Back in May of 2020, Twitter started an experiment in changing the tone of the discourse on its service. Twitter was testing to see if the equivalent of a tap on the shoulder or a subtle ahem could get people to be... well, uh, you know... less of an asshole to one another.
Twitter knows it's very easy to fire off a tweet in anger and say—or in this case, type—things that you may not really mean. And they know how easy is to get worked up over a headline and blast a retweet or a reply without actually reading the linked article. So for the last several months, they've given some users subtle Are you sure you want to say that? and Would you like to maybe read the article before you send your thoughts on it to the world? prompts after they've hit send.
31% of the people prompted by Twitter with messages like these changed their behavior. 9% of them deleted their Tweet altogether. But 22% revised what they were going to say in the original tweet.
That's astounding. Nearly a third of people, when prompted to reflect on what they were about to do, actually changed their behavior. No, we don't have data on whether or not the changes made their Tweets better or worse, but I'm choosing to be positive.
You and I both know people who've left Twitter altogether because their personal timeline has become a toxic cesspool. Seeing these subtle prompts reduce that toxicity and cesspool-ness by a third? That's a pretty compelling argument for expanding the test, which Twitter is going to do.
Now, what does any of this have to do with podcasting?
Are You Sure You Want To Podcast That?
What you're about to read/hear next is a total thought experiment on my part. So set aside your assumptions and come along with me. Yes, this is going to sound like some crazy Big Brother, nanny state, liberal pansy bullshit. Please assume that I'm well aware of that and play this out with me, if you can.
Imagine a system like this that reviewed podcast content baked into your podcast hosting service. You'd upload your media file for the episode and the system would go to work, analyzing the words spoken in your episode with A.I., Machine Learning, and other advanced algorithms that looked for... potentially problematic sections. When found, those segments would be brought to the uploader's attention, with an Are you sure you want to say this? message and perhaps even some resources to help the podcaster understand what triggered the prompt.
Hold your anger and your skepticism (cynicism?) for just a moment longer, because that system could also perform the check on episode details (you may still call them show notes) or at the transcript level. This might be a bit easier, as Twitter has already figured out how to parse text for potentially problematic content. Here again, a gentle Hey, you might want to look at this... prompt could potentially change some podcasters' behaviors.
I know you're chomping at the bit to point out all of the things wrong and dangerous with this crazy idea, and I certainly want to give you that chance. But first I need to acknowledge the fact that spending a few seconds editing a tweet is a much easier prospect than editing a podcast episode that took many hours editing and assembling. To quote the noted philosopher Jules Winfield, it ain't even the same sport.
So what about triggering those prompts earlier in the production process when there's still time to make changes? Imagine a Yoast or a Grammarly-style plugin that looked over your shoulder as you draft your outline, assemble your notes for an episode, or compile the script. Or maybe have it built into a tool like Descript, which many podcasters use to assemble a "paper edit" of an episode before it goes into the DAW for final editing.
Crazy? Not so fast. We already accept and rely on tools like that—and those very tools themselves—to make our content better. Is it really a bridge too far to have them look out for instance where we might be unknowingly passing along misinformation in our episodes and then bring that to our attention before we hit publish?
Before you let loose your anger and point out what a naive dumbass I am for even suggesting such a thing, I want to restate that yes, I do know how Orwellian this sounds. There are a lot of material questions I didn't answer, like the obvious one of who is the arbiter of truth. I see the same slippery slope you do. And I also know that a system like this, no matter how near-perfect it can be, is not going to do anything to curb those who are intentionally creating and spreading disinformation on a podcast.
I know. I get it. I remind you that this is just an early idea.
But scrutiny is coming to podcasting. And though it may offend our free speech sensibilities—I too am a supporter of free speech—there gave been plenty of reports that don't paint podcasting in a flattering light when it comes to disinformation, misinformation, and even hate speech. Read the room.
You may think the best course of action is for us to do nothing. And that's your right. But I think that approach is equally as naive as what I just put forth.
But sure; light me up in the comments. I can take it!
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.