In the NY Times’ take down of Medium, one line cuts to the heart of the matter.
Mr. Williams’s mistake was expecting the internet to resemble the person he saw in the mirror: serious, high-minded.
Medium ultimately faces the same struggle that all social media does. Platforms designed to allow human sociability are as defined by the animosity, superficiality and emotionality that exists in human interaction as they are by any high-minded ideals.
The average amount of media consumed across mobile devices, streaming services and traditional television continues to increase. And no one thinks that’s because we’re reading more books or watching science videos on YouTube.
Our caveman brain uses pleasure as a reward for action. Sugar gives us pleasure. When we were hunter gatherers, finding a tree full of fruit meant a lot of calories with very little work, so we loved the rare, seasonal treat. Along the way, we discovered that we could manufacture sugary foods and make them available all the time. We didn’t suddenly learn to turn the craving off or teach ourselves self control, so now we have a growing obesity issue across the planet.
In almost the exact same way, our caveman brains feel pleasure when we’re defending our kin group. We feel good when we’re exposed to media that makes us feel happy or good about ourselves. That’s going to have a direct impact on what media we prefer.
Any product that humans have control over is going to move towards junk-food. We may be able to resist that urge on the individual level. Mr. Williams and I and maybe everyone who reads this can choose to read and write about tough issues even though it may be less pleasurable than watching the latest Netflix offering. But if your goal is a sustainable business model, you’re always going to have to shoot for the average person because that’s where the market is. You might can survive off a small, dedicated following, but long-term viability and investor profits are going to be limited.
I applaud Mr. Williams for trying anyway. I agree that it’s a particularly tough row to hoe, but we have to keep trying. In a world where we have access to anything we want, from spinach to Oreos, we’re each responsible for the consumption choices that we make.
If we can’t figure out how to prefer carefully reasoned and researched, informative stories to entertainment, we’re going to have the equivalent to obesity of the brain, which is exactly what the recent fake news trends portend.
I still get home delivery of the NY Times and think they have an important role to play in the media landscape. But Mr. Williams is trying to take the next step, and I support him. Without people like him, we all know where this is going.