I listen to the various good-news podcasts for Web developers produced and co-hosted by Dan Benjamin. The Big Web Show is the most important of those, in part because Zeldman sits in the co-host chair. I also listen to the Marc Maron comedy podcast entitled WTF.

Benjamin’s podcasts don’t get press. Maron’s does, and every article says the same thing: Comedian guests barely bother to crack wise and instead have honest and true discussions about their lives. (The best example is the Dane Cook interview, not the Robin Williams one.) Maron’s show reminds us of something the 21st century wants us to forget: Behind each persona is a person. And if that person is halfway creative, nine times out of ten something has gone wrong along the way.

You’d never know this from listening to Benjamin’s podcasts. They stay relentlessly upbeat. Now, why? Because Dan Benjamin, whom I haven’t met, is a member of that rare and baffling class, the sweetie. (He had to sit there and think about letting me use the word “shitty” in a comment on his blog. Even devout churchgoers say “shit.”) Dan Benjamin is a preternaturally nice, optimistic, happy person. His partner Zeldman is a mensch. I’ve spent a lot of time in his company and I know he doesn’t dwell on “negative” things. (Incidentally, if that’s the first word that springs to mind to describe anything vaguely upsetting, then you really need to read and understand this post, because you are not being honest, least of all to yourself.)

The Benjamin podcasts feature one interchangeably sunny and constructive Internet success story after another. They perpetuate the mythology of the Web worker who is so happy and well-adjusted they might as well be a robot. It isn’t a coincidence that Aspergerians and autistics are often quite content, too; technically proficient or obsessive people always have something to talk about other than themselves. What the Benjamin podcasts give us is a discussion of what the guest does, not who he or she is. The podcasts, like American talk shows, give guests a venue to plug their projects while steering clear of their real lives.

It’s more insidious in the podcast case because, unlike with Hollywood talk shows, there isn’t a talent agency’s (female or gay-male) publicist hovering offstage making sure you stay away from off-message topics like the guest’s obvious homosexuality, his past or ongoing drug addiction, his recent divorce filing, who he blew to land his first role, or his placement in the hierarchy of the Church of Scientology. Breezy, positive tech podcasts practise genteel self-censorship. They do that because the entire culture is one of news you can use.

When I’ve written articles for Zeldman or appeared at his conferences and failed to regurgitate the recommended daily allowance of information the audience can immediately put to use, I’ve been criticized for it. I would like to suggest that some problems are worth discussing even if they cannot presently be solved. Now imagine if I dared to get up there and talk about the rest of my life. (When I did that at @media, it was edited out of the ultimate podcast.)

With Maron’s guests, we already know what they do as comedians, save for the occasional producer or writer previously visible solely to insiders. But almost the same thing applies to Benjamin’s guests: We already know what they do because, by definition, listeners have access to their entire output. (We can read their blogs and buy their apps.) Maron finds out what they do as people; tech podcasts stay on message, making them structurally comparable to American right-wing talk radio.

The guest, not the medium, is the message, and if you aren’t interviewing the guest about his or her life, you are wasting our time. Thinking back to the people I’ve met, tell me why I haven’t heard any interviews exploring:

  • To what extent that tall blond designer’s career choices have been directed by his Mormonism.

  • Why does a cerebral and articulate young developer spend his best years in Japan? (Is he a rice queen?)

  • How that hot-blooded European playboy got fed up with his country of birth, to which he feels no allegiance whatsoever and whose Katzenjammer-like language even he finds gruesome.

  • How life is treating the beloved former developer, now a theorist in urban informatics, since he got himself off that godforsaken ice floe.

  • What that Web-standards evangelist has to say about her borderline personality disorder and the way it disrupted the lives of dozens of her colleagues during her sequence of public suicide threats.

  • What happened to the starter marriages of two high-profile men – that Left Coast developer and the Web’s best graphic designer. (Why does the latter have such an affinity for gore – horror – Hallowe’en?)

  • That visual artist/developer’s life-affirming conquest of drug addiction, and why he actually is a bit tired of being addressed by the diminutive even he uses online.

  • What it’s like being married to a physicist who’s a girl.

  • How that chain-smoking German manages to be more British than the British.

  • Why does that editor at a major technical publishing house call up his authors just when their books are on press to berate them for being the most difficult author they’d ever worked with? (Hint: This didn’t happen only to me.)

  • And, Number 1 with a bullet: Why aren’t you a success? Everyone else here is. (Restated: Why are you such a failure? Nobody else here is.)

There is no way even to list those topics without using the format of the gossip-column blind item. But this is not gossip; it is the experience of labour, triumph, strife, heartache, reward, adversity. It is the guest’s life experience. What it isn’t is their latest technology product. I could not possibly care less. Why do you care? Do you even know?

Bullish, on-message technology podcasts that treat people like the latest gadget defeat the purpose of inviting people onto the show in the first place. Tech podcasts are a mutual admiration society I consider harmful. To paraphrase Sinéad O’Connor, success has made a failure of our home.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2011.01.25 13:54. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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