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Sabbatical Series: Rachel Taube, Week 4 of 5

“The Hardest Medium to Troll,” by Rachel Taube 

Podcast technology is notoriously unsophisticated, especially when it comes to audience engagement or community building. Listeners can’t favorite or comment on episodes. It’s difficult to discover new shows and nearly impossible to share them. You can’t tweet an audio clip. But for all the headaches, there’s an upside for podcasters: it’s also harder for trolls to get in touch.

“Maybe I’m in podcasting because I don’t handle trolling very well,” Jenna Weiss-Berman, co-founder of Pineapple Street Media, tells me. “I definitely think it’s the hardest medium to troll.”

By and large, online harassment doesn’t seem to be as prevalent for podcasters as it is for journalists, entertainers, or activists primarily working in other media. Indeed, it appears that this quirk of bad technology has allowed podcasts by women, people of color, and other marginalized groups to flourish where they otherwise might not have.

Online harassment is a problem that grew up with the internet. A Pew report published in July found that 41% of U.S. adults have experienced online harassment, ranging from name-calling to physical threats. 58% of respondents said their most recent incident of harassment occurred on social media, and another 23% in comments sections. Podcasts aren’t included in this study (the medium is still relatively nascent, so there aren’t many studies about any aspect of podcasting), but the fact that podcasts aren’t particularly well-adapted for social media or commenting is relevant here.

“I’ve never received any sort of harassment [for my podcasting],” Aisha Harris, culture writer at Slate and host of its podcast, Represent, tells me. This is in contrast to her writing, for which she does get harassed on social and other media. Ann Friedman, co-host of Call Your Girlfriend, also gets far less harassment in response to podcast episodes than to her written work, much of which covers similar topics like gender, politics, and tech. Weiss-Berman, who was formerly Director of Audio at BuzzFeed, has found the same: while many writers at BuzzFeed received large volumes of harassment or were doxxed for their written reporting, “we had basically no problems with harassment with the podcasts that I can remember.”

The same contrast is often true for television. Angela Rye, who is harassed for her television appearances on major networks like CNN, says she doesn’t get any harassment related to her podcast, the news and culture show On 1.

A number of factors may account for the difference. For one, podcasting is still a niche industry (only 15% of Americans listen weekly, according to Edison Research), so podcast content is less likely to find its way to potential trolls. Podcast listening is an active choice; one must explicitly choose to subscribe or download episodes. Podcasts aren’t showing up on your Twitter or Facebook feed in a form you can seamlessly consume (yet). Podcast listening, at least in its current form, still requires a fairly large time commitment.

Friedman sees podcasting as “fundamentally different than an article that is easily clicked on by anyone on the internet, who doesn’t even have to read to the bottom to get angry about it.” Put simply, trolls tend not to bother podcasters because “it requires more work.”

“If you want to harass someone on Twitter, it’s very easy,” according to Weiss-Berman. With podcasts, in contrast, “if you’re looking to hate somebody, you’re not going to listen to their podcast because it means spending an hour with that person.” As a result, much of the harassment that is related to podcasting tends to occur on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, or even YouTube, rather than directly on podcasting platforms like iTunes or Soundcloud.

Chris Morrow, CEO and co-founder of podcast network Loud Speakers, puts it this way: “[Trolls] hang out on some of the larger platforms…but they won’t come into your neighborhood.” On Soundcloud, the “neighborhood” where the network’s shows get the majority of their community interaction, comments are “almost universally positive.”

Instead, Weiss-Berman finds, most harassment related to podcasting tends to be from people who clearly haven’t listened to the show. Pineapple Street closely monitors iTunes reviews and social media posts about the podcasts they produce, and they actively report clear cases of harassment. These are a small percentage of comments—the iTunes reviews are “overwhelmingly positive”—but, as with other media, women of color and members of the LGBTQ community are often the recipients of the worst of it. As in radio, women are also subject to criticism for vocal patterns like uptalk and vocal fry. (Weiss-Berman, Friedman, and Harris all differentiated these cases from negative reviews by listeners, which are a normal part of comment sections.)

Though harassment is relatively rare in podcasting, the medium isn’t airtight, and instances of intense trolling do happen. Personal stories, especially, can trigger harassment, according to Stephanie Foo, a producer on NPR’s This American Life. “The women who make themselves the most vulnerable,” who share details about their personal lives or political views, “are the women who are punished the most.” Her worst experience of online harassment was when she did a story about dating while Asian for Gimlet’s Reply All, after which she received racist and sexist messages.

