Podcasting and Digital Intimacy

August 25, 2020

Over the past five months, as teachers and instructors have been collectively grappling with the challenge of pivoting to online teaching, a question I’ve heard often is: how will we recreate the intimacy of the classroom online?

On the one hand, I understand where this concern is coming from. Before the Covid-19 pandemic made in-person gathering in large groups impossible, I was a member of a barbershop chorus that met weekly and to which I was passionately devoted. When rehearsals moved online, I found myself first dreading them, then ducking out early, and then skipping them altogether. I haven’t been in two months. 

In part my reluctance comes from the impossibility of doing what we do -- singing in harmony -- via video conference. The time lag on platforms like Zoom means that we have to mute our mics and sing along to a recording. It just isn’t the same. But I also struggle to commit to another three hours of video chatting at the end of a long day of, well, video chatting. The fact that all of our activities, work and recreational, have moved onto the same medium makes them all start to feel the same. Fun feels an awful lot like work when it takes place on the same platform, and when I have to sit in the same chair and stare at the same screen to do it.

Instead I spend my evenings going for long walks while listening to podcasts, or chatting online with friends from the comfort of my couch or balcony, or playing Animal Crossing on my Nintendo Switch with a silly cooking show on in the background. I don’t stop engaging with digital media in my evenings, but I want to be on different platforms, interacting in different ways, stretching my brain in different directions. 

So yes, I understand why instructors are worried about losing intimacy online; I certainly have lost the intimacy of my chorus, and I miss it. But that doesn’t mean that I’m missing out on digital intimacy altogether. In fact, I am more aware than ever of how well digital environments can build and nurture intimacy. I celebrated my birthday on Animal Crossing, where my dear friends threw me an in-game party complete with in-game gifts (that stand mixer might be virtual but that doesn’t mean I love it any less). Every week I look forward with bated breath to the happy hour drinks I share with my book club, and I’ve started another weekly video catch-up with my highschool best friends, meaning I talk to them more now than ever. And, while the drop-off in commuting has meant many podcasts have seen their numbers drop, I rely on strangers’ voices in my ears to keep me company as I go on the long walks and bike rides that get me out of my apartment. 

Podcasting in particular is a digital medium that has been praised for its intimacy, though that intimacy is often one-sided. There are a few reasons: compared to radio, podcasting is a less professionalized medium, meaning we’re more likely to hear the audio signifiers of informality, such as vocal fry, meandering conversations, or background noise. Podcasts are also serialized, meaning that over time we grow increasingly familiar with our favourite podcasters and anticipate hearing from them again each week. They’re also a portable medium -- we tend to listen to them in headphones or in our cars, while going about our day-to-day lives, which means they layer onto our private and domestic environments. All those features combined means that we often, unthinkingly, start to think of our favourite podcasters as our friends. Heck, we talk with them every week, while doing the dishes or walking the dog, and have compiled virtual dossiers of their vocal patterns, pets’ names, and favourite foods. Doesn’t that sound like friendship?

One-sided intimacy won’t replace the kinds of dynamics that emerge in the best classrooms, that feeling where the conversation goes somewhere truly unpredictable. But, as a podcast producer and listener, I’m not convinced that the intimacy of digital media is always one-sided, or that it’s inherently less effective or valuable than in-person interactions. Successful podcasters often build in ways to interact with and hear back from their listeners, whether through regular call-in features or online discussion boards or live streaming events. Heck, I’ve made multiple good friends via my podcasts, people who have reached out to me in response to particular topics or who I’ve invited on as guests. 

In fact, I worry sometimes that distress over the loss of classroom intimacy betrays a misunderstanding of a fundamental truth about the classroom: that not everyone is equally comfortable there, that for some students the classroom will always be an intimidating or unsafe space. Some of us perform well under pressure or enjoy grappling with challenging topics in person. For others -- disabled or neurodivergent students, Black and Indigenous students, working class students, students with caretaking responsibilities -- the classroom can be inaccessible for a whole host of reasons. Digital media is not inherently more accessible, but I do think it challenges us to rethink what we assume is happening in the classroom in the first place.

At this point, my hypothesis that the digital intimacies of podcasting might translate into effective online teaching is purely theoretical. But come January 2021 I’ll be teaching a Semester in Podcasting, a 15 credit course based on the Semester in Dialogue model, which has historically thrived on classroom-based community-building. I’m excited to explore with my co-instructor and students just what kind of communities podcasting will allow us to build. 

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