I distinctly remember Stephan Dubner (host of Freakonomics) saying a few years ago that we may have reached "peak podcast". In other words, he was speculating that maybe the growth of podcasts as a medium was coming to an end. I remember being a bit skeptical, but I took the prediction seriously. Dubner is a smart guy.
As you can see from the chart below, Dubner's prediction was incorrect. Podcasts have continued to grow far past what most people ever imagined.
So what's behind all this growth? There's a lot of interesting theories. One particularly concerning trend is that podcasts don't seem to have taken the place of other media consumption habits. In other words, people are using podcasts as a way to cram even more media into their daily schedules.
Why do we consume media?
I believe the main reason people read/watch the news and skim articles is for social reasons. We do these things in part so we can have smart and interesting things to say in conversations with others. This helps us create strong relationships and move up in the social hierarchy.
Now your gut reaction to this claim will probably be to fight back and argue that you listen to podcasts for personal enjoyment. Although this is undoubtedly a motivation, I don't believe it to be the main motivation. After all, there are very few mediums that ever reach the scale podcasts are at today.
And in many ways, podcasts are optimized perfectly for social interactions. We aren't typically rewarded very well for being able to recite facts or Wikipedia articles unless they are particularly surprising. Instead, we prefer stories.
Most podcasts are stories in an audio format. Even better, they are the quirkiest, most interesting stories that podcasters find each week. Society seems to reward people who listen to podcasts very well. This could just be because podcasts are popular inside my tech bubble, but it's not uncommon to hear someone start or end a story by telling you that they heard about it on a podcast.
Are podcasts good for us?
So that leads us to the next question. What are podcasts doing to our brains? If podcasts are the social equivalent of watching the news or scanning news articles, what are they doing to our brain?
Are podcasts actually teaching us things - or are they just another temptation sucking away at our attention span?
Do podcasts serve our desires - or are they a product of our desire to climb the social ladder?
I don't have any answers. I'll probably keep listening to the occasional podcast. But I think it's worth questioning whether our inputs (i.e podcasts) are actually helping us get to where we want to go.