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How Medium Spends Your $5 Mysteries of the algorithm revealed Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash Author’s Note: This was written before the model changed to reward for reading rather than applauding. So how does the algorithm work now? It’s anybody’s guess! Still, the experiment below could shed some light. I’ve been posting on Medium for about a year and a half. For the first six months, I didn’t give it much attention. I had posted a story on Facebook, and a friend commented that it deserved a wider readership. She suggested Medium. At the time, I’d never even heard of Medium. It took awhile just to find it. I posted my first story in January of 2018, and not many people read it. A year and a half later, “Sally’s Wedding,” a story about the grief I feel over the “normal” life my son lost when he developed a major mental illness at age 18, has 136 views, 82 reads, and 3 fans. I didn’t post another story until May. For the second half of 2018, I posted about one story a month, with similar results. Then in September, curators selected a story to push out to three topics: Equality, Women, and Politics. That was exciting! It meant that readers who had indicated they were interested in those topics saw my story on their homepages and got it in their compilation emails from Medium. I can’t say it went viral, but it performed better than my other stories with that promotional help from Medium. To date, “Thank you, Dr. Ford,” which lauds an avenging angel, has 320 views, 149 reads, and 32 fans. That piqued my interest. Then in December, it happened again with a story about my family’s Christmas traditions, which curators selected to push out to the topic Family. Now I was hooked. Currently, “My Christmas in the Woods” has 235 views, 114 reads, and 15 fans. I loved knowing that strangers were reading my story. I can always post on Facebook to reach friends, but my goal is to get a wider readership, as I used to have when a wrote a column for a string of local newspapers in Northern California. But how could I get curators to select more of my stories for promotion? While investigating this question and reading Medium Help pages, I came upon a promise that curators would read every story posted by members. If you’re not a member, your story might still get selected, as the three above did. But the odds are higher that your story will be selected for curation if you’re a member, since curators are obligated to at least read what you post. If you aren’t a member, they might stumble across it anyway, or you can email it to their attention. But if you are a member, the review is automatic. But the odds are much higher that your story will be selected for curation if you’re a member, since curators are obligated to at least read what you post. So in January of 2019, I purchased a membership. I also decided to make an effort to post a story every week. That was my schedule when I wrote “Home Front,” my mostly humorous column about being a young mother and wife. Medium explained on its Help pages that I could buy a membership for $5 a month, or $50 a year, and that most of that money would be distributed to writers I engaged with on the platform via reading, commenting on, or clapping for their stories. The way it’s described is something like this: say you have $5 a month to distribute. If you “clap” for one story during the month, that author gets all your $5. If you clap for five, each author gets $1. But it’s not that simple, because Medium takes a cut to run the site — a percentage which they don’t reveal. They also allocate based on reading and commenting, in addition to clapping, using an algorithm they once again don’t reveal. Plus, $50 divided by 12 doesn’t equal $5. So it’s all a bit mysterious... How much does Medium distribute to writers and how much does it keep to cover administrative costs? That’s what I wanted to know. Once I bought the membership and started posting once a week, things began to improve. My stories were selected regularly for curation, and I started to make a bit of money. It wasn’t much, but it was moving in the right direction. I made $5 in January, $15 in February, $20 in March, $35 in April, and $92 in May. In June, I made $170. Those numbers aren’t necessarily predictive, though, because in May and June, I pitched stories that were accepted into The Bold Italic and Human Parts, big publications which increased my readership exponentially. Examining the numbers on those stories is instructive. This piece in The Bold Italic, a publication focused on San Francisco, has 11.4 thousand views, 2.8 thousand reads, and 88 fans to date, which created $94 in earnings. Besides appearing in TBI, curators distributed it in the topics Race, San Francisco, and Equality. This story in Human Parts, on the other hand, has far fewer readers, but more fans, which leads to greater earnings. It has 3.3 thousand views, 1.6 thousand reads, and 127 fans to date, earning $112. Besides appearing in Human Parts, a publication within Medium with a link on the menu bar of everyone’s home page, curators distributed it in the topic Family. Both those publications actively ask for submissions, so if you’re serious about writing on Medium, you should check them out. These experiences would lead me to believe I need to get accepted by a big publication in order to reach a significant audience, except for one thing. My third most popular story got its viewers when I injected it into Twitter conversations about abortion, racking up 3.2 thousand views, 2.1 thousand reads, and 69 fans. Twitter fans, however, don’t bring the green, since they aren’t necessarily members of Medium. Earnings to date for this story are $43. Curators distributed it in Women, Equality, and Politics. While analyzing their data, many Medium writers have wondered just exactly how their membership money is distributed. Medium doesn’t say. But recently, I got a clue. On May 15, 2019, I decided to start a feminist publication on Medium, after one I’d been contributing to suddenly shut down. I named it Fourth Wave, since we’re currently in the fourth wave of the feminist movement, which is described in a little bit more detail here. After populating the site with my own writing, I began to reach out to other writers, and because I taught high school journalism for 17 years, I happen to know a lot of young women and men who like to write. But most of them aren’t excited about purchasing a Medium membership, since they aren’t committed to the platform or to writing regular stories — yet. And without a membership, curators might not notice and recommend their work. So I decided to purchase a membership account for Fourth Wave. That way, I could publish stories of non-members, putting their byline in the subtitle, and rest assured that curators would at least take a look. It was only after buying the second membership that I realized it had given me an opportunity to experiment with the algorithm and find out, once and for all, how much of the membership fee Medium distributes to writers. While logged in as Fourth Wave, I clapped 50 times for one of my obscure stories which had no other claps. Then I signed out and let the account lie fallow. Those 50 claps — the only claps the account distributed all month — earned the story $3.09. If you take the $50 I paid for the year and divide it by 12, you get $4.17 a month. If $3.09 of that goes to writers, then Medium is keeping $1.08, or 26 percent, which I suppose isn’t excessive for creating and administering the platform many of us are coming to love. One problem, though. The money appeared sooner than I expected — the week after I clapped. So what would have happened if I’d gone back into that account and clapped for a second story the following week? I’m not sure. It seemed like a second experiment was in order, so one recent week, I used the second account to merely read one story without clapping. I slowly and carefully scrolled down the page. And when the earnings were posted for that week, there was nothing. So even though you hear the algorithm includes reading time, it’s all about the claps. I’m now considering how to design another test. If you have an idea for a good experiment, please leave it here. Meanwhile, keep writing! And, when you’re finished, Submit to The Wave! :)