Escaping Performative Writing

Ideas Nov 13, 2020

I used to write a lot on Medium. That's where I started my blogging journey, and I loved it. The community, the writer experience, the ideas I would come across.

Overtime, Medium became extremely popular. It became a platform of ideas where some publications gained more reputation, and thus more power to judge who could write for them, and who couldn't.

Then, they introduced a new business model: one that pays authors for their work based on the engagement of readers with their content. Readers had to join a membership to read certain articles that would be eligible for dollar generation.

This changed everything, and I embarked on a mindset shift without my consent.

I joined the program and started getting some dollars for my articles. That was cool - I was still in grad school, so getting a 100 bucks for ideas I was sharing online sounded amazing.

However, that meant that my closest friends, who didn't have a membership, couldn't read what I was sharing anymore. It took me a bit to decide whether I was okay with that, and decided to try a mix - some articles would be in free access, some would be for members.

And then, my voice started changing. I would seek the likes and the claps and the views, and would be on top of my stats. I thought long and hard about the article's titles, sometimes more so than about the content itself. I would try to join famous publications to gain more visibility and followers.

At the same time, most articles I was reading seemed to be all the same - top-3-hacks-to-be productive and how-doing-whatever-made-me-rich and who knows what else. The titles baited me in, and the content was often hollow, even if it was on the front page.  

My own articles felt more and more odd. Some of it turned into marketing content to put myself forward when I was looking for a job. After I did found a job, it didn't go away - I was addressing ideas I cared about, but it felt like I was putting up a show.

I stopped writing. It didn't feel as good, or rewarding for myself. I thought there was something wrong with me for trying to get that type of attention, and I didn't know how to get out of it.

Fast-forward to June 2020. The country is on fire, the pandemic is thriving and I feel like I need to reach out to someone.

I decide to talk to Gary Chou. He posted something that caught my eye, and while I didn't know what I wanted to say, I knew I needed help to process the life & career questioning I was bathing in. A little voice in my head told me he could help.

We talked about a lot of things, but a big one was writing. He's also a writer - he has a blog, journals, and I told him about my ups and downs with my writing. That's when he gave me the words I needed to understand what had happened.

From his perspective, Medium had created a whole different ecosystem for online writers, and by rewarding authors the way they do, completely changed the name of the game to favor performative writing.

Performative writing? I asked.

Yes. Making you writing to win a popularity contest rather than focusing on what you want to share.

It has driven writers to focus on marketing themselves, because the more followers they'd attract, the more money they'd make. And if you don't play by those rules, you can continue writing, but you feel left out because your articles will never be picked up by Medium's algorithm.

Which is exactly how I felt.

In order to remain a part of that community, and to be successful under their new definition of success (making money on articles), I unconsciously adapted my writing to fit those rules, turning what I wrote into things I didn't care about as much, or taking an angle that wasn't authentic to me.

I'm not saying Medium is evil. In essence, what they morphed into is not right or wrong - in fact, it's wonderful that so many writers can make a decent living on the platform. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with pairing creative content and marketing.

My problem is that I'd thought I was being a greedy, inauthentic, clap-seeker and I judged myself so harshly for it. It shifted how I approached writing, taking away what I love most about it, without me knowing.

Having this new vocabulary gave me some relief, in realizing that by design, I was part of a system with incentives that were responsible for that odd, weird, mindset shift.

This brings me to today. Once I understood how I had unwillingly fallen into performative writing, I felt a lot better and reassured about myself. I'm not fundamentally an attention-seeker, woohoo! I felt the urge to write again, this time with the mindset of simply sharing my stories, and articulating my thoughts for my own good.

Gary highly recommended Ghost, an open-source content platform with a great UX and lots of cool integrations. I jumped on that train, and after setting up the infrastructure I needed to self-host, well, here I am.

It doesn't mean I'll stop Medium for ever. I might actually cross-post, to broaden my reach. But having my own platform for my own voice helps me ensure I play by my own rules.

Photo by Oscar Keys on Unsplash.


Laila Zouaki

Adopted by New York, I made a few life stops in California, Australia, France and Morocco. I'm curious about product, scuba diving, yoga, psychology, art, writing, and food.