Review: The Biggest Problem in the Universe Podcast

by Walter Rhein

I've been listening to The Biggest Problem in the Universe podcast recently and I thought I'd discuss a few things about it here.  The podcast consists of internet fratire writer Maddox and author Dick Masterson discussing problems.  Listeners then vote on these problems with the intent of categorizing all the problems in the universe in the correct order of relevance (ironically based on arbitrary voting--it's satire folks).

What I really appreciate about The Biggest Problem is that it has the appearance of being flippant but it's really a very intelligent show.  Also, it sits firmly outside the realm of mainstream media, so you are often exposed to very insightful comments that otherwise slip through the cracks.

Dick and Maddox have fallen into a very nice rhythm of sparring with one another.  A running joke is that Maddox brings in well-researched, serious problems and offers links to studies to support his conclusions, where Dick is apt to just mention something that happened to irritate him while he was on his way to the recording.  Dick's nonchalance tends to make Maddox flip out which is also hilarious.

However, the constant clash of the two hosts works really well because it's reflective of a common social undercurrent that pits measured, rational thinking against that of the inherently emotional response. Dick is perfect as a spokesperson for the emotional reaction, because I think he would be loathe to see himself as such.  However, Dick can be counted on to defend the belief that Coke from McDonald's tastes better, that we should be worried about Ebola, and that there is value in a $100 steak.  There's a gut feeling continuity to these positions that is a perfect contrast to the more analytical approach Maddox displays.

On a recent show they discussed Facebook.  I'd been thinking about their show when I penned my article about internet virality being a myth, and episode 27 offered some nice substance to some of my suspicions.  One of the comments Maddox made that was interesting was about how if you have a page or a group on Facebook with 50,000 followers, you can't guarantee that all 50,000 of those followers will see the things that you post.  In fact, Facebook will probably only send your post out to 10,000 or 15,000 of YOUR followers.  This is because Facebook expects to be paid to send your message to your fans even though you were the one who presumably had the clout to attract 50,000 followers in the first place (yes...it's outrageous).  There are some very interesting consequences to the fact that Facebook manipulates the content you see which you can hear Dick and Maddox discuss on this episode (and in some of the embedded videos on the page).

The information about how internet content is manipulated is very important for my friends who are writers that are looking for effective ways to promote their work online.  The simple conclusion is that Facebook is not the answer (you all suspected...now you know).

I believe there was a brief period where talent was actually rewarded on the internet. Articles or videos that people actually wanted to read or watch got attention. Now, however, the majority of the attention is getting syphoned to the content that has the most money to manipulate the system (again, this is why we have to look at 5 Kardashian articles daily). I still think that talent will win out in the long run...but it's still irritating to see the enemy having such success.

Incidentally, Maddox got his start as one of the internet's first satirical writers and managed to acquire an audience before the big money stepped in and made it more difficult for young start-ups to do so.  Have a look at The Best Page in the Universe to see his origins. I think the thing that I find most appealing about Maddox is that his work is not funded by some huge ridiculous bankroll with an agenda.  This is a case of a legitimate internet talent who has acquired a loyal following over time by producing a product of consistent quality. I also sense that he has greater aspirations with this podcast which he is explicitly stating--which is a good enough hook to keep me listening.

Lately, The Biggest Problem in the Universe has been sponsored by Audible.com.  For those of you who have books, there might be an opportunity for negotiating with Biggest Problem to promote your work (they haven't officially posted anything to that effect...but everybody returns an email if you're offering money).  The internet is filled with smarmy literary ezines that want to charge you hundreds of dollars for ads which have almost zero probability of generating sales that cover even a tenth of the ad charge. This is because all of these web pages use unsubstantiated numbers like "page views" and "clicks" to overvalue the worth of their publication (the only number that has any valley is the number of dollars that goes in your pocket--don't be fooled by BS). My guess is that The Biggest Problem in the Universe is one of the few places that would actually give you a fair return on your advertising dollar. The reason is that this is a legitimate show with some legitimate talent that is not controlled by some larger entity.

That alone makes The Biggest Problem in the Universe unique.  Give it a listen...it's not going to be for all of you, but the only thing I get on my radio is Taylor Swift and I'd rather drive a sharp pencil into my auditory canal than listen to another "artist" whose rich parents gift wrapped an artificial "celebrity" career (I'm also sick of American Idol cast-offs).

Oh, by the way, Dick Masterson once conned his way on to the Dr. Phil show (he does this satirical chauvinist routine that the great Dr. Phil was too dumb to take at anything other than face value). Say what you want to say about Dick, we can't deny he knows what it's like to be in the presence of pure evil.

By the way...I've got a problem for you: DVD menus!  Remember when you could stumble home drunk and plug a video into a machine and KNOW that your damn movie would start?  Now you have to wait around watching a dozen advertisements before getting to some idiotic, semi-functional navigation screen (nobody paid ME to sit through those ADS). This is especially annoying to stand around waiting for as your kids scream and yell to watch Marry Poppins or Kung-Fu Panda for the millionth time.  Then, right when you get it going, they decide they want to watch the thing in SPANISH, so you have to start the whole process over, this time wading to the set-up menu which probably won't work...  Endless nightmares, let the movie begin already.  Back to VHS, that's what I say.