Push Comes To Shove

In many ways the rampant podcastingenthusiasm reminds me of the big “push” furor back in the mid-90s, with everyone racing toincorporate the quickly abandoned channel technology (though itre-emerged as the influential and prolific, simplified RSSyears later), all desperately trying to get a piece of theshort-lived PointCast-styleaction.

The essence of podcasting – the most important benefit to manyusers – is really nothing more than the so-called Long Tail of audiofiles: Anyone can create an audio file (usually an MP3). From alistener perspective, no longer do you have to sit by the radio ata set time to listen to the talk show produced and distributed bythe few elite with themoney and the power to run a radio station. Instead, you cannow subscribe to a widearray of content from around the world, created by both theaforementioned mega-mediafirms, but also by a guy in his basement talking into hismicrophone.

Technically podcasting is the inclusion of filereferences into the so-called “push” technology RSS, which usability-wisemeans that instead of endlessly searching around websites lookingfor audio files, manually downloading and then transferringfiles to your player, your podcast clientsoftware automatically detects when new audio files areavailable for the feeds you’ve subscribed to, it usuallyautomatically downloads it (alternately it may provide you with asynopsis of each show, letting you manually select which onesyou’re interested in), and often even transfers it to your audioplayer (e.g. mp3 player, iPod) the next time you sync. Thedefinition of podcasting has been expanded to include virtually anysort of media (or even non-media) attachment, expanding the scopeto an unusably vague level, so I’m just going to focus on the audioaspect because that’s the prevalent context.

As mentionedbefore regarding usability, small usability improvements candramatically change the usage of a technology. In the caseof podcasting, the theory is that while there have been audioprograms available online for years, “push” enabling it woulddramatically increase consumption.

Listener’s Choice

Personally I don’t think usability has ever been the limitingfactor for audio files – It’s more efficient for me to browseITConversations on occasion than it is for me to find a selectionof good feeds to subscribe to, and then spend all of that bandwidthand memory space on a bunch of podcasts of uncertain quality andtopic (even if I like a particular podcast feed in general, thelikelihood that a particular episode is going to interestme is actually low). I don’t even subscribe to IT Conversations’feeds – despite it having one of the best content records in thebusiness – because the majority of the interviews aren’t ofinterest to me: For every interview that intrigues me, many moreare in a domain or with a personality that I can’t allocate thetime to focus upon.

I’m not going to eat the gruel just because it’s what theyhappen to be serving today.

Is the content and distribution problem really thereason you don’t have more talk radio in your life?

At a more fundamental level, though, podcasting is primarily acreation and distribution expansion of the previouslymentioned talk radio. Is the content and distribution problemreally the reason you don’t have more talk radio in yourlife Do you even know what talk radio programs exist in your area,available 24 hours a day from any tuner available?

Probably not.

Difficult to Stomach

Talk radio is something that most people aren’t interested in.Talk is something that is difficult to consume without a goodamount of your attention (I’ve found it close to useless -and destructively distracting – playing audio interviewsin the background while working), it’s difficult to efficiently vet(e.g. I can jump to a blog – or scan a newspaper – and knowwhat interests me or not in seconds. A podcast requires some timeto gauge its usefulness in your life), and it’s often farless efficient than the alternatives. I can absorbsomeone’s point from their writings enormously moreefficiently than I can listening to them ramble onabout this and that. It’s generally difficult with audio filesto jump to the pertinent parts that interest you (there are seldomeven indexes or transcripts), so you have to take the chaff withthe wheat. It’s like that guy who leaves the long, ramblingvoicemail messages, in which are hidden a tiny nugget of usefulinfo, instead of just sending a concise email.

If it’s slow to parse, difficult to scan, and requires a fairdegree of one’s attention, the reasonable expectation nowadays isthat it should have useful, informative video going along with itto increase the utility and value. The .NET Show is a pretty goodvideo feed – with a great transcript that lets me jump where Iwant with ease to avoid the filler – though of course it’sinfrequent enough, and covering such a variety of topics, that anysort of automation is useless for it: I just visit the site everymonth or so and see if the latest outing interests me. While onemonth might be great, the next might be 90 minutes of someonepushing some questionable vapourware with a delivery promisedin 2 years.

Of course sometimes rambling in audio interviews – the filler -is extremely valuable, and people betray information and conveyknowledge that they would never have put into words – some of theconversations with industry veterans and superstars on ITConversations are brilliant for this – but in general talk isnot an efficient information medium in an informationdomain. Highly technical audio podcasts are truly absurd.

Everything Old Is New Again

Remember the excitement about webcams a few yearsback? Several sites made it easy to find people’s webcams, sothe presumption was that we would all start consuming. For a shortwhile it was true, and people entertained themselves looking atdowntown webcams, goofy people with webcams, and so on. Then theinterest faded, and we realized that it really wasn’t thatinteresting.

This has repeated in a variety of technology spheres, where asimple repackaging of content that otherwise had little interestearned short-term euphoria and early adopters, but quickly fizzledout as the buzz and the eliteness subsided.

The novelty quickly wore off, and the utility of the underlyingcontent failed to maintain any level of continuing support.

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