Too Much of a Good Thing Can Kill You

In the beginning of the pandemic, some things were actually amazing. Especially online. Podcasts exploded, interviews moved online, and most important: weekly lecture series at the world’s best universities — those brown-bag seminars for paper drafts and PhD student presentations that aren’t so easy to attend unless you’re at that university.

Some stunningly cool lecture series launched to replace the academic discussion that was usually held out of reach for the average person. Even if you’re at one of these august institutions, you only really have access to seminars held there. Now, you could go anywhere.

Suddenly, the world of super-bright people had opened up. Some of the smartest and most interesting people in finance, economics, and history that I knew of — available from the comfort of my living room. A-mazing. I signed up for two or three: every Monday at lunch I listened to Markus Brunnermeier of Princeton having some great scholar on for his class: Daron Acemoglu, Harold James, Paul Krugman, John Cochrane. Every Tuesday afternoon I was on the Geneva Institute’s Macro History seminar, with François Velde, Hans-Joachim Voth, or Kevin O’Rourke. (you only listen to men?! No, but almost only: my interests, like my library, are sexist).

Even at the econ departments at the best universities in the world, it’s rare to have Nobel Laureates present. During the pandemic, every lecture series had one about once a fortnight. You could tune in to Nobel Laureates six days til Sunday if you wished.

And I wasn’t the only one loving them. They were so popular that most of these efforts are running this Fall too. And they popped up like mushrooms. Almost every major institution runs them now, and I lost track long ago. Now, I only schedule them haphazardly: this week I had seven or eight of them, and I probably skipped about half. These days I turn down Nobel Laureates giving a presentation. I only have so many hours to watch lectures and only so much energy to defy the unnaturalness of Zoom.

Over the last few years, the same thing had happened to podcast. I have probably deleted more episodes than I have ever listened to — over three hundred hours, my app says, but I don’t think that really cuts it.

In the app, I track about 75 different podcast — but I only really listen to about nine or ten. Throw in another dozen or so that I get around to once in a while — especially when there’s some a guest on that I really like — and that’s about it.

On a bad week I listen to something like five hours’ worth; on a good week, with lots of long runs and workout sessions, perhaps closer to 30 hours. That’s a lot of voices, on a lot of different topics, bringing me wisdom from a lot of different topics. This — plus slow news — is a much better way to engage with the world than the panicked and hysterical broadcast that is your average news program.

Sometimes I wonder if podcasts aren’t mostly overblown megaphones screaming mindlessly into the silent void. There is no way to keep up. Much more interesting things are produced than anyone can reasonably follow. At this point, this market is clearly beyond saturation. Some people are even suggesting podfasting.

And it’s pretty devastating, race-to-the-bottom style. Or the top, actually: supply is massively outstripping any feasible demand.

If the number of cool podcasts with good discussions and splendid guests doubles, the number of hours I devote to them… stays about the same. Result? I kick out the ones I don’t feel like listening to that week. Every week, then, amazing podcasters around the world aren’t really competing against other formats or books or movies (though they do that too) but against the least interesting among the increasingly competitive peers. Talk about cut-throat market. Or, you know, ears.

The market went from a few guys on the edge of the internet to everyone, all the time. Sharing podcast episodes is, among my friends, now more common than sharing movies or cat videos. Crazy.

Online lectures are going the same way. What’s the next thing to get over-saturated?

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This piece is part of my October Writing Challenge — check out some of the other articles and see if there’s anything that resonates with you. All my published material can be found at Authory.

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Writer, editor, and student of money past and present. Here: mostly off-topic stories, personal finance-musings, worldly observations and Reykjavík reflections.

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