Medium’s reading time

“I think of competing for users’ attention as a zero-sum game. Thanks to hardware innovation, there is barely a moment left in the waking day that hasn’t been claimed by (in no particular order) books, social networks, TV, and games. It’s amazing that we have time for our jobs and families.

“There’s no shortage of hand-wringing around what exactly “engagement” means and how it might be measured — if it can be at all.Of course, it depends on the platform, and how you expect your users to spend their time on it.

“For content websites (e.g., the New York Times), you want people to read. And then come back, to read more.

“A matchmaking service (e.g., OkCupid) attempts to match partners. The number of successful matches should give you a pretty good sense of the health of the business.

“What about a site that combines both of these ideas? I sometimes characterize Medium as content matchmaking: we want people to write, and others to read, great posts. It’s two-sided: one can’t exist without the other. What is the core activity that connects the two sides? It’s reading. Readers don’t just view a page, or click an ad. They read.

“At Medium, we optimize for the time that people spend reading.

Medium’s metric that matters: Total Time Reading

Medium, as a magazine-style publisher(/platform/hybrid thing), wants a browsing experience in which every article is fully read through and digested, and where the next piece follows on from the former serendipitously. News publishers don’t necessarily want that, or at least not across the board. For features the approach makes a lot of sense, but for news that’s geared towards getting the important facts across in the first paragraphs – even the first sentence – it’s fundamentally at odds with the writer’s goals. News that aims to be easy to read shouldn’t, and doesn’t, take a lot of time to consume. So generalist publishers have to balance metrics for success that are often in direct conflict. (This is one of many reasons why, actually, page views are pretty useful, with all the necessary caveats about not using stupid tricks to inflate things and then calling it success, of course.)

Newsrooms also have to use – buzzwordy as the phrase is – actionable metrics. It doesn’t matter what your numbers say if no one can use them to make better decisions. And newsrooms have something that Medium doesn’t: control over content. Medium doesn’t (for the most part) get to dictate what writers write, how it’s structured, the links it contains or the next piece that ought to follow on from it. So the questions it wants to answer with its metrics are different from those of editors in most newsrooms. Total time reading is most useful for news publishers in the hands of devs and designers, those who can change the furniture around the words in order to improve the reading experience and alter the structure of the site to improve stickiness and flow. Those are rarely editorial decisions.

The clue’s in the headline – it’s Medium’s metric that matters. Not necessarily anyone else’s.