:: Article

On Algolonialism: From Independent Media to Monetized Friendships

By Tom Pazderka.

Photo by Russell Thomas

During the coronavirus lockdowns, podcasts have become ubiquitous and podcasters our surrogate friends. This feeling has been echoed over and over, often by podcasters themselves. Lockdown has not only had the unfortunate effect of restricting our physical movement, but it has also directed our mental activity toward a torrent of online content, Zoom meetings, and Netflix docudramas, all driven by a new form colonization, the algorithm. Much of the online content we consume comes through the thousands of podcasts we subscribe to and keep coming back to on a regular basis. From this algorithms continually suggest other podcasts might be of interest and  advertise them and related products accordingly. But far from this being a problem of the algos themselves, there seems to be something entirely different at play here. The dip in the economy and the initial drop in the stock market saw a dramatic rise of online ‘independent’ media, a privatization of online content on steroids, tailor made for late-stage capitalism and with it the rise of monetized form of surrogate friendship through podcasting. Modern ‘smart’ algorithms are good at sifting through millions of hours of content, identifying what is important to us, what we ‘consume’ online, and giving us more of it. Google has mastered this form of spying over two decades as the world’s number one search engine. Yet, despite all we know about online eavesdropping, we continue to engage with and consume online content.

There are reasons for this. The first reason is the oft discussed matter of techno-addiction. We just cannot stop using our devices because they act as stimulants encouraging us to actively engage in repetitive, self-destructive behavior, often online, often in public view. Podcast addiction is simply something fresh and new. The second reason is much more subtle and insidious. On a recent Jacobin podcast Amber Frost described podcasting as ‘porn for friendship.’ Porn is like everything else online except more so. The equivalency between porn and podcasting, and the algorithms that run in the background, necessitates some elaboration. Porn is in a sense a descriptor of a specific and nuanced position in relation to something. It is both explicit in content but intimate in nature, acting in ways that make it easy to identify but difficult to define concretely. The proliferation of the term as a qualifier is both ambiguous and definitive. My favorite is ‘Cabin Porn,’ a picture book of cabins set within mountainous landscapes and forests, suggesting these spaces to be highly personal, inaccessible and intimate, while the settings and structures themselves are meant to evoke scopophiliac pleasure and nostalgic longing for romanticized landscapes, often in places that look like national parks, vast and intimate.

‘Porn for Friendship’ is therefore a clever description of the podcasting world. Podcasters are increasingly acting and speaking in ways that imply an intimate relationship with their audiences. The podcasting and vlogging worlds are filled with these ‘new’ types of friendships, where audiences get to take sneak peeks inside the private lives of podcasters. We get to see into their bedrooms, living rooms and home offices. They appear to be just like us in their t-shirts and unkempt hair.

It was Ricky Gervais’ podcast that really set the standard for this type of intimate broadcasting in the early 2000s, before podcasting was a ‘thing.’ On his show Gervais and his writing partner Stephen Merchant took turns mocking and poking fun at their friend Karl Pilkington. The show may have been called the Ricky Gervais Show, but the real star and subject was Pilkington, his ideas, personality and worldview. The trio routinely engaged in banter, reading Pilkington’s diary, and prompting him with questions both Gervais and Merchant knew would lead to strange answers and hilarious comic moments. Listening to the show felt like listening to a group of friends rather than seasoned mainstream writers and comedians. The  Ricky Gervais Show laid the groundwork for the emergence of the Joe Rogan’s and Mark Maron’s of the podcasting world and, with that, the algorithms that would eventually come to dominate the techno-bubble.

These podcasts seem entirely ‘natural’ presupposing that anyone with a laptop and a webcam could jump from bed one day and start streaming their daily thoughts. However, another level of obfuscation is at play.  As audiences vicariously develop real-life relationships and friendships with the podcasters, the podcasters themselves merely ‘pretend’ to be our friends, while fully committed to promoting this illusion. It is, of course, impossible to criticize or condemn a podcaster for being disingenuous or inauthentic in the highly private and personalized world of digital media. All the same, the podcast has become a staging area for interpellation that acts as a direct link to a new form of algorithmic colonialism developed for the purpose of giving legitimacy to the very act of interpellation. After weeks and months of returning to the same podcasts over and over, one tends to develop a strange dependency, not just on the information coming from the programs one has selected, but also on the familiarity of a self-selected group of podcasting friends. Just as in real life, we gravitate to certain types of podcasts, as we would to potential friends. Deep friendships develop around many factors, but they develop over time. Sometimes friendships grow slowly, but much of the time they develop quickly because of certain traits, attractions, common interests, narratives and identities. Yet, just as often, they develop over shared dislikes or common enemies. The way someone speaks, looks or acts determines a lot about potential friendships as people gravitate toward the behaviors that tend to be in line with their own predispositions and, yes, prejudices. Podcasting is no different.

