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Study Hacks Blog

How the Acquired Podcast Became a Sensation

My podcast producer recently turned me onto a show called Acquired, which features its co-hosts, Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, diving deep into the backstories of well-known brands and companies, from Porsche and Nike, to Amazon and Nintendo.

It turns out I was late to this party. In the eight years since Acquired was originally launched, it has grown into a huge hit. The show now serves more than 200,000 downloads per episode. As Rosenthal revealed in a Fast Company profile last summer, they now face the problem of their audience becoming too large for their advertisers to afford paying the full fair market price for their spots.

What interests me about Acquired, however, is less what they’ve accomplished than how they did it. The conventional wisdom surrounding new media ventures is that success requires frenetic busyness. You need to produce content perfectly-tailored to your audiences’ attention spans, master The Algorithm, exist on multiple platforms, and above all else, churn out content quickly to maximize your chances of stumbling into vibe-powered virality.

Acquired did none of this. Gilbert and Rosenthal’s podcasts are very long; the two-part treatment of Nintendo I just finished clocked in at a little under seven hours. They also publish on an irregular schedule, often waiting a month or more between episodes. Combine this with the reality that they largely ignore YouTube and have no discernible social media strategy, this venture should have long ago crashed and burned. But it instead keeps growing.

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Heschel on the Joys of Slowness

In 1951, Abraham Joshua Heschel published a monograph titled simply, The Sabbath. It consisted of ten short chapters, comprising of less than a hundred total pages, illustrated with original wood engravings by Ilya Schor.

Early in the book, Heschel establishes the unique importance the Bible places on rest:

“It is, indeed, a unique occasion at which the distinguished word qadosh [a transliteration of the Hebrew term for ‘holy’] is used for the first time: in the Book of Genesis at the end of the story of creation. How extremely significant is the fact that it is applied to time: ‘And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.‘ There is no reference in the record of creation to any object in space that would be endowed the quality of holiness.”

As Heschel elaborates, this idea was new. In pagan religions, places were holy; a sacred mountain, say, or a deified river. But the Abrahamic faiths found something Godly in a ritual of rest amid the flow of time.

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On Slow Writing

Someone recently forwarded me an essay from a blogger named Henrik Karlsson. It opens with an admission: “When I started writing online, the advice I got was to publish frequently and not overthink any single piece.”

Karlsson was not alone in receiving this suggestion. As social media erupted into cultural dominance over the past decade, it carried in its wake a force that thoroughly disrupted written media: virality. An article or post that hit the Twitter or Facebook zeitgeist just right could summon hundreds of times more readers than average. Because it was difficult to predict which pieces might ascend to this cyber-blessed state, the optimal strategy became, as Karlsson was told, to publish as much as possible, maximizing the odds that you stumble onto something sticky.

What makes Karlsson’s essay interesting, however, is that he decided to test this hypothesis on his own work. “I’ve now written 37 blog posts and I no long think this is true,” he writes. “Each time I’ve given in to my impulse to ‘optimize’ a piece it has performed massively better.”

Using new subscribers as a metric of success, Karlsson calculated more specifically that spending twice as long on an article yields, on average, more than four times the number of new subscribers.

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On Metrics and Resolve

One of the least understood components of my time-block planner is the “daily metrics” box that tops every pair of planning pages. Given that we’ve recently arrived at the beginning of a new year, an event that inevitably suffuses our culture with talk of reinvention and self-improvement, it seems an opportune time to look a little closer at this under-appreciated idea.

The mechanics of metric tracking are easy to explain. At the end of each day, you record a collection of symbols that describe your engagement with various key behaviors. These metrics can be binary. For example, you might have a specific symbol to indicate if you meditated, or called a friend, or went to the gym. If you engaged in the activity, you record the symbol. If you did not, you record the symbol with a line through it.

Metrics can also be quantitative, capturing not just whether you engaged in the activity, but to what degree. Instead of simply recording a symbol that indicates that you went for a walk, for example, you might augment the symbol with the total number of steps you took throughout the day. Instead of capturing the fact you did some deep work, you might also tally the total number of hours spent in this state.

The resulting information might seem an inscrutable cipher to an outsider, but once you get used to your personal metrics, they will provide, at a glance, an elaborated snapshot of your day.

Consider, for example, the sample “daily metrics” box from above. In this case, its terse scribbles might capture the following about the date in question:

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Standing Up to Technology

In the fall of 2016, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that pushed back against the conventional wisdom that social media was important for your career. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable,” I wrote. “Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.” Aided in large part by an attention-catching headline — “Quit Social Media. Your Career May Depend on It” — my piece touched a nerve, soon hitting the top of the paper’s Most Emailed chart.

This sudden prominence generated a fierce backlash. I was invited on a radio program only to be ambushed by two surprise guests invited to refute my ideas. A well-known communication professor began emailing me invitations to debate. One online publication described my call to use less social media as a call to disenfranchise marginalized peoples. (I’m still trying to figure that one out.) Perhaps most notably, two weeks later, the Times took the unusual step of publishing a response op-ed — “Don’t Quit Social Media. Put it to Work for Your Career Instead” — that went through the main points of my piece one by one, explain why each was wrong.

In my most recent essay for The New Yorker, published earlier today, I revisit this incident from seven years ago. As I write, my distinct impression of this period was that of being targeted by a cultural immune reaction: “The idea of stepping away altogether from powerful new tools like social media just wasn’t acceptable; readers needed to be assured that such advice could be safely ignored.”

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Neil Gaiman’s Radical Vision for the Future of the Internet

Earlier this week, Neil Gaiman was interviewed on Icelandic television. Around the twenty-five minute mark of the program, the topic turned to the author’s thoughts about the internet. “I love blogging. I blog less now in the era of microblogging,” Gaiman explained, referring to his famously long-running online journal hosted at neilgaiman.com. “I miss the days of just sort of feeling like you could create a community by talking in a sane and cheerful way to the world.”

As he continues, it becomes clear that Gaiman’s affection for this more personal and independent version of online communication is more than nostalgia. As he goes on to predict:

“But it’s interesting because people are leaving (social media). You know, Twitter is over, yeah Twitter is done, Twitter’s… you stick a fork in, it’s definitely overdone. The new Twitters, like Threads and Blue sky… nothing is going to do what that thing once did. Facebook works but it doesn’t really work. So I think probably the era of blogging may return and maybe people will come and find you and find me again.”

In these quips, Gaiman is reinforcing a vision of the internet that I have been predicting and promoting in my recent writing for The New Yorker (e.g., this and this and this). Between 2012 to 2022, we came to believe that the natural structure for online interaction was for billions of people to all use the same small number of privately-owned social platforms. We’re increasingly realizing now that it was this centralization idea itself that was unnatural. The underlying architecture of the internet already provides a universal platform on which anyone can talk to anyone else about any topic. We didn’t additionally need all of these conversations to be consolidated into the same interfaces and curated by the same algorithms.

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Should This Meeting Have Been an Email?

In the context of knowledge work there are two primary ways to communicate. The first is synchronous, which requires all parties to be interacting at the same time. This mode includes face-to-face meetings, phone calls, and video conferences.

The second way is asynchronous, which allows senders to deliver their messages, and receivers to read them, when each is ready. This mode includes memos, voicemails, and, most notably in recent years, email.

Which communication style is better? This simple question requires a complicated answer.

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