My Most Popular Medium Article Tore People Apart

I’ve had an interesting first couple of months on Medium. 

In late August I published a story from my blog called “What Is Up With American Trucks?” I wrote it to express my dismay and disdain for men (mostly men) who drive enormous, gas-guzzling, road-hogging, pedestrian-splatting pickup trucks when they have no practical need for a vehicle with that kind of size or power. For me, it was part-satire, part-primal scream from a cyclist who has almost been murdered multiple times by clueless Cadillac cowboys in their testosterone-infused death machines. 

So the publication Counter Arts published it and, after a small blip, the story more or less went dormant for the next week. This was pretty normal  —  I was brand new to Medium and expected to be “networking” in comments sections for some time before I’d get my 100 followers and actually earn anything from it.

But about a week in, the views and reads on this thing skyrocketed. Comments poured in. Avalanches of “claps.” Mayhem in my once-deserted notifications. The followers began to appear unbidden.

What was going on? The story hadn’t been “distributed” by any of Medium’s human curators. It appeared that, after carefully logging the interactions of different types of readers (and noting their likes and dislikes), Medium’s algorithm found more folks who would react strongly to the article and started putting it in front of them.

The result? A bit of a shit show. Commenters wrote long diatribes attacking my character and defending their trucks. Others, who agreed with my perspective, wrote snarky insinuations about the size of pickup drivers’ genitalia. Some disliked both the trucks and my combative approach to them, and subsequently received attacks from both my perspective’s “supporters” and “detractors.” And once they started going after each other in the threads, well, it got a little ugly in there.

In my head, I was a vulnerable user of the road  —  a cyclist, one of the most maligned and endangered species of road user in America  — lifting an impotent middle finger to a culture where wealthy folks express their manhood with unnecessarily dangerous, polluting and expensive vehicles. To those truck owners, of course, I was a pampered coastal city boy, a pencil-pusher whinging about real men who (allegedly) do real work.

I appreciated the opportunity to chat with people with a very different cultural outlook from my own, and so I dived into the comments section to defend and clarify my comments and perhaps learn a thing or two. In some cases the result was positive  — but only when the commenter (usually a farmer) realised I was having a go at suburbanites instead of them. For all the rest, well, you can probably imagine how it went. In one case, engaging with a commenter’s thin veil of intellectualism soon revealed a pretty rotten, racist worldview. I felt dirty for having provoked the expression of such views on a story I’d written. 

Meanwhile, many of the folks who agreed with my position actually ended up leaving the most juvenile, mucky comments of the bunch. I never said anything explicit about men buying big trucks to compensate for the size of their genitalia, but plenty of people went there — including one guy who sought to defend himself and his truck thusly:

“And for those who are curious, according to [a Wikipedia article entitled ‘Human Penis Size’] (as well as my wife), I’m comfortably above average in that regard.”

You can’t make this stuff up. Overall, however, I felt gross and exhausted.

But then I got the email: I’d been accepted into the Medium Partner Program.

Suddenly, I had an end-of-month check on the way, and the dollar amount was directly tied to the number of views, reads, claps and comments I could get on this and other articles. I watched increasingly unhinged people coming back to the comment section again and again to call each other names — but now I was loving it. I felt like Stewie in Family Guy: “Dance puppets, dance!”

People still demeaned me and my ideas, and every time I thanked them for reading — because their outrage was getting me paid.

I work in media. I once wrote clickbait for my day job, so I know how it works (even though I wasn’t very good at it). But I’ve never had the engagement on a story I’ve written so directly linked to my paycheck. To be honest, it turned me into a bit of a sociopath. This story was a microcosm of the online information economy in a society where literally anything can become another battle in the culture war, and how those who induce rage and hatred  —  even against themselves — can reap monetary reward by fanning the flames. I don’t currently rely on Medium for my income and I’m probably not cut out for simply airing provocative opinions to provoke engagement, but I can see how someone who’s trying to make a living from the content mill would be tempted in this direction. It might be healthy for their bank account, but it’s not healthy for society. 

Also note how more “moderate” voices in the debate — people who dislike the way absurdly large pickups dominate our culture and our roads, but also didn’t appreciate my combative approach — got torn to pieces by both “sides.” Conciliatory gestures, moderation and deep thought get torn apart on the internet — or worse, ignored. 

Of course, Medium is far from the worst platform for this kind of thing. I sincerely appreciate the way it incentivises us away from clickbait and toward valuable, thought-out storytelling that keeps you reading.

But it does reside on the internet. And on the internet, outrage still rules the roost.

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