Podcasting in an Age of Loneliness

I sometimes wonder how our minds have been transformed by the ability to access music, podcasts and audiobooks whenever and wherever we desire. It seems vaguely surreal that people used to spend their time in silence – or, at least, with only the background noise of urban and rural environments.

It would be facile to suggest that aural stimuli stops us from thinking. I know music helps to sharpen my thoughts when I am writing on the bus, or in a bar, or in a queue. But its ubiquity – for many of us, of course, not all of us – must have changed how we think. I suppose people were once more attentive to their surroundings, for better and for worse.

Music, podcasts and audiobooks can be important tools for easing the boredom and loneliness of long and monotonous work, commuting and chores – as well, for many, as singlehood, social isolation and dysfunctional relationships. Podcasts and audiobooks have the additional benefit of educating us. I can learn about Ancient Egypt, the Syrian Civil War and 1980s tag team wrestling while I do the washing up.

These are blessings. One Redditor once asked Joe Rogan fans when they listen to his podcast. “I would listen to his podcasts while doing drywall,” responded one, “It made the days go by so much quicker.” “At work, while I paint cars,” said another, “I have my Bluetooth headset and I listen to podcasts/music all day every day.” Of course, there is something ironic about people spending their long, boring working days listening to a man who can’t stop talking about how awful it must be to have a 9-5 job, but if it works, it works.

Yet there is a sense in which the accessibility of music, podcasts and audiobooks is not a cure for boredom but a cause. We are conditioned to expect constant low-level pleasure and amusement. We feel its absence like addicts yearning for a minor and rather pathetic drug.

As Mark Fisher wrote in Capitalist Realism, to be bored, sometimes:

...simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification on demand.

In a sense, similarly, surrounding oneself with a bubble of noise can perpetuate more than ameliorate loneliness. As Fisher wrote, reflecting on a student who constantly wore headphones:

Pop is experienced not as something which could have impacts upon public space, but as a retreat into private ‘Oedlpod’ consumer bliss, a walling up against the social.

Podcasts barely existed when Fisher wrote his book but this is true of them in a peculiar sense. People can live socially, vicariously. They latch onto virtual friends. Talk radio had this as well, with listeners imagining themselves in the studio with Howard Stern or Opie and Anthony, but it is especially true of podcasts, where the production is stripped back and the focus is on dialogue.

One can imagine a podcast as a capsule from an alternative reality one would like to inhabit. Some imagine themselves smoking weed with Joe Rogan as he scrolls through his endless contacts page. Some imagine themselves shooting the shit with Nick Mullen. Some imagine themselves farcically elongating their vowels with Dasha Nekrasova and Anna Khachiyan.

Unlike friends and family in real life, such people are always there, always “on” and demand nothing of us except, perhaps, a few dollars a month. This makes it a more emotionally stultifying pastime the more that one invests of oneself in a show. We have all encountered people who appear to have one foot in our world and one foot in the world of The Joe Rogan Experience, Chapo Trap House or Cum Town. They have embraced an illusion of sociability.

But of course people grow bored of being outsiders. Some start their own podcasts. Some are good! I’m not knocking the form. Others, though, are Warholian attempts to dramatise real life - manufacturing events instead of pursuing the hard work of building projects and relationships, or latching onto other people’s products in endless and intersecting spirals of referentiality. (Does that at least somewhat describe this post? Perhaps! It can be useful, or at least entertaining, to talk about talking. But it can also bear us away from real life and into a world of words that relate only to themselves.)

Some also become critics. Online creators – excuse the term – are exceptionally vulnerable to being brought down by their audience. Scandal, intrigue and conflict are compelling human drama and if someone is not providing enough entertainment their admirers can turn them into entertainment. Fans have also learned that it allows them to be participants themselves and not passive consumers of media.

Attraction to commentators and performs also signals one’s status as a member of a class or community. But we change, and fashions change, and signifiers that seemed high status become embarrassing. How better to signal a decisive break with a low status taste than to criticise, demean or discredit the people you once admired? What, that guy? No, I don’t like him any more. He really lost his touch. He sucks. And he’s a bad person as well.

Tearing down someone that you admired, finally, is a means of making a one-way relationship interactive. In destroying them, one forms a true connection at last. There is something poetic about that.