A paradox of choice becomes a Sophie’s choice
Medium has become my most regular and reliable source of interesting and inspiring content, and the mobile app has become my primary portal for this content. The algorithm that selects and presents the headlines of stories in which I may be interested is more accurate than most other recommender systems I’ve encountered .. so accurate that I’m often presented many more stories that pique my interest than I have time to read at any given time.
Unfortunately, I often encounter the following pattern:
- I open up the mobile app, and scan through the list of selected story headlines on my home screen.
- I select one to read, but don’t finish reading it right away.
- Later on, I return to the story and finish reading it.
- I click “back” with the intention of reading another one of the potentially interesting stories I’d seen earlier.
- Many / most of the stories I’d seen earlier have been replaced with new ones.
So, what initially seems like an abundance of riches — and the attendant paradox of choice — turns into more of a Sophie’s choice. I have to choose the one article I most want to read, knowing that the other articles may disappear next time I return to my home screen on the mobile app.
Fortunately, some of the Medium authors whose stories I most enjoy —such as Kris Gage, Jessica Wildfire and John Gorman — are prolific writers, so even when one of their stories disappears from my home screen, a new one will typically appear within a day or so, and I can scroll through their profiles to find the stories I didn’t get to read. Unfortunately, Medium often recommends stories from authors who do not post as frequently, and so those authors — and their stories — can completely fall off my radar screen if I don’t read their stories when I first see them on the home screen.
I’ve experimented with a few methods for overcoming this limitation:
- Click on the story I’m most interested in, quickly skim it to verify my interest level, bookmark it or email it to myself, then quickly go back to the home screen, in the hope that the list will not have changed. The list often changes, even after reading only one story, so this doesn’t work so well.
- Click on the bookmark icons under the interesting headlines without clicking on any stories. The problem with this method is that my bookmark list quickly fills up with stories in which I have varying degrees of interest .. which, over time, makes it all the more daunting to wade through the backlog. This is the pattern I experienced years ago, when I first started — and soon stopped — using the Pocket browser extension (back when it was called ReadItLater).
- Take screen snapshots of my mobile home screen and toggle between the photos and the app to search for the stories that have disappeared from the home screen. This is a cumbersome process, and wouldn’t scale well for the same reasons as outlined above (I only tried it once).
- Don’t click on any stories on my mobile — to maintain a static list of stories (during a session) — and use it in conjunction with my laptop browser to cycle through and/or search for the articles that are appearing on my mobile. This is also rather cumbersome, and I often don’t have my laptop in contexts in which I most like to read stories on Medium.
If the Medium mobile app simply had a manual refresh button on the home screen, so that I can choose when I want to see new content, this problem would be alleviated. The stories on my mobile home screen would not change unless or until I specifically request a change. The tension between direct manipulation and interface agents — enabling users to control an interface vs. using artificial intelligence to make choices for them — has been a long-standing topic of debate in user interface design, and it appears that Medium has opted for the latter.
The ability to manually refresh the selected stories appearing on the mobile home screen would also address a less frequently occurring, but similarly frustrating, scenario: when none of the stories seem interesting. When I’m in the mood for some good content, and the Medium recommendation algorithm fails to surface anything I want to read, I have to look elsewhere .. such as the platform that had been my primary source of reliably inspiring content prior to November 2016.
While the level of [positive] inspiration I find on Twitter has declined during this time, the platform does offer the benefit of more persistent access to posts I might find interesting, so that even as my visits become less frequent, it is still possible to resume scrolling through posts from the last time I visited — if that’s what I want to do — or to go to the top of my timeline if I want to manually refresh the content.
Without this capability, I’m not enjoying Medium as much as I might, but I still generally prefer muddling through and taking my chances on this platform than others.
[This is my first post on Medium. I’ve written 700 blog posts since 2003 on my Typepad blog (gumption), but page views have become increasingly rare, and comments even moreso. This ̶r̶a̶n̶t̶ topic seemed particularly well-suited to Medium. I’m not sure how animated GIFs will work on Medium, but in case anyone is interested, I created the image at the top using Imagematick, first to create individual non-animated montages, and then combined them into an animated GIF using instructions in a blog post by Jacob Salmela.]