Kevin Sun

What happened to Sudhir breaking the Internet?

July 15, 2022

The title of this post is a rhetorical question; I don't know the answer. Sudhir Breaks the Internet was a podcast in the Freakonomics Radio Network, and according to them, it was "a limited-run series in which sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh explored the tangled wiring of our digital society."

There were only five episodes, but I thought it was pretty good. I recently gave it an honorable mention on my list of favorites. Basically, the podcast criticized big tech companies, especially Facebook. Here's a memorable snippet about content moderation from Episode 2:

One person labeled it "blood and gore" and the other person labeled it "dismemberment." Now, we have to sit and as a group look at this picture and say, "Well, what do we think? Is this 'dismemberment' or is it 'blood and gore'?" And there are times where it was like, you have to... Coming up with a definition of infanticide. It's like that is... Yeah.

And here's another from Episode 5 about tech companies addressing social issues:

You think you can handle things yourself, and that makes you resistant to outside ideas. You walk around with blinders. In my experience, tech executives are really, really bad at recognizing problems like racial injustice and staying interested enough to do something about it. There’s too much work to do and way too much money to make.

So why'd the show stop running? The other podcasts in the Freakonomics network have gone way beyond five episodes (except for the newest one, which only premiered two months ago). Like I said, I haven't been able to find any official reasons, so this post is just speculation. But let's start with all of the relevant facts that I could find:

  1. According to Sudhir's Twitter bio, he's still the host of the podcast.

    (He's also a "Res Dir" at Facebook? What does that mean? Could this be a clue?? Probably not, he probably just prefers to leave his former jobs in his bio...)

  2. On May 17, 2021, in the fifth and final episode, he said, "We’ll be back in a few weeks with new episodes." He also provided an email address, but I haven't sent anything. Maybe I should, but I don't feel like it.

  3. On June 4, 2021, their Twitter account tweeted a link to Episode 3. One commenter wondered if they should delete the podcast from their feed, since it "seems dead." On an earlier tweet, another commenter was more explicit: "What happened to this show?" Both commenters were ignored (which is why I don't feel like emailing them).

  4. There are two threads on Reddit about this mystery. In the second thread, the OP points out that when another Freakonomics show stopped running, there was an explanation:

    Unfortunately, none of the comments contain an official answer. The only thing that comes close is user 3ar3ar's unsubstantiated claim that the show got sued:

This leads into my speculation. The first hypothesis, which I think is the most obvious one, is that Facebook told Sudhir to stop. After all, he used to work there, and in the very first episode, he had some pretty strong words about joining the company:

When I joined Facebook, my orientation was about a month long. Day after day, I sat with hundreds of other new employees in this convention hall. We all had to sit there and listen to one Facebooker after another tell us how great it was to work there. It was only about a year into the job that I realized why these companies spent so much time asking you to drink all that Kool-Aid. It’s what sociologists call being part of a Total Institution.

The classic examples of Total Institutions are the military, or the mental asylum, the prison — it’s where groups of people do everything together. They live, work, play, relax only with one another. You spend so much of your life cut off from the rest of society that you feel in opposition to the world around you. Like no one understands what you do or how you feel.

That’s what Facebook became for me.

But I'd like to think that the folks at Freakonomics had anticipated retaliation, so I'm not sure I believe this hypothesis. Did they really think, "If Facebook gets upset, then we'll just cancel the whole show"? IANAL, but that sounds like a silly strategy. Also, this hypothesis is a bit spooky ("Zook and his FB legal goons"?), so I kind of hope it's not true.

My second hypothesis is that this show was too politically controversial for Freakonomics. If you want to appeal to a broad audience, maybe it's not a good idea to discuss the ethics of Facebook, January 6, or racial justice. This podcast covered all of that, and not surprisingly, it only averages a 3.8 out of 5 on Apple. A good chunk of those ratings are 1's.

In contrast, People I (Mostly) Admire has a solid 4.7; in fact all of the podcasts in the Freakonomics network have high ratings, and they're a lot less spicy. I mean, the latest one is all about dogs, one of the safest topics ever.

Perhaps Freakonomics didn't want to receive more 1-star reviews, so they canceled the show. Just for fun, here are some highlights from those reviews:

I guess the last person's request was satisfied!

The third hypothesis is just that the show ended for a more mundane reason. Maybe the host got bored, or busy, or sick. I don't know, I'm out of ideas. If anyone does know anything about this, or has other hypotheses, please feel free to tell me. It'd be amazing if I could hear from Sudhir or someone at Freakonomics, but I don't want to bother them. This post is basically a wanted poster (without a reward)...