me to reprint my articles on their websites. One of my articles became the subject of a three hour podcast.

I’ve been writing for twenty years. Being a great writer, though, doesn’t necessarily equal success in the field, or guarantee success on Medium. It helps. My articles have an eighty five percent curation rate, and that’s really high. I assume my articles will generally be curated. Every single one of my articles in February was curated.

Medium changed their monetization algorithm at the end of 2020 to increase engagement between writers. Exactly how they changed it was a mystery. There will always be winners and losers when Medium changes, and this time I was a loser.

The following month, like exact to the day, all of my articles fell off the earth. I went from thousands of reads to hundreds in one week. My income dropped from a comfortable $500 plus a month to $100.

It’s shaking me. It also coincided with a COVID related job loss at the end of 2020, and my push to freelance full time. Just when I really, really needed the money. It was gone. As months passed, I haven’t recovered.

Trends in writing change, things change. You have to flow with it, adapt and keep going. Certainly, lulls happen in the volatile freelance existence. My articles are getting curated, but not read. Perhaps they just aren’t interesting. Written well, but not particularly good for Medium.

I find it strange, though, that articles doing well before the algorithm, getting lots of views, suddenly stopped the month of the change.

The algorithm is a mystery, for good reason. I also know it will change again. Medium suggested their change was meant to promote engagement, and may be relative to the number of followers a writer has- which would make sense to me. I only have about 900 followers.

I also don’t want followers for the sake of followers.

I follow another woman writer on Medium. She has 10,000 followers, and her writing is good and engaging. She’s writing about making a lot of money right now on the platform. A few of her articles have made me really angry, though. She wrote a few articles with derogatory language towards people suffering from mental illness.

Maybe her success is indicative of the kind of articles being read on Medium. A straight forward, almost blunt style where the bold type is meant to highlight the main point for the reader scrolling through.

I am a outlier. I write on the perimeter of the market, not looking to mold my work to the trends. I prefer to bring people to my table. I view writing as an art, pushing new ideas instead of reacting to them.

I’d rather be me, thank you, with my 900 followers. The freelance business is complex, it’s also noisy. Lots of people clamoring for space. Everyone wants to be the loudest, to stand out and rise above the noise.

It’s nearly impossible to be successful, but I’m grateful that Medium exists. It’s given me exposure, and put my writing in front of some amazing people.

I can still love Medium, and be critical of a few things. Competing with people and/or publications for exposure based on followers benefits far more established writers. Again, this is an assumption. Still, how can I complete with writers who are far more famous, or publications that are successful elsewhere, like Refinery 29 and The Atlantic.

It also benefits millennial men, since that group of overly represented on the platform. Most of the top writers are men in their 30’s, and they tend to write about technology and startups. That’s fine if that is what Medium wishes to promote, it’s their platform.

I haven’t been able to find good statistics on the new algorithm, but I am curious if it is hurting female writers, or writers in other age brackets more exponentially. It’s only my opinion, based on my own research. I am just trying to figure out how to survive the change.

I’ve heard from other women Medium writers, even quite successful writers like Felicia Sullivan, who recently left Medium. Their reasons, in part, are because the ROI hasn’t been as good since the changes at the end of 2020.

Medium allows writers to monetize their work, and the collaboration of capitalism and community don’t often go hand in hand. I want to support other writers, but everyone on Medium is always worried about the bottom dollar, competition and self-aggrandizement take precedent over building a support network.

Even this article is complaining about being squeezed out of the capitalist Medium market. I want a community, but at the end of the day I enjoy getting paid.

Both men and women tend to hit the “follow” button more frequently for men on all forms of social media. Implicit bias against the believability of women within culture plays a role. This implicit bias does seem to affect women on Medium. The writers with the top number of followers are five times as likely to me men. In the top 100, by followers, 20 were women (three of them celebrities) and 80 were men.

However, the writing profession tends to lean female, though, with 59.3% of freelance writers identifying as women.

The problem is whether the new algorithm is silencing certain voices at a higher rate. Women on the platform tend to have smaller followers lists, and be in niche markets. The problem isn’t the success for millennial men on Medium, but the lack of success for women.

Women writers face more difficulties writing freelance. We are more likely to be harassed, and trolled online. Responses to our articles are more likely to discredit us. We live in a culture where women aren’t as trusted as men in delivering facts. These biases kept women out of television journalism for decades.

Women writers also face another threat exaggerated by the pandemic. Statistically, women are more burdened with housekeeping and child rearing duties within heterosexual households. I’ve seen millennial men on Medium claim to have a full time job, be a father of four, write an article every single day on Medium, and self publish a book every few months. I have a hard time seeing them participating in bath time and lunch packing, or other times suck chores.

I have two teenage boys with disabilities. While I wrote this article, I made a cup of steamed milk, cut up a container of strawberries, made instant oatmeal, opened a cheese stick wrapper, helped my son wipe himself on the toilet, answered two telephone calls from case workers, answered one call from a teacher, played ASL translator for my son’s zoom call, and made my son anther steamed milk with vanilla.

He really likes vanilla milk.

Medium writers tend to still focus on traditional success on Medium. Lots of “nothing new” articles about improving your writing skills, using the right tags, and changing SEO as ways to put the article in front of the right people. All these things work, and are important. It implies a “pull yourself up from your bootstraps” attitude towards success.

Is this always my fault when I fail, though? Are there higher mountains to climb, or unseen obstacles in my way?

I’m asking, because I am not totally sure.

As soon as the algorithm changed I saw an immediate drop of engagement to 25% of previous months, on every article I wrote. It has stayed consistent since the change. All of a sudden my readers were way down, even on articles that had been generally successful with a stable monthly readership.

I am not expecting to get rich using the platform, and I know of many women who have been very successful on Medium. I am not attempting to overgeneralize, or making broad assumptions about the platform. For me, Medium has been great. I am not quitting. Perhaps my latest lull in readership is a coincidence. I am just curious if there is an implicit bias in the new algorithm.

In January, I decided to begin freelancing full time. I began writing and publishing more often, yet did not see engagement increase at all. I’ve added 16 new articles, 15 of them curated, several of them in publications, and my engagement is the same? My monetization is the same? It just doesn’t add up to the way Medium was working for me 6 months ago.

I wouldn’t question the algorithm, except that it was so striking in the scale downwards. It was one month of great, and the next month just 25% of the last. No reason, no changes. Boom.

It’s risky to bite the hand that feeds you. I have had so much success on Medium, and I really love it. The truth is, Medium is one of the few ways to make money online while building my freelance career. I have no intention of quitting. I just don’t know how to adapt with the changes to monetization.

Joy Ellen Sauter is a freelance writer living in Seattle, Washington with her partner, Nathan, two teenage boys, and two cuddly pit bulls. She writes about parenting, mental health, popular culture, history, disability, the foster care system, and human rights. She is the Editor of TURNED UP, a publication about Cultural Theory. Joy’s work has appeared in Mamamia, Scary Mommy, and YourTango

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