What Medium’s Most Popular Post of the Year Tells Us About the Platform’s Purpose

We talk to Matt Higginson, Medium's head of political outreach.

On Medium, the currency is time. It is so for readers, who are told when they click into a post the time it will take them to read to completion. It is so for Medium staff, who treat the minutes their audience spends reading posts as the most important metric of its success.

“We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content — where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly — it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time,” wrote Medium founder and CEO Evan Williams in a post last year explaining why Medium relies on that measure, which it calls total time reading, or TTR.

By that measure, the total time spent reading stories on Medium in 2016 is best described in millennia–3.6 of them. And if the election felt absurdly long in real time, it was even longer in reading time, with 247 years–longer than the age of America itself–collectively devoted to reading posts in the 2016 Election tag.

The most popular of all for the year, measured in TTR, was a post by Tobias Stone called History tells us what may happen next with Brexit & Trump. Readers spent a collective total of 47 years on it. It was also recommended by other Medium users 15,800 times.

When it was first posted in July, it was sandwiched in time between on event that had already occurred, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, and one that hadn’t, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. Its popularity came in two stages, first upon its initial publication, and then after the election, when Stone’s argument that Brexit, representative of a “a group of angry people winning a fight, easily inspires other groups of angry people to start a similar fight, empowered with the idea that they may win,” began to bear itself out.

“Content on medium tends to have a pretty long tail compared to most posts on other publications and other platforms,” said Matt Higginson, Medium’s head of politics and government affairs, “but that one in particular is an example of a post that gained a new relevance based on things that happened in the real world.”

That pattern of popularity is emblematic of how posts can travel through Medium’s ecosystem, with its combination of algorithm, human staff curation and community reading habits. “It’s not a rare occurrence, and it’s not an occurrence that’s always based on our curation team elevating that,” says Higginson. “Oftentimes it’s just the platform functioning as it should and elevating the right content and the right posts that people are reading because of what is happening in the real world.”

There are other ways in which Stone’s post, one of his first for Medium, is an exemplar of what Higginson sees as Medium’s purpose. “We’re trying to build a platform that’s not only a place for people of influence to publish and tell their stories, but an open platform for anyone to publish,” he says. “I would say that it’s that latter category that’s probably most exciting for us and most interesting.”

Stone’s post has been translated into three other languages. It has garnered 1,680 responses, which have led Stone, in turn, to write a follow-up post responding to some of the comments. It begins: “I wrote this essay mainly to organise thoughts in my head, and to share them with others. The aim is to provoke thought and debate, and I am glad I have done that.”

And that is exactly the role Higginson sees Medium as having. Explaining Medium’s substantial growth this year, from its 60 million unique viewers in November to its jump to 7.5 million posts created over its lifetime, 5.6 million of which were written this year alone, as well as the popularity of its politics-related posts, Higginson says, “It was millions of people hungry for substance, and not just from existing news organizations and talking heads or pundits that they were familiar with and had already heard from ad nauseam. They gravitated to the platform to discover new voices and diverse perspectives that were disparate and often contradictory to their own personal bias or contradictory to each other.”

In a media landscape filled with ideological (and topical) bubbles, Higginson believes Medium can and does exist as a space for people to get out of those bubbles, both because of how the curation team chooses to highlight stories that represent a wide variety of views and because he thinks Medium’s audience is intentionally seeking out stories and views from worlds and ways of seeing the world unlike their own.

And while the elections certainly contained an American century’s worth of contrasting views, Higginson is happy to be past that. “I’m really excited about transitioning and moving toward politics on Medium in the sense of governing,” he says.

And with Medium’s stable of politicos, from Sen. Bernie Sanders creating his own publication on the platform to Sen. Jeff Flake outlining his thoughts on U.S.-Cuba relations, there will be plenty of stores to share.