Then there is the power of the human voice. I’ve noticed that on repeated listening to various podcasts I’ve got very used to the way voices carry through the air and the earphones. I avoid certain types of voices because my ears do not receive them well. It is often not what is being said, but how—the pitch and timbre, the cadence and the general attitude of the speaking voice. I tend to listen to voices that are mildly soothing but also abrasive, and to podcasts that are generally adversarial, that seem to have a lot at stake in challenging the injustices of ‘the system’ whatever that nebulous term means. The podcaster ‘friend’ voice is a thing onto itself. It is soft, deliberate, warm, without any pretense toward sarcasm or authority. It is in fact the very opposite of authority, the kind of voice we associate with the ‘father’ tone of old world news anchors and interviewers Edward R. Murrow, Dan Rather or Charlie Rose. This podcaster friend voice was perfected by Sarah Koenig on the podcast series Serial. With its friendly nonchalance, her voice signaled to her audience that they were entering a private safe zone, closed off from the chaotic reality of the outer world, in which each us listeners could imbibe in the guilty pleasures of living vicariously the lives of terrible people doing terrible things. Her voice was intimate, authoritative, and informed in a way that would not betray the deep ‘production’ behind it. Soon enough that same voice was everywhere, even where there were no voices to be heard. Trying to read a simple cooking recipe one is already on the level of the kind of voyeuristic friend-fetishism so common to the podcasting world, everything as PR for one’s specific lifestyle, as perception management of one’s inhibitions and desires.

I’ve mindf**** myself into thinking that podcasters themselves must also agree with what I think and say and that they would even be interested in what I have to say. The friendships that seem to develop in this way are mildly self-abusive because one gets the impression that these ‘friends’ are quite easy to reach. Afterall, many of them exist on all the social media platforms and one is able to Tweet at them, or DM them on the Gram. They are so close all one has to do is reach out. The problem with the proliferation of this type of media is that it puts the individual squarely in the middle of a new type of neocolonialist struggle for dollars, minds and clicks while paying lip service to the decolonizing efforts of the techno-sphere itself, suggesting that one give money as a selfless act of charity, absolving podcasters of their roles in the traditional model of manufacturing consent.  Audiences can thus easily be interpellated as currency, both real and symbolic. Podcasting as surrogate friendship fits perfectly with Mark Fisher’s model of capitalist realism. Nowhere else is the media landscape more individualized and privatized, where alliances are formed and neo-tribalism reigns, and “where conviviality might flourish” as the entire sphere “has been colonized by a commercial imperative.” Existing in a closed loop, the podcasters’ thoughts become our thoughts, a type of self-colonization of the mind by external thought, short circuiting the critical aspect of the recoil response to negative information or behavior.

It would be silly to call Joe Rogan the podcasting father of the new generation. Rogan’s approach has always been to be the surrogate friend or frenemy. I do not actually listen to Rogan on a regular basis, but the algos relentlessly continue sending me notifications of new episodes anyhow. Rogan’s podcast serves as the prime example of just this type of skewed relationship many seem to be having during the pandemic, they are just the kind of content people might play on a loop while working, doing chores around the house, exercising or running on their Peloton devices. The host  is friendly and slightly adversarial, making everyone feel like they are sharing in some collective experience. Podcasts like this are the new type of canned laughter that was the norm during the 1980s and 1990s era sitcom.  The sitcoms do the laughing for us while the podcasts do our thinking for us. Because mass media is no longer the only game in town and individuals gravitate toward other individuals like them, the interpellation is much more subtle and effective. While watching sitcoms we are still aware that the shows are produced, written and acted out. In other words, they are fake. Reality TV was mass media’s attempt to capture the attention of a new, self-obsessed generation through a kind of augmented version of reality, which was a stepping stone toward the total interpellative nature of podcasting.  With podcasting we still get the same interpellation, the podcasts themselves are just as much a product of production teams as sitcoms and reality TV, but they are created to seem as though they are not. It is perception management taken to an extreme.

