In two previous pieces, I explored how podcasting serviced storytelling and pondered if we are experiencing a culture shift in media consumption. With my final essay, I examine how listening to Podcasts may be affecting my life, for the good or the bad.
A couple weeks ago my husband was preparing dinner and brought up the new Richard Linklater movie, Everybody Wants Some!!
“I hear it’s Dazed and Confused with baseball,” he said
“Wait, I was just talking to someone about that.” Having just heard that film title earlier in the day, I tried conjuring the conversation. Was it amongst other adjuncts at the college I teach? No, don’t think so. Was it with my neighbor as we walked back from the school drop off? No, not with him either.
Then it came to me. I hadn’t talked to anyone.
The conversation that I thought I’d remembered was actually between Glen Weldon and Linda Holmes of the NPR Happy Hour Podcast. They had brought it up while doing their weekly film review. How had I conflated a taped audio program with an actual human experience?
Does my brain recognize Glen and Linda as friends? This begs the question—what is my relationship to Podcasts? Furthermore, if this medium fits somewhere in between performance and people, is that healthy?
Friendship and the Brain
In the 1990s, anthropologist Robin Dunbar reviewed studies of primate behavior and suggested a limit to the number of people with whom humans can maintain stable relationships. The “Dunbar Number” was proposed to be around 150 individuals. Of course, this was pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, and even pre-email. As our networks have multiplied without the typical pruning-effect of time and distance, researchers are now re-thinking whether this number truly represents our current social dynamics. Beyond that, should we reconsider the definition of a friend?
Friendship used to recognize individuals with mutual affection and frequent face-to-face contact. When you enter kindergarten, “friend” is still the first word you learn—with the teacher instructing you to always be nice to this person. As we grow up, we learn that is not always easy. Often friendship requires more work than reward.
So where does a “modern” friend align? I am Facebook friends with a professor whom I met while on a fellowship in Rome, yet I haven’t talked to her in almost a year. Is she still a friend? A sorority sister just “liked” my photo of a cherry-blossom-infused martini. But if I ever ran into her on the street, would we hug?
Taken one step further, could people on Podcasts be just another branch of our social networks? While discussions can range from the mundane to the cerebral, we are making the decision to place them into our lives. Often Podcasts invite listeners to write- or call-in, incorporating their audience into the web of the show. Message boards are also popular, allowing individuals to chat about shows or even discuss outside topics. From films, politics, pop culture, religion, or sex, there is definitely a connection. Now the question: Is this healthy?
Paradigm Shift and Rewiring the Brain
We use the term paradigm shift when the usual and accepted way of doing something changes completely. Sometimes we shift without realizing it. Remember the VCR? With this product, time no longer locked us into a movie theater or network air schedule. After adapting to DVD and Blu-ray, we have now moved onto streaming services, making the television itself now moot. Eighty-one percent of millennials living on their own now watch television through a laptop.
Once a piece of household furniture that brought people together for moon landings and Super Bowls, television may soon only be found on our laptops or smart phones. How did this happen? Obviously, the innovation of broadband Internet and media players played a hand. But it was also our desire to multi-task. In the end, we made it happen.
Likewise, did we know that email, Facebook or even a Podcast could cause a change in the way we view our relationships? Maybe not. But perhaps, through Podcasts, we are able to bring more people into our ears and, thus, into our lives? When I’ve talked about this with people they never mention the feeling of “tuning out” while listening to a Podcast. On the contrary, a friend of mine feels even more “plugged in” after listening to her weekly political Podcast by The Guardian. She continues, “I can get so much more out of one of their conversations than I could reading a paper every day.”
When neuroscientists discuss the function of the brain, they typically bring up its neuroplasticity, or the organ’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. With the multiplicity of relationships, perhaps our brains are rewiring themselves to allow for more than Dunbar’s limit? Because unlike generations past, maybe a friend can be one you just hear.
Nancy Kidder is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a third-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.