Podcasting: will it succumb to the Wu cycle?

This morning’s Observer column:

I’ve just been listening to what I think of as the first real podcast. The speaker is Dave Winer, the software genius whom I wrote about in October. He pioneered blogging and played a key role in the evolution of the RSS site-syndication technology that enabled users and applications to access updates to websites in a standardised, computer-readable format.

And the date of this podcast? 11 June, 2004 – 15 years ago; which rather puts into context the contemporary excitement about this supposedly new medium that is now – if you believe the hype – taking the world by storm. With digital technology it always pays to remember that it’s older than you think.

When he started doing it, Winer called it “audioblogging” and if you listen to his early experiments you can see why. They’re relaxed, friendly, digressive, unpretentious and insightful – in other words an accurate reflection of the man himself and of his blog. He thought of them as “morning coffee notes” – audio meditations about what was on his mind first thing in the morning…

Read on

Sovereigns of Cyberspace?

This morning’s Observer column.

One of the central ideas in MacKinnon’s book is the concept of what she calls “sovereigns of cyberspace”, – companies like Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon that now exercise the kinds of power that were hitherto reserved for real “sovereigns” – governments operating within national jurisdictions. Witness, for example, the way in which Amazon arbitrarily removed Wikileaks from its cloud computing servers without any justification that would have withstood a First Amendment legal challenge ; or the way that Facebook took down a page used by Egyptian activists to co-ordinate protests on the grounds that they had violated the company’s rules by not using their real names.

The powers to curtail people’s freedom of speech in this way were traditionally reserved for governments which – in democracies at least – theoretically derived their legitimacy from John Locke’s notion of “the consent of the governed”. (It’s worth saying that some political scientists balk at the notion of companies as “sovereigns”. After all, Zuckerberg can’t lock you up, whereas a real government could.) The question MacKinnon raises is: in what sense do Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google enjoy the consent of the networked?

The podcaster’s friend

I’ve been looking out for ages for an acceptable way of recording MP3 audio — without going in for the kind of obsessive pre-amp sophistication that audiophiles insist is mandatory. I think I’ve found the answer — the Zoom H4. I’ve been testing it out and it produces audio that is, in Roger Needham’s timeless phrase, “good enough for government work”. Not that I do any of that, of course.

The H4 records onto an SD card in Wav or MP3 format and has two modes: stereo and 4-track. Plug it into the USB port of my Mac and it looks like an external drive. Useful review here which says that the 4-track operation is a bit lightweight. But that doesn’t bother me: all I wanted was ol’-fashioned stereo.

I got it from here. £220 inc. VAT.

It was Dan Bricklin who put me onto it, btw.

Podcasts are huge; it’s just the audience that’s tiny

From Good Morning Silicon Valley

Who’s listening to podcasts? Apparently no one. According to a new report from Forrester,  only 1 percent of online households in North America regularly download and listen to podcasts.  “Podcasts have hit the mainstream consciousness but have not yet seen widespread use,” Forrester analyst Charlene Li explains. “One-quarter of online consumers express interest in podcasts, with most interested in time-shifting existing radio and Internet radio channels. Companies that are interested in using podcasts for their audio should focus not only on downloads but also on streaming audio as a means to get their content and ads to consumers.”

So podcasting, for the moment at least, is not only a bare trickle in the media stream, but one whose appeal is limited to those who use it to time-shift broadcast radio.  Now to be fair, we’re only 18 months or so into the podcasting phenom, and Li predicts that  it will grow to reach 12.3 million households in the U.S. by 2010.  So there’s a chance yet that it will someday become a mainstream medium. But right now it seems there’s little evidence to merit all the bloviating we’ve been hearing from podcast evangelists.

Podcasting museum guides

From an interesting article in the New York Times about another subversive use of podcasting.

If you soak up the Jackson Pollocks at the Museum of Modern Art while listening to the museum’s official rented $5 audio guide, you will hear informative but slightly dry quotations from the artist and commentary from a renowned curator. (“The grand scale and apparently reckless approach seem wholly American.”)

But the other day, a college student, Malena Negrao, stood in front of Pollock’s “Echo Number 25,” and her audio guide featured something a little more lively. “Now, let’s talk about this painting sexually,” a man’s deep voice said. “What do you see in this painting?”

A woman, giggling, responded on the audio track: “Oh my God! You’re such a pervert. I can’t even say what that – am I allowed to say what that looks like?”

Hmmm… An interesting way to bring younger generations back to great art?

Apple and podcasting

Podcasting is an interesting development, but currently is not for the technologically naive user. Steve Jobs has announced that within two months Apple’s iTunes will offer support for podcasts. Lots of people are pondering what this might mean. Here’s Eric Hellweg on the subject.