As I was compiling this post, I realised I had a problem: I was going to have a top ten which was mostly episodes of Reply All.
It is tech podcast with a difference, focusing not on the technology itself, but on the stories of those who have found their lives impacted by the internet in surprising ways.
It is largely made by This American Life veterans and uses a similar storytelling style, but for my money hosts PJ Voght and Alex Goldman and the rest of the team behind it have an even greater knack for finding subjects that are both revealing and have a very human core.
So here are my top 5 Reply All episodes of 2019:
5) Dark Pattern [June 27th]
Christopher Hitchens told a story about going to Prague whilst it was still under communist rule “determined to be the first visiting writer not to make use of the name Franz Kafka.” Only to be arrested and have his captors tell him he had no reason to know why he had been detained!
The lengths companies go to in order to prevent Americans exercising their legal right to file their taxes online for free make clichés about ‘Kafkaesque’ situations similarly hard to avoid.
4) 30-50 Feral Hogs [October 10th]
In August 2019, a little known twitter user responded to a tweet about banning assault rifles by asking rhetorically: “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Unsurprisingly, this decision made him a global laughingstock. It also prompts PJ Voght to ask why wild pigs became such a problem that someone would sincerely believe they need to military weaponry to deal with them. A strange (and very American) tale follows.
3) The Great Momo Panic [March 14th]:
It is easy to deride the parents and teachers who fell for a hoax story about a “demonic chicken lady” encouraging children to commit suicide. However, this episode makes a persuasive case that part of why this fake story caught on is that virtually all of its constituent elements (including messages about committing suicide being snuck into Youtube videos aimed at children) reflect things that have actually happened. Google comes out of this episode especially badly, having allowed Youtube to become a major presence in children’s lives, whilst taking little responsibility for what they see.
2) The Crime Machine (parts 1 and 2) [October 12th]
The story of the NYPD’s embrace of data-driven police almost feels like a Greek Tragedy. At first, reformers used it to make policing not only more effective but fairer. However, over time what was once a useful tool, essentially hijacks the entire department, creating incentives for officers to conceal crimes and target ethnic minorities.
1) The Roman Mars Virus [11th April]
An investigation into why a listener’s car stereo crashes when it plays 99% Invisible (and only 99% Invisible) turns into a loving homage to podcasting itself.