Essays on Technology and Culture

Owning Your Words

When I was a child, my father would tell me that “you only own two things: your words, and your mistakes.” Nobody wants to take credit for your mistakes, after all, but your word is your own. It’s not quite the way he meant it, but I’ve found myself worried that we no longer can be said to own our words. The Internet has been a boon for the democratization of publishing. It’s easier than ever for us to put our words out for the public to see. It’s easier now than it was when I first set up in 2002, let alone how it was when I got online for the first time in 1997.

That ease has come at the cost of control and ownership. The more of ourselves and our work that we feed into the demanding maws of LiveJournal, Twitter, Facebook, Medium, Tumblr,, and so many other places that offer us a free—as in beer—place to express ourselves, the more power and control we give those services. We give them ourselves, and in return, what do we get? An audience, but also targeted ads, and the right to continue using the service until the terms change for whatever reason.

For many, that tradeoff is worth it. I’ve probably fed more words into Twitter in the last year than I’ve written for I’m on Facebook and Tumblr, but I don’t use either much, and never for anything long-form. I even have a Medium account where I’ve reposted a few pieces I felt deserved more exposure, but I’m wary of creating anything original for it. When I post something to Medium, I feel like I’m surrendering ownership of it.

I give up the same for any other service. Why is Medium different? A visitor to this site knows it is mine. My name is in the footer, my logo is at the top of the page, and there’s a way to get in touch. On Medium, I’m just an avatar and a byline above the title. It feels like I’m giving up more, and getting back less. Over fifteen thousand people read my Medium piece on working for the welfare office. 111 have viewed the original piece I wrote here. That feels wrong, somehow.

I suppose it comes down to what you want to get from the words you put out. If all you want is a place to “just write and publish, write and publish, write and publish.”, places like Medium are just right for you. If you want to own your words, and know that the people reading them are coming because those words are yours, Medium isn’t the place. At least for me.