Is there a downside to solving podcasting's discoverability problem? As podcasting consumption continues to rise, will our industry start to feel negative consequences? And are these potential problems something serious podcasters like you should be concerned about? Or at least be mindful of?
Starting well before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, a slew of studies and reports investigated the detrimental side effects social media platforms—in fact, all of social media—have on our lives. And if not our lives specifically, then the lives of hardcore social media users.
While not everyone agrees on the severity of the problem, very few people doubt that, yes, these platforms have been engineered in ways that really aren't the best for our mental health. And if not your mental health, then the mental health of others who are, for whatever reason, more susceptible.
So far, podcasting hasn't been lumped in with that. Not that there haven't been issues. But in our industry, it's been the individual podcasts, podcasters, or the people who fund those podcasters who've come under fire. Complaints against podcasting personalities are usually a result of... well, the podcaster acting like an asshole.
They individually get dinged—rightly so—for making abusive comments or intentionally spreading harmful disinformation. And while the offending comments certainly have an impact on those targeted by the assholery of the podcaster, those problems haven't rolled up to the broader podcasting industry.
I'm unaware of any study that shows podcasting overall as a detriment to the general public's mental health. At least not one that looks at the correlation between mental health and hours spent consuming podcasts. I might not be aware of such a study, so correct me if I'm wrong.
Regardless, that doesn't mean podcasting is safe.
Podcasting's Discoverability Problem Protects Us From Scrutiny
Podcasting is far from perfect, but the intentionality inherent in listening to podcasts is the very thing that gives us some immunity from being declared as "bad for you." Or bad for large groups of people, at least.
It takes work to find a podcast to listen to. Yes, millions of podcasts may be available, but no one accidentally listens to a podcast. A listener has to make a conscious choice to listen.
There isn't a stream of new podcast content that's being pushed at listeners as they are actively consuming podcasts.
No one programmed some master algorithm to decide which podcast episodes you should see and which ones will keep you listening to more and more podcasts without stopping.
The financial incentive hasn't yet been discovered that makes it lucrative to convert your podcast listening app to an all-things-media-consumption app, pulling other forms of audio and even video content into your listening app, keeping you locked into that app.
But imagine a different podcasting world where the so-called discoverability problem has been solved.
Imagine a podcast app that knows your listening habits instead of the haphazard, unstructured nature of podcast discovery that lets (or requires) word of mouth reign supreme. It knows you so well that you get several high-quality recommendations on what you should listen to next the second you stop listening to an episode.
Or what if your podcast listening app was intelligent enough to triage your listening queue for you. From various inputs and sources, all centered around you; it would know which episodes to push to the top of your queue and which ones to keep in reserve. Critical on top, content less so showing up further down in your list.
And take that a step further, with an app so tuned into you and what you like that it becomes the primary tool that you use to consume not just podcasts, but the other audio and video content you can consume on any given day, giving your no reason to leave the app to get anything else.
That's what living in a post-discoverability-problem podcasting world could look like. That's the "utopian" world many people lobbying for a solution to the "problem" have in mind.
But it seems eerily similar to what social media is getting heat for today, doesn't it? A future world where podcasting could also bear the mantle of an anxiety-inducing, mental-health-damaging aspect of modern liven that comes under more scrutiny.
But let me take off the cracked glasses for a moment and say no, I don't think the dystopian world I just gave you a glimpse of is likely to come to pass. Just like I don't think that podcasting really has a discoverability issue. At least not the way people talk about it.
Not that everything is rosy and perfect. I do think that podcast listening apps have a long ways to go in improving in-app discoverability. What we have today is far from perfect, and there's a lot of room for improvement.
My hope is that when they (if they?) do solve it, it's solved in a way that doesn't make us worse for the wear.
And on that markedly unhappy note, I shall be back on Monday with yet another Podcast Pontifications.