Let me tell you, sonny Jim, back in my day, in the long-ago 20-oughts, we had these new-fangled things called “blogs.”
Folks decried their rise and foretold the replacement and further irrelevance of newspapers (you know, those dead trees, pulped). Fast forward to twenty-fifteen, and there’s a new game in town: Medium.
Medium was created by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone in 2012, and though it’s been around awhile, only recently has it gained prominence in local politics by the Bay.
Blog-like in action, but with community engagement cooked into the code, the online platform is gunning for newspaper op-ed sections.
It’s democratizing, and any human with a capacity for click-clackin’ at keyboards can hop on and opine about politics of the day — but it comes with serious concerns about transparency.
Author names are listed on each Medium post, but the reason they’re writing in the first place is not always clear.
For instance, in local elections earlier this month, opponents and backers of Proposition F, a ballot proposal which would’ve regulated Airbnb and similar services more heavily, waged holy war on Medium.
First came “I Have Read Prop F, and It is Worse Than You Think,” followed by “I’ve Looked At Airbnb and It’s Way Worse Than You Think.” The dueling pieces each made grand unchecked claims: Does Prop. F allow spying on neighbors? Will you be tossed in the clink for renting a room on Airbnb?
Then came the war of writer reputation. The writer of the anti-Prop. F piece, “Emery,” was researched by folks who disagreed with his piece. They “discovered” his name is Eric Meyerson and that he works in communications at the tech company EventBrite. Some suggested EventBrite’s corporate connections to Airbnb outed Meyerson as a paid shill.
The impulse to question his motives was reasonable, Meyerson told me, but “I really didn’t want to make this about me, but rather the issues, so it was unfortunate that it came to this.”
He even crafted a response page stating, “No, I am not Astroturf.”
Meyerson isn’t alone. Armand Domalewski is a local political wonk who published a piece on Medium criticizing Supervisor Jane Kim for her positions on housing.
Domalewski’s name is listed on his piece, but that doesn’t mean his political ties were easy to see. So critics Tweeted out his LinkedIn profile, suggesting that as a moderate Democrat he may have pervasive biases.
“I honestly wanted to make a persuasive case,” he told me. For what it’s worth, he and I have occasionally debated political views, but I respect his motivations.
The lack of vetting is not Domalewski’s fault; author verification is not baked into Medium’s structure.
This is the price of giving everyone a voice: It’s not always easy to know who you’re listening to.
San Francisco’s local political scene has embraced Medium more so than other cities so far, according to Medium’s politics, government and advocacy head Matt Higginson.
Higginson said Medium makes political writing “less boilerplate, less focus-tested messaging, and more authentic interaction and conversation.”
Supervisor Scott Wiener embraces this ethos. Perhaps that’s why his Medium post on the effect of supply and demand on San Francisco’s housing market was shared like wildfire, netting more than 50,000 pageviews, his aide told me.
So even though I have the impulse to tell Medium to get off my lawn, I don’t have the heart. It’s too vital to the political conversation.
In a mass-media system susceptible to the power of corporations, Medium will potentially level the playing field. Just remember to vett the message. Caveat emptor. I will still shake my cane at Medium readers, though.
Dead-tree newspapers may be old tech, but accountability is something we “innovated” long ago.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.