The podcasting world cuts across all social divisions and in each it plays very much the same kind of role, substituting perhaps only the roles that the podcasters themselves are expected to play. In the most glaring example of this subtle difference, Joe Rogan takes on the role of the universal friend to millions of listeners, while alt-right figures like Jordan Peterson play the postmodern father figure to more conservative audiences. Each approach to media engagement attempts to eradicate the very real divide that exists between podcaster and audience by appealing to the sense of camaraderie, engaging in friendly banter and interpellating the audience as if it existed on its own terms with the speaker. The tactic is the same, even though Rogan and Peterson differ in their approach. The move was away from the stale and impersonal staging of personas like Bill Buckley and Rush Limbaugh toward more fluid and spontaneous working-class heroes like Russell Brand.

But herein lies the insidious quality of this type of engagement, which also plays out in the ways that modern corporations like Amazon and Netflix ‘engage’ with their consumers. That is, not at all. Social media’s role in this type of interpellation is crucial, because it gives the illusion that we are always able to directly engage with the people we listen to. But what happens when one actually does reach out and engage? More often than not attempts at reaching out fall on deaf ears, or worse are actively ignored. This is the moment where a type of cognitive dissonance enters. Because social media offers a sense of proximity to the talent, the stars, the celebrities, and the influencers—including the podcasters-as-friends—it is disconcerting and disheartening to come to the realization that one’s world is just as insulated as it was back in the days of sitcoms. Worse yet is the understanding that podcasters, like modern corporations, are actively trying to avoid actual contact with the public. Anyone who has ever attempted to contact Amazon or YouTube for any reason will know what I’m talking about.

Of course I’m not so naïve as to think that all podcasters and celebrities should be responding to every tweet, DM or personal email from every single fan or detractor. In fact, there is a reason that this insular nature exists. To be a public figure often means it is necessary to put a certain amount of distance between themselves and their audience, not only to protect their privacy, but also because the sheer number of people who would like to be personally in touch with them precludes communication with each separate individual. These reasons are so self-evident that it’s almost strange I have to repeat them in order to dispel any kind of confusion. Instead, what I’m referring to in the above critique, is an unintended consequence of the individualized and privatized world of late stage capitalism and the way that it engages with neocolonialist strategies, such as interpellation and perception management, while speaking nothing of Freudian subjectivity (such a notion would require an essay onto its own). Modern, privatized corporations have much stake in keeping a sanitized image which is at once impersonal and downright homey, engaging audiences/consumers in a double play of caring for their material and emotional ‘needs,’ skillfully rendered in countless hours of ads plugged into our favorite YouTube channel videos and podcasts, and yet applying the cold shoulder whenever questions over their legitimacy and practices comes up, almost always deferring to the ambiguity of their position as a private corporation doing public good.

There is, in the hours and hours of podcasts that we listen to, a thread of just this type of ambiguous camaraderie between the speaker and the listener, but because the podcasts tend to be ones we already agree with, this one-sided relationship is difficult to critique and question. However, what can be critiqued are the algorithms that keep the entire network ‘alive’ so to speak. It is no secret that social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube function on algorithms that are heavily weighted in favor of large accounts with large bases of followers, giving more likes to posts and images that already have a lot. This is hardly news anymore. The issue lies within the subtle neolocolonial set-up of the algorithms themselves. As with AI, algos are set-up to intake and aggregate information from the users of various platforms which is then used to generate and propagate certain behaviors of the platform itself. On the surface this is a slick design meant to appear as a democratizing agent within digital culture. In reality the reverse is also true, instead of ‘training’ the algorithms, they instead train us in the way we use the platforms and how we engage on and with them. The algorithms become the gatekeepers of what we get to see and experience and we become our own jailers and exploiters. There is a scary dimension to the algorithms, because nobody, except for the Silicon Valley technocrats who design them, actually knows how they work or what they are and what they’ve become. In a sense, they are the new twenty-first century boogey man, alongside biotech and 5G. Another strange and uncanny aspect of the algorithm enigma is in the way it seems to eschew time, to flatten and disperse it into thousands of little moments. Time virtually disappears into the omnipresent ‘now’. Many years ago books like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now exhorted the benefits of living in the present, free of the resent-inducing influence of the past and the fear-obsessed future. Today, thanks to social media, the podcasts and algorithms that churn away in the background, we are living in this strange, present-conscious techno-utopia, without much in the way of an alternative to its bureaucratized landscape of private individual empires, and it is terrifying.

