In Exposing Followers, Medium Fails Readers

If Medium wants to turn itself into a respectable publisher, it probably shouldn’t behave like a social network.

On Wednesday, the company announced it would make lists of followers public to Medium members. Writers and readers can see who’s reading whom.

Ev Williams, the cofounder of Twitter, created the site with the idea that writing can and should be social. You must log in with Twitter or Facebook to start following authors of pieces and collections of articles on the site. And Medium’s editing tools make it easy for writers to share and receive feedback from other people before actually publishing a story, who then get credit for their assistance.

That’s all well and good—credit where credit’s due, and an easy way to find people you’re already following elsewhere are sensible social features. But Medium’s latest move may alarm people—as well as the way the company announced it.

The initial post suggested that Medium would take it slowly, first displaying follower information to authors privately, then making it public. But the feature is already live, giving people almost no time at all to react—by, say, unfollowing writers and collections they don’t want others to know they’re reading.

Why Medium Is Getting More Personal


If you think of Medium as a social network with sharing features—like, say, Yahoo’s Tumblr—the move makes sense. Who you follow on Medium is largely based on who you follow on Twitter and who you’re friends with on Facebook. Those lists are public by default on those services, and Medium requires at least one social account—you can’t log in with just your email.

Up until now, the only information writers were able to see was a follower count, privately listed on a Medium statistics page. Now, there will be people and profiles behind those numbers, publicly displayed for any Medium member to see.

Displaying followers could signal to new readers which writers are popular, as well as show writers who is interested their stories—something, as a Medium writer myself, I think is quite appealing. At the very least, seeing a close friend or a big name following you can be an ego boost.

“We feel that publicly showing follow lists will encourage more of these relationships through seeing who your friends are reading, and help you expand your audience as a writer, as well as improve the discovery and diversity of stories that we present to you as a reader,” Greg Gueldner, a Medium representative, wrote in an email to ReadWrite.

That would be great—if Medium had given its members any warning this could potentially happen. In its post on Wednesday, Medium put the news about its privacy settings in the very last sentence. Any editor could have told Medium management what’s wrong with that: It’s called “burying the lede.”

(After ReadWrite inquired about the potential privacy issues publicizing followers could create, Medium edited its story to add an additional three paragraphs at the end of the post.)

When I first signed up for Medium, I followed all my Twitter friends who had done the same, some of whom I still read regularly. Eventually, I started following more writers whose work I admired on Medium. Those choices reflected my expanding interests, based on suggestions from Medium and stories I encountered elsewhere and liked. At no point did Medium warn me that these interests might eventually be made public.

Before founding the company that became Twitter, Williams worked at Google, which bought his first online-publishing company, Blogger.

Googlers know all too well just how bad making private information public could be. In 2010, the company’s Buzz product, an early attempt to imitate Twitter, launched and made email contacts public by default. The privacy misstep wound up saddling Google with 20 years of independent privacy audits.

Buzz didn’t merely scandalize privacy advocates. Google’s mistake hurt real human beings—like the woman whose abusive ex-boyfriend learned who her new boyfriend and employer were, as well as how to contact them.

Unhappy Medium: The Absence Of A “Block” Feature

Some people may not want people to know what they read. There are others who don’t necessarily want people to know what they write.

On most social networks that have a follower system, companies provide a block function that prevents people from following and reading the information they contribute. Medium does not.

“We have no plans to enable a blocking feature,” Gueldner said in an email. “While we do start your follow list on Medium based on who you follow on Twitter and your friends on Facebook who also have Medium accounts, the actions you take on Medium are independent of those other networks.”

This means, even if I block someone on Twitter, they can still follow me on Medium.

Some companies took longer to realize the importance of the block function than others. LinkedIn only implemented a block function in February of this year after complaints from members reached critical mass. Now on LinkedIn’s publishing platform, as well as across its other services, blocked users cannot read what you write. 

Can Medium Be A Publisher And A Social Network?

Medium is lies in a gray area between platform and publisher. It lets people write and publish posts longer than Twitter’s 140-character limit, and it displays longer essays more elegantly than Blogger or Tumblr. But it’s otherwise hard to succinctly define, because some pieces on Medium are written for free by authors seeking exposure for their ideas, while some are commissioned and paid for by Medium, which employs its own editors.

The company features some interesting journalism. Matter, a digital magazine Medium acquired in 2013, is one of my favorite reads.

With serious journalism created at Medium’s behest sitting alongside users’ contributions, the question of what Medium is becomes crucial. If it’s a publisher, then Medium’s publication of its follower lists seems like a betrayal of a crucial trust. In the print world, magazines guard the privacy of their subscriber lists zealouslyThe Advocate, a magazine for gays and lesbians, used to send issues out with a wrapper to disguise the nature of the periodical.

What if the parents of a teenager discover that she’s following That’s So Gay, a collection of articles on “unstraight issues by unstraight people,” and thereby deduce her sexual orientation before she’s disclosed it to them?

Though its founder created Twitter, Medium is nothing like it. As sharing everything with everyone becomes the standard across the Web, there are fewer places where people can be themselves, without every action disclosing some portion of their identity.

Before this latest move, Medium was a quiet, well-lit place where you could explore ideas with some sense of privacy. Now, in the name of “discovery,” we’ve been exposed.

Lead image by Erin Kohlenberg

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