One thing I see periodically on Twitter these days is people who are Twitter-popular but not full-on celebrities complaining about the responses that they get. Maybe it’s somebody providing the 20th identical answer to a question, maybe it’s getting dozens of bad joke responses, maybe it’s a respondent acting overly familiar, maybe it’s a respondent assuming that the original poster should care specifically about what that respondent says.

This sort of behavior is a pretty natural consequence of the way Twitter is designed: it gives you a way to let your friends know what you’re up to, to chat with them. That’s not the only way to use Twitter, but if you’re posting that way, then part of people’s brains are going to read you that way, and so as a result, as a reader of somebody’s feed, you can feel like you’ve got a personal connection with somebody who has never heard of you, who has no reason to care about you specifically.

Which, honestly, feels to me like a hard design problem to solve? So I don’t necessarily want to come down hard on either Twitter or overly familiar repliers for that situation. (Though there’s no excuse for being an asshole, don’t get me wrong, lots of repliers are toxic in ways that are amplified by a feeling of anonymity rather than a feeling of personal connection.) I’m sure that doesn’t make it fun to be on the receiving end of such behavior, though, and I’m thinking more about whether and how I reply now than I did three or five years ago.


And, now that I’m more sensitized to this question of false familiarity, I’m seeing it in other places, too, in podcasts, in particular. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good for the hosts in multi-person podcasts to have good chemistry, to enjoy talking to each other, and to care about each other. But when they start talking about their daily lives, there’s a human part of my brain that likes that, sensing human connection, before I realize that I actually don’t have any real connection to these people, and that, at a certain level, this whole thing is creepy!

Not that it’s necessarily me that’s being creepy, I don’t actually act like I know these people: it’s more a context that encourages a creepy feeling. And a context that many podcast hosts actively play into; now that I’m more aware of that, I respect those podcasts less.

The other behavior from podcast hosts that plays into this is when the hosts spend significant amounts of time talking about things they like that are outside of their scope of expertise. (Video game podcasts where the hosts also talk about their favorite movies, or whatever.) It’s nice to talk with friends about whatever we’re into, and I actually kind of appreciate hearing a bit about that sort of thing on Twitter: there’s some virtue in getting ambient art recommendations from non-experts. But at podcast discussion length, the calculus changes: just because I want to spend time listing to, say, programming experts talk about programming, that doesn’t mean that I want to spend significant amounts of my time listening those same people talk about other stuff.

And it certainly doesn’t mean that I want to listen to those people spend entire shows talking about stuff that they don’t know anything more about than I do or my friends do! That kind of thing is great for shooting the breeze with my coworkers about, but if you, say, look at the Relay FM show list, it’s a bizarre list of shows that are genuinely informative next to shows where those same people are talking about stuff that they don’t know anything more about than some random person on the internet. Not to pick on Relay FM, it’s just the first example that came to mind, and if they can get listeners and advertisers, then more power to them, I guess? But that sort of thing is starting to feel like an unhealthy way for me to spend my time.


Not that this sort of artificial familiarity is a brand new phenomenon: my whole life I’ve seen celebrity culture magazines in the checkout lines in supermarkets, and it’s the same sort of thing. It just plays out a little differently on the internet, with the immense scale and lack of barriers to entry that the internet brings: now micro-celebrities can pop up everywhere. And it’s also tied, I think, to the specific formats that have become popular on the internet, where celebrities and random people largely have access to the same tools; yay for democritization, but the flip side of that is that, if traditional celebrities, micro-celebrities, and your friends all show up in the same place on your computer, then it can worm into your brain in ways that maybe aren’t so great.

Anyways, the upshot is that, once I realized this, I’ve unsubscribed from a handful of podcasts, and gotten significantly choosier on which episodes of a handful of other podcasts I listen to, and the quality of my podcast listening has increased noticeably; yay. And it’s gotten me more actively appreciative of the good ones; yay for people actively working over years and decades to hone their craft.

And also, it makes me wish there were more actively scripted shows out there: don’t be just some person who is going on about what they think, instead take what you do seriously and lean into that. Of course, podcasts like that exist, and I listen to some of them; I should probably seek them out more.

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