Of the many counterhistories we might imagine about the Roman Empire, it is hard to think of one less tantalizing than: What if Roman Emperors had podcasts? We may never know whether or not Nero could have outdone Joe Rogan, sadly, but we now have a refracted glimpse of what the imperial podcast might have looked like: Mark Zuckerberg, Augustus Caesar-obsessed first citizen of the Facebook Empire, has launched a podcast.
Okay, “podcast” might be generous — so far the offerings on Spotify consist of two recordings he’s done for his yearlong project of public discussions about the future of technology with prominent figures, one with the Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, and one with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of German news publishers Axel Springer. What they lack in newness, however, they make up for in length: the Döpfner podcast is an hour and 45 minutes, an astonishing repudiation of Zuckerberg’s purported focus on the “time well spent” metric.
That’s not to say the podcast might not be good in the future. I’m cautiously bullish on this year’s Zuckerberg challenge, which, if he does it properly, will require him to spend more time publicly defending his life’s work and listening to direct criticism from people who’ve been affected, both of which are admirable goals. But so far, two sessions in, I don’t think much has happened. The interviews seem less like productive engagements on key questions — privacy rights, local news, surveillance, misinformation — and more like what you might imagine imperial podcasts would always sound like: a performatively magnanimous host, an interlocutor pulling their punches, and no one to say “hey, maybe two hours is kind of pushing it?”