Why Medium’s claps are a measure for nothing

Medium’s clapping feature, replacing the recommendation, is really not well thought through.

In essence, both the original recommendation and the new claps are intended to convey information from the reader to the author and to other readers. The more recommendations or claps a story gets, the more encouragement it provides to the writer to write more of the same, and the more additional readers it is likely to attract.

The original recommendation had its flaws. It did show the number of people who appreciated the article, but didn’t give readers the chance to express the degree of appreciation. It also did not force readers to choose between stories (in that the number of recommendations they could allocate was unlimited). Still, readers could (and did) decide whether or not to recommend a story. Doing so implied a clear, active, deliberate decision making process. In most cases the number of recommendations was a lot lower than the number of views or reads (though I suspect there was a strong inertia, “status quo bias”, effect: it was easier not to recommend than to recommend a story, just like it is easier not to enrol in a retirement scheme or an organ donation programme).

The new claps try to address the problem of the depth of appreciation, but it fails on multiple fronts:

  • It is no better than the recommendations in overcoming inertia. Readers who actually appreciate the story are no more likely to express it through claps than through a recommendation.
  • Prospective readers won’t be able to distinguish easily between one mad fan giving 50 claps to an article, and 50 people who appreciate he article full stop. Both number of ‘appreciators’ and the depth of appreciation are useful metrics, but in a context like Medium’s, the number of individuals is a more illustrative one than the aggregate level of appreciation, especially since…
  • …the 50 claps maximum is ridiculously high. Once you’ve decided to clap, how on earth do you decide whether a story is worth 4, 7, or 11 claps? What kind of story would be worth 50? Will anyone give 49 claps? Is 1 clap similar to leaving a few pennies/cents as a tip in a restaurant, a kind of passive aggressive insult?
  • To be meaningful, a sign of appreciation needs to have a cost to the giver. An additional clap has little or no cost – on the contrary, it may be easier to just rest your finger on the button than to meticulously count the number of taps (and I’ve not discovered a way of backtracking, so what if you think a story is worth 23 claps and you end up at 27?)
  • A transition is always tricky, but by switching from one to the other, Medium has made it impossible to compare ratings of older stories with those of newer ones. Instead, they could have combined the two systems, and show any number of claps by a single reader as a recommendation, treating claps as an addition to, rather than a substitute of recommendations.
  • As it is, the exchange rate is one recommendation = one clap, making comparison even more flawed.

It doesn’t look like Medium have given much consideration to either the purpose of a feedback system, or to the cognitive and behavioural facets of the implementation.

So, no claps from me for Medium’s new system. Or should I give it one clap out of 50, to show how much I think of it?

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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