Harassment can also occur when podcast content gets picked up in other media, whether that’s because it’s controversial or particularly newsworthy, allowing it to overcome the discoverability and shareability issues. After Call Your Girlfriend interviewed Huma Abedin at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, the transcript got picked up in other outlets, including some rightwing sites, which resulted in a small email harassment campaign.

However, cases like this are relatively limited. The majority of community interaction with podcasts tends to be from people who are regular listeners, and nearly all of that is positive, according to several people I spoke with. “Most people are brought in because they tend to agree,” Friedman explains, “and in general I think that those kinds of spaces tend to have less harassment.” The people who do listen are invested.

“And I think that’s part of why you’ve seen such a rise in especially black podcasting over the past few years,” says Weiss-Berman. Though podcasting has been notoriously white and male, there are a growing number of podcasts hosted by women and minorities, whether racial, sexual, or religious. “You can say what you want and know that you’re speaking to like-minded people.”

Many use the word “intimate” to describe the relationship between podcasters and their listeners. Podcasts often feel more informal than writing, television, or traditional radio. On the one hand this is simply a trend in the way we podcast. But it could also be a result of the way we listen—often alone, and with the host’s voice right in our ears. It feels like a private conversation. If there’s sharing or discussing to be done, it’s likely later, after we’ve finished the episode.

Foo has seen this intimacy result in a different kind of harassment or criticism than she often sees on other media. “People have very emotional reactions to [This American Life]… They’ll write us these super super long emails about how furious they are. People’s feelings will actually be hurt.” Though this criticism might be less expletive-laden, it can also be more “jarring and/or persistent because there’s so much invested behind it.”

The intimacy of podcasting isn’t a unique phenomenon. Tinyletters experienced a boost in popularity a few years ago, in part because the form provided a relatively safe space for women and minority writers to explore ideas that had been attracting trolls on blogs or other public outlets. With newsletters, as with podcasts, public commenting isn’t a big part of the experience, readers have to actively subscribe, and there’s an intimacy to inviting someone’s voice into your inbox, just as there is to inviting them into your ear.

“That’s what I love about podcasts, is that you can really speak to your audience,” said Weiss-Berman, but “there’s something about the safety of it that can be a little bit scary.” Just as the liberal-minded are finding a safe space in podcasting, so are members of the alt-right, which also has a growing number of podcasts. “It’s a place where people can go pretty unchallenged, because they know it’s their superfans who are the ones who are mostly listening… It normalizes some of the outlandish things that they’re saying.”

Morrow acknowledges the major benefits of podcasting as a safe space, but also sees this as an issue the industry will have to face: “Is [podcasting] just going to be about preaching to the choir, or are we going to figure out a way to start influencing people who might not think that they have that much in common with the host? Because we know that there’s an echo chamber… [that’s] the reason a lot of people woke up surprised the day after the election.”

Already, a number of companies, including NPR, Anchor, and Podbean, are working on ways to make podcasting more discoverable and shareable. Friedman, too, is of two minds about what’s to come: “I will feel a little torn if and when that technology comes about. Between being excited about the discoverability or the shareability factor, but also recognizing that’s probably going to come with more harassment for many people, especially people from marginalized communities.”

Better technology will be necessary if podcasting is to grow and succeed as an industry. It’s true that we currently rely on bad technology to make podcasting safe and open. But there’s an opportunity here: as platforms develop, we can keep it safe and open.

We can see the future, and we know what it looks like when Silicon Valley ignores the reality of online harassment. Instead, podcast developers should build protections against harassment into their product development (79% of respondents to the above Pew study think tech companies should be doing more in this area) and put female and minority developers in positions of power (since developers create technology that matches their experience). The podcasting platform of the future need not be another Twitter.

A few weeks ago, Lauren Duca wrote, “Here’s a thought that haunts me: What about all of the young women who won’t become writers because of [online harassment]”? In podcasting, at least for now, they can speak up. As listenership grows and technology improves, it is the responsibility of industry leaders — both platforms and the production companies and hosts who can influence them — to keep it that way.

Rachel Taube is a writer and self-described “recovering New Yorker” who now resides in lovely Wilmington, North Carolina. She is an Editor-at-Large and book reviewer for Cleaver Magazine, and is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at University of North Caroline Wilmington. Once upon a time, she worked communications for the Financial Times.

She is also a pleasure to work with, and I await her future work.