Even the democratizing aspect of algorithms is fake. What actually exists are individualized PR campaigns and privatized perception management techniques for manipulating the public so they will  ‘buy’ into the new algorithms. A Google search will quickly yield a plethora of individual blog posts on the nature of the new algos, how they actually benefit the individual and the theory that they are written in such as a way as to level the playing field. Talk of “getting personal” and “creating a sense of community” is ubiquitous. “Say goodbye to the silent influencer, and hello to your new, interactive friend.” But content that has been bought and paid for somehow magically always appears at the top of the feed.

If we are to take the notion of colonialism literally and apply it to the way that algorithms are deployed across the media sphere, there is only one way to read into this winner-take-all situation. The world of our podcasting ‘friends’ is a clever way to deflect any kind of negative criticism of the corporate substructure that is at play behind our favorite shows. The Rogan move to Spotify was a small glimpse into the skewed nature of modern social media. This is the same Spotify that has singlehandedly destroyed the financial self-determination of countless recording artists while amplifying the voices of a select few. Yes, Spotify and its ilk also destroyed the exploitative record labels, the file sharing platforms and record shops, at least in theory, but thousands, if not millions of people, who were once business owners and artists, were forced to shutter their ventures because they could not do what Spotify did at a time when other music streaming services like Last.fm and Pandora were competing for the same audiences. But was it the business model or the algorithms that were responsible for this turn? The answer seems to be a little bit of both. The same game is played out across platforms, many of which have become virtual monopolies within the personalized and privatized techno-spaces, from Instacart, and Uber to Spotify. Ease of function, coupled with convenience of service, trumps any need for corporations to make any profit due to the endless number of venture capitalists willing to fund them.

The result is a business model that allows corporations to burn through vast amounts of cash to undercut their competition under the guise of simply giving their end users what they want, namely ‘free’ stuff. Thus begins the inevitable drive to create algorithms that drive more and more customers and larger and larger audiences to the platform. In some sense, the number of customers, the number of likes and followers, that an influencer or podcaster can accumulate, are interpellated as currency and, by extension, profits. The action of Spotify to secure Joe Rogan as its number one podcaster was a calculated algolonial move to drive audiences away from other platforms like Stitcher and YouTube, to gain net profits from ad revenue, but more importantly, more burnable cash from investors. Spotify is banking on the rapport that Rogan has developed over the years with his audience that see themselves at the very least as friend-adjacent to accomplish this move because friends will go wherever their friends tell them.

Tom Pazderka is a painter, installation artist and writer. His work interrogates ideology and our desire to escape it, the built and natural worlds, cultural mythos and a society perpetually on the precipice, all in a black and white palette of ash and oil. He was born in the Czech Republic in 1981 and moved to the US at the age of twelve, shortly after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Pazderka’s sentiments, resulting from immigration, loss, and sense of place find resonance in his written work as well. He holds and MFA from the University of California Santa Barbara where he was a Regents Fellow and was Artist in Residence. At UC Santa Barbara, he studied with internationally renowned theorist and cultural critic Dick Hebdige. Recent exhibitions include Bender Gallery (Asheville, NC), The Basic Premise (Ojai, CA), Sullivan Goss and Silo 118 (Santa Barbara, CA), Gallery 825 (Los Angeles), FA Museum (NC), Parasol Projects (NYC), Trafo Gallery (Prague, Czech Republic). His work has been published in The Philosophical Salon, LA Weekly, New American Paintings, Dark Mountain, Santa Barbara Literary Journal and Daily Serving among others. Pazderka’s work is represented by Silo 118, Bender Gallery, The Basic Premise and Glenn Dallas Gallery. Web: www.tompazderka.com  Instagram: @Tompazderka  Twitter: @PazderkaTom

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 27th, 2020.