When news broke last week that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would be stepping aside from royal duties, fans of the celebrity-focused podcast “Who? Weekly” thrilled to discuss it: Where would they live? (Canada? California?) Would they get jobs? What did the queen think? Their ideas — and inside jokes — played out across several of the podcast’s Facebook fan groups.
Podcasts, as Jamie Lauren Keiles wrote last year in The New York Times Magazine, have given rise to fan universes once reserved for popular TV shows. And many of those fandoms live on Facebook. Groups for podcasts like “Crime Junkie” and “Shameless” have ballooned to tens of thousands of members, and in some cases more than 100,000. And those are just the primary fan pages.
When a show’s following is particularly rabid, fans break off into smaller splinter groups, allowing for more focused discussions. “Forever 35,” a popular podcast about self-care, has spawned 99 offshoots. “LadyGang,” a celebrity and lifestyle podcast, has subgroups clustered by region, interests and goals, such as getting out of debt or keeping up a keto diet. “Who? Weekly” fans have at least 20, including “influWHO?encers” and “The Who?k For Less.”
The growth of these groups represents both a cultural shift and a strategic one. In 2017, Facebook saw that users were posting fewer personal updates, and younger users were flocking to Instagram. The network could no longer rely on friend suggestions for growth. Groups, on the other hand, might encourage connections between strangers with common interests, and become places to engage in endless conversation online.
To that end, Facebook has advertised groups for car lovers and sci-fi fans. But some of the most engaging communities, called tag groups, are bound by a shared sense of humor rather than a hobby or a cult TV show. (They often have absurdist names like “please be gentle with the join button.”)
Podcast groups are similar; though they are ostensibly meant for conversation about the shows themselves, actual episodes are seldom discussed. Instead, members get sidetracked and end up on tangents, talking about their failed marriages, sharing parenting advice and helping each other pick outfits for first dates.
Sometimes deep bonds form. Last summer, two members of the main “LadyGang” Facebook group got married, according to one of the podcast hosts; the officiant was someone the couple also met in the group.
“Because there is no comment section for podcasts, when you consume one it’s an isolated digital experience,” said Nicholas Quah, the creator of Hot Pod, a trade newsletter about the podcast industry. “But there’s this feeling that comes with podcasts, where often times you feel like you’re part of a community that you’re not physically part of. You want to find other people in this nation that doesn’t physically exist. Often that takes the form of a Facebook group.”
Some podcast hosts use groups to disseminate information, drop exclusive merchandise or announce tour dates and giveaways. The groups can also function as forums for feedback.
“From my experience, podcasting is a very isolated craft. A lot of us are doing it in our closets and home offices, so we’re craving to have someone to talk to and bounce ideas off of,” said Danielle Desir, the founder of the group Women of Color Podcasters.
Though the dialogue between fans and hosts can be useful, most members find that the value of these groups is in the connections fans form with each other. “Podcasts are really one-directional,” Ms. Desire said. “So a lot of listeners are looking to continue the conversation and interject with their thoughts.”
Deborah Reber, the host of “Tilt Parenting,” a parenting podcast, said that when she started the “Tilt Parenting” Facebook group, she thought she’d have to chime in on all the posts. “But it’s taken on a life of its own,” she said. “Every now and then now I just pop in and say thank you. It’s really overwhelming to see the way that people are showing up for each other.”
Some hosts rely on moderators and administrators to keep their groups in check. Katherine Littleton, an administrator of the Facebook group for the film-focused podcast “Unspooled,” said she dedicates about 40 to 60 hours a week to overseeing the Facebook community. “I don’t like anything to sit for even five minutes. I’m not joking when I say it’s a full-time job for me,” she said.
Ms. Littleton, who doesn’t spend much time on social media outside of Facebook, didn’t anticipate the emotional toll moderating a group would take. “It was really surprising how toxic it can get,” she said. She has observed infighting, vulgar remarks and threats, which are just a few of the problems that plague private groups that have grown to unwieldy proportions.
Still, podcast groups remain an incredibly effective way to keep existing fans engaged, bring new listeners into the fold and even forge friendships.
“I think podcasts are an easier way to find a shared common interest,” said Heather Okenka, an administrator of the “Forever 35” Facebook group. “You get very attached, so finding someone else who likes it too, you know they had to devote time. It removes the icebreaker.”