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Feb 26, 2022

In my discussion on Upstream with my good friend Dale Stenberg, we talked about podcasts as the return of a more human form of communication. In place of an ever-intensifying focus on soundbites in the news, ten-second videos on TikTok, and 280-character zingers on Twitter, podcasts stretch our shrunken attention spans so they can again accommodate complete thoughts. But this benefit is the result of more than runtime. It has to do with the way extended conversations force participants to be earnest with one another, and actually listen in order to understand. That’s a sharp departure from typical behavior in the Internet age.

I recently saw someone on Twitter admit that “people come to this website mostly to misrepresent one another’s views on purpose for the applause of invisible strangers.” It’s painfully true. The description is reminiscent of Roman gladiatorial games, or at least portrayals of those games in popular fiction. Combatants slaying one another for no purpose other than the entertainment of an audience is certainly a fitting metaphor for the way Twitter encourages users to behave. We verbally skewer one another, play rhetorical “gotcha,” and tally “favorites” and “replies” to see whether someone has been ”ratioed”—a fate worse than death. We retweet with the sole aim of inviting our followers to dogpile someone whose opinions we dislike. Hashtags are sounded like trumpets to summon reinforcements who will crush our enemies beneath the weight of guileful one-liners.

In other words, many or most of the exchanges we have in the world of soundbites and text-bites are a kind of game. They’re not earnest. There are thick layers of pretense and subtext—a “conversation beneath the conversation”—a motivation very much in conflict with mutual comprehension and good faith. We read people on Twitter to retort or ridicule, not to understand. And when we reply, our real audience is not the other person, but invisible onlookers who validate us with their cheers. Twitter may not have “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” reactions, but when we open the app, we might as well be gladiators entering the dusty arena, looking to the stands for a vote on whether our opponents will live, or get “owned.”

Podcasts are a noticeable step back from this behavior, and that’s a big part of why I like them. When you talk with someone for an hour, one-liners just won’t cut it. No one is in the stands cheering or booing each play. You cannot try to create “soundbites” that will endlessly repeat on the nightly news or appear in social media feeds. You can attempt mockery, but it will quickly end in awkward silence. “Gotcha” tactics don’t work that well, either. Someone who has ample time to respond or explain further is tough to back into a corner. In other words, the very format of a podcast demands a kind of sincerity and hospitality. It doesn’t lend itself to playing games or trying to trap anyone. You have to level with your guest. In many ways, you are promising to level with them when you send the invitation. And in an age starved for sincerity, the results of this kind of earnest approach can seem downright magical.

Dale mentioned Dr. Jordan Peterson, who has become famous for his sincerity. A few years ago, Peterson won global admiration for refusing to back down from college cancel culture. Shortly thereafter, he was invited onto a British interview show by a host who was clearly set on playing gladiatorial “gotcha” games. The exchange that followed became an overnight Internet sensation. Again and again, this host misrepresented Peterson’s views, attempting to portray him as a bigot and a sexist,

or trap him with his own words. And time after time, he gently corrected her—even smiling for most of the discussion. In the end, the host’s traps were all sprung with nothing in them, and Peterson came out looking not only media savvy, but human. He seemed straightforward and decent in a way very few high-profile figures today are. Yet all he really did was refuse to play a game—a game in which the goal was to publicly humiliate a conversation partner, rather than understand them.

Podcasts work very differently, and not just because they’re hosted by better people than channel 4 news. The medium itself rewards humanity. It simulates a private exchange, more like what you’d have in a coffee shop than in the Colosseum. Real-time audience feedback is minimal, and there’s certainly no fight club voting system or buttons onlookers can smash to show their approval or scorn. The incentive to perform for the stands is accordingly low, and the kinds of soundbites unscrupulous journalists use to ruin careers rarely emerge.

But ultimately, it may be the mental investment hosts, guests, and listeners put into podcasts that often makes them so human and earnest. An hour is a long time, and scoffing is a lazy hobby. To “own” someone, to mob them, or to tear their words out of context takes very little effort. In many ways, that’s the whole appeal of Twitter. Winning moral or social points on the cheap is fun. But as a conversation gets longer and the subjects deeper, those unwilling to make the investment tend to drop out.

What’s more, participants in extended conversations can’t dismiss, discard, or block one another. They can’t “rage-quit” or go out in a blaze of glorious one-liners. The whole format requires you to ask good questions and listen to understand, and to give good answers, knowing you will have to explain yourself. The goal is usually to see the world through the other person’s eyes—to “get inside” their view of things and to sympathize, even if you don’t fully agree. This attitude is infectious. The audience, themselves, tend to catch it. And if they listen on with sincerity, a wondrous thing too rare in today’s world can happen: they can learn.

I hope you’ll check out my discussion with Dale Stenberg on Upstream. His friendship over the last several years has been instrumental in making me a better conversationalist—someone who listens to understand, rather than to retort. And his own podcasting work has enriched my thinking on a whole range of subjects I wouldn’t otherwise have studied. In all humility, I think the good habits I’ve picked up from Dale and other podcasters have made me a bit more human in crucial ways—none more crucial than the habit of treating conversation partners as if they’re human