Reply All is, by its own description, “a show about the internet.” While this may sound both drab and vague, the program is neither. Together, hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman have a congenial on-air presence, made sweeter by Vogt’s excellent laugh. Each episode is a celebration of the curious, and because the writing and editing is so tight, the show meanders between topics without feeling chaotic.
Each Reply All podcast episode is self-contained and but for a few that contain follow-up information, they can be listened to in any order. The titles don’t really give a sense of what the episode will be about, and in some instances, the ties to the internet are a bit tenuous, which is just fine by me. Some installments are tech-tinged, but those aspects are woven in so well and delivered with such joie de vivre, that they feel like bonus content. Except for occasional ambient noise when they record on site, there are no sound effects—in my opinion, a plus.
In the most recent episode, “Zardulu,” (#56) we meet the actor hired to participate in the notorious YouTube video of a rat climbing on his (the actor’s, not the rat’s) phone and taking a selfie. Discussed are: Upright Citizens Brigade as possible culprits, the also internet-famous “pizza rat,” and the anonymous performance artist Zardulu. The underlying thought/worry is that we never can know what’s really real. The possibilities for artifice are both wonderful and frightening. See: “French Connection” (#10) and “The Man in the FBI Hat” (#30).
“In The Desert”(#53) features a recurring component, “super tech support,” whereby the hosts try to solve people’s internet mysteries. A family finds that the app Find My Phone was sending strangers to their home in search of their lost and stolen cell phones. The potential answer was the most scientific thing that came up on Reply All, and to be honest, I didn’t quite follow it, but the underlying problem was so strange and intriguing that it still was a great episode. This, from the show’s twitter feed: “If you have a super tech support question you want us to solve, email email@example.com. We’re here to help.”
In “Shine on You Crazy Goldman” (#44) profiles a counselor on a call line set up to keep people company during rough trips. The hosts interview an acid researcher from the days when this type of experimentation was legal, who recommends small amounts to alleviate depression and anxiety, which leads to one of the hosts micro-dosing for a week. At work. Without telling his coworkers, including his cohost.
The story profiled in “The Takeover” (#29) shows how the internet allows for the slightly odd to escalate into a spectacle. A teenager in Australia made a fake Facebook group for a fake company (Stackswell), the goal being to make fun of office culture. The group became wildly popular, much to the surprise of the kid who started it. Then, a bunch of adults joined, became obsessed, took control of the site, and fired the teenagers.
In “Back End Trouble” (#12), we meet Greg Knox, the genius who used the “bees with machine guns” method to keep the internet from crashing. While working for Paper magazine, he received an assignment to prepare the site to withstand 12 million hits, but was told he couldn’t know the reason. It turns out that he was preparing the site for images of Kim Kardashian’s butt, and that the magazine’s estimates were correct. In the interview, Knox talks about flow (creative flow) from being a system administrator, and what it’s like to solve a problem that you don’t believe will ever happen.
#38 “Undo, Undo, Undo” starts off talking about self-emailing as a method of note taking, but moves to emails that never should have been sent. Listeners sent in voice messages of emails they wished they could undo, which made for some of the most poignant audience participation I’ve ever heard. This episode also introduces the brilliant “two hospital beds instead of a couch” method of kitting out a living room. Reply All also declared the best holiday ever, Email Debt Forgiveness Day (April 30th), which absolves the sender of a long–overdue email of any obligation to explain themselves.
The podcast opened strong in November 2014 with “An App Sends a Stranger to Say I Love You,” about the notoriously unreliable “Somebody” app created by Miranda July, where the user can summon a stranger to deliver a difficult message. What’s interesting was hearing a recipient talk about what it was like to have a stranger tell them of unrequited love, and why the sender thought performance art is the best way to deliver an important, perhaps life-altering message. Vogt and Goldman interview the actor, the “somebody” who delivered over sixty of the messages.
In “Yes, Yes, No,” a recurring feature, the duo’s boss Alex Blumberg (host of StartUp, CEO and cofounder of Gimlet Media) takes “some confusing piece of the internet” to the hosts, who try to decipher it for him. Often, he is confounded by cryptic tweets, and the hosts work them through, the goal being to arrive at yes, yes, yes. Solutions often have to do with pop-culture, such as Super Mario Brothers, the Berenstain Bears theory, or explaining why anonymity is a necessary element of Weird Twitter.
The commissioned theme music by the “mysterious” Breakmaster Cylinder is mesmerizing—so much so, that it might have an embedded mind control code. By the third episode, I was having Pavlovian responses. While still overwhelmed by so many confusing things on the internet, I’m ready to embrace the bigness of it all.
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