Study Hacks Blog

The Inconvenient Popularity of Podcasts and Group Texts

March 30th, 2020 · 9 comments

Last April, Jia Tolentino wrote an article for The New Yorker that reviewed my book, Digital Minimalism, along with Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing, which came out around the same time. Tolentino’s piece thoughtfully weaved many different strands of observation, each of which is worthy of its own dissection.

There was one point, however, made in one of her final paragraphs, that I wanted to highlight. Tolentino, reflecting on what her life was like during the month she experimented with the digital declutter recommended in my book, wrote the following:

“It occurred to me that two of the most straightforwardly beloved digital technologies—podcasts and group texts—push against the attention economy’s worst characteristics. Podcasts often demand sustained listening, across hours and weeks, to a few human voices. Group texts are effectively the last noncommercialized social spaces on many millennials’ phones.”

This comment was made in passing, but I think it’s profound. An argument I’ve been advancing for a while is that the social media behemoths that currently dominate the internet are unique in economic history in their combination of massive market valuations and cultural dispensability. Hundreds of millions of people use Facebook, Instagram and Twitter every day. Few of these users, however, need these services to live a thriving life.

The underlying decentralized protocols of the internet existed before these services and will exist after they’re gone. Competitive methods to seek entertainment or connect with family and friends can leverage this fundamental technology to find audiences. In this scrum, disruption can easily arise, which is why the success of podcasts and group texts is so important. They’re an inconvenient reminder that you don’t need massive, addictive, Orwellian, cumbersome platform monopolies for people to find deep value in the internet.

(For more on these alternatives, see, for example, the article I wrote for The New Yorker a month later about indie social media platforms.)

9 thoughts on “The Inconvenient Popularity of Podcasts and Group Texts

  1. Deb says:

    Nice post, what do you think about other services like Discord which are mainly used by gamers but also by some for structured and moderated conversations?
    Also, why don’t you use a topic wise classification of posts instead of the chronological classification which makes it almost impossible to search for posts on a specific topic?

  2. Islam El-Rougy says:

    Could you elaborate on the inconvenience of Group Texts? As an avid listener of podcasts on intellectual topics, I understand the sustained focus they need. However, as a user of WhatsApp group texts to keep in touch with my colleagues in a graduate diploma after graduation, I don’t feel the inconvenience there but the opposite.

    1. Brian G Fay says:

      I was also held up a bit by the term “inconvenient” here, but I worked around to thinking about it in terms of inconvenience being a feature not a bug. It’s similar to posting to a blog instead of to Facebook. It’s much more convenient to do it on FB, but FB is poison and posting there means I’m part of the problem, so I take the time to publish a blog at a website I own (as recommended by Austin Kleon). The inconvenience of a group text is having to set it up yourself, having to maintain it, and so on.

      There’s a great NY Times piece “The Tyranny of Convenience” (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/16/opinion/sunday/tyranny-convenience.html) that I recommend.

      1. Kurt S. says:

        I think Inconvenient modifies Popularity. It is inconvenient for the Social Media giants, that other effective tools that cannot be monetized by the big guns are springing up and mimicking the value they thought they cornered a market on.

        1. Donna says:

          Thought the same.

  3. Julia says:

    I think it’s only a question of time until ads will start to appear in messaging apps like Whatsapp, and Facebook will undoubtedly mine the content (or connect the FB profile of users) to personalize these ads.
    I found that when I was using group text apps they we’re stealing my attention, too. As a result, I’ve stopped using them entirely.
    For me, the best form of moderated and structured discussions are still message boards.

  4. Here’s a few ranty thoughts which I probably should use as a jumping off point for a blog post or essay… label this a quarantine commentard contribution perhaps 🙂

    Deep Work has had a profound and helpful effect on me.

    I agree with the premise regarding group chat.
    Insta & WhatsApp have solved design and useability challenges that the open web didn’t/couldn’t.

    So, despite it all, network effects do make these commercialized silos extremely relevant. Barking at people to use Signal instead of WhatsApp is ultimately a non-starter. Sending emails is not going to reach younger people who respond to Instagram DM’s in seconds. (alas, but, again, this is reality.)

    The challenge then becomes selective, discriminating use of services which are basically designed to leech time and attention. It’s often like going into a bar to connect with a friend who is already drunk.

    In my own practice, following a very rewarding Digital Reset, I have had numerous setbacks and restarts figuring out how to manage this. Freedom app and BlockSite work well for concentrated periods of Deep Work/Bollingen Tower. The “journalistic method” and thinking of Jung’s alternating periods of hermit-like activity and cafe/social involvement are good, practical inspirations.

    The Talmud study example in Deep Work is also valuable: a lot of these practitioners work really hard and deep for a concentrated period when they do group study, but then rejoin the world. Ah, but there is the pitfall/challenge of digital silos right there. It requires a commitment to disengage thoroughly and the casino-like interfaces are actively designed to get hooks into your brain. Borg-like, to mix in another metaphor.

    Overall: “Deep Work” and the collected writings of Jaron Lanier in one hand, and Gary Vaynerchuk’s Tiktok in the other. Would love to see Newport in a real-time discussion with Jia Tolentino –the Slate podcast with snippets of you two juxtaposed was a tease.

    Think Bourdain/Safron-Foer on bbq vs vegetarianism–those were valuable. Getting Gary Vee in the mix could be delirious and intriguing.

  5. Geoff says:

    Don’t forget blogs.

  6. Artem says:

    Hello everyone.
    I actually believe that podcast boom is happened due to progressive desire of people to get stimulated.
    Podcasts provide more new information per minute then music and I’m pretty sure that 99% of people use them the same way, as a background to whatever they doing – from studying and working to driving or eating.
    More information and being able to use as a background whole day – mean constant dophamine stimulation.

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