Podcasting and the Meta Argument

At BarCampVancouver, Ryan Cousineau[wiredcola] led a session called “Sturgeon’s Revelation”[wiki]. The idea that “ninety percent of everything is crud” was the center piece of this session, applying it to pretty much everything that exists in the world of Web 2.0[wiki]. The main topic of focus, however, was podcasting[wiki].

Darren Barefoot made a recent post regarding social networks and podcasting, citing that the resources are not there for the medium as there is for photo, video, or link sharing. This idea speaks a lot to what Cousineau was getting at with his session, and much of his thoughts on the topic is posted on his blog.

When it comes down to it, there is not an easy way to share content within a podcast unless you listen to it. You can’t Google search for information that can be found in a podcast. There are such things as show notes and tags that people apply to the material that they publish, but not everyone does it, nor does everyone do it the same way.

The only solution to this problem is to transcribe podcasts in their entirty so that anyone searching for a topic can locate it in your podcast as well as anywhere else on the web. Quite often, this is where people with low opinions about podcasting derive their argument, and I’ve heard this thought propelled by a lot of bloggers. Yes, blogging is a very quick way of publishing information for the world to read in nearly real time. It is instantly indexed, searchable, and archived.

Generating audio for a podcast can be done in the same way, but often is delayed and ineffective with being timely. The podcast itself, in its raw form, is a bunch of ones and zeros, and no one has developed a way to index the contents of a podcast so that it is searchable across the internet. No matter how great of material that you have in a podcast, some one finding that gem of information inside forty minutes of a mp3 won’t happen unless they download it and listen.

This is where I start to agree with the point that Cousineau is saying and the thoughts presented in Barefoot’s post. The conversation that you can get from podcasting is vastly different for the ones that happen through blogging, Flickr, or YouTube. “Feedback” is the better word for what goes on with a podcast.

I run a WordPress blog to publish my podcast, and then also use this blog to talk about it as well as other topics that I like to publish my thoughts on. Perhaps that’s not the best way to conduct things, but it’s another example of the many ways people conduct podcasts. Feedback comes to me through comments on the website, email to an account that I’ve set up specifically for the podcast, and people can also record their own audio to be included on a future episode.

It’s almost a social network of its own, and a mess of information that becomes difficult to keep track and catalog for search engines, yet alone the producer themselves. I’ve even added myself to a few websites that can be considered social networks for podcasts, such as Odeo, PodNova, and PodShow. I also tossed up a MySpace account for the podcast with the hopes of reaching more listeners and potential musicians that might want their material promoted on my feed.

Even though I have my podcast promoted in all of those places, it’s still difficult to get people to find your podcast. You have to make sure that you have enough data about your podcast listed so people can search the networks effectively and discover your material being the stuff they want to be checking out. There is, still, very little telling them more about what is in every episode that you produce other than the descriptions and tags that you give your stuff.

Roland Tanglao was a part of the same session at BarCampVancouver and presented the following analogy that I agree with, to a certain extent. Podcasting, in its current form, is in the GeoCities or Angelfire phase that we saw in the mid-90’s. It needs to be refined and made into something that is better than many ways that one can network their way to find podcasts to listen to, yet alone the many ways that one person can make their own.

The task is daunting. The medium is consistantly developing. Refining it is like the classic scene from I Love Lucy[wiki] where she’s in the candy factory and can’t keep up with what’s coming down the production line. Everytime someone tries, it might be good enough for a short time and become lacking, or it fails to meet the needs from the start. Be it networking sites, directories, content delivery systems, and even the name itself, podcasting has so many hurdles to solve even after coming so far.

There are directories listing my feed on their site that I don’t even know about. People link directly to the mp3’s from their blogs, can listen to my episodes via streaming on the website, and podcasting networks grab an episode a distribute that around their website for even more people to listen to. It’s great that people out there have so many ways to discover and listen, but without feedback telling you when, where, and how people are listening, you are never really sure what your listener base is.

So how do you solve the meta argument? Do you change the way you enter ID3 tags into mp3’s? Is transcribing the answer? All of those solutions beg for a lot of work that a lot of podcasters are going to not give any consideration to. Many out there will tell you that after editing audio for a couple hours, the last thing you want to do is spend time turning the audio into text.

Cousineau brought forth the idea of transcribing being for the sake of archiving, and I understand where he is going with this. Even if the transcribing comes months or years after the original publish date of a podcast, that text still becomes indexed and searchable for someone looking for the information you provided a long time ago. The idea is something I’m still not excited about doing, but having some slight experience at what it’s like to archive five years of daily radio programs, this premise makes a lot of sense.

Technical jargon put aside, I also have to advocate that pages of text takes away from the artist value that one can create within podcasts. I think this is a dividing line that occurs from those who see podcasting as being a lacking medium compared to what blogging has become. That is not to say that lines of text combined with images does not have artistic value, but there are things that each method can do that the other cannot.

The theatre of the mind is a powerful thing, and text will always have a challenge in presenting the elements that audio can. The same argument can be made about video and audio. Every medium has its own merit. Transcribing text of a conversation within a podcast might not be able to capture that background noise that documents the location or some unknown element that will be insightful to one person and not the next.

It should go without saying that every human being is unique and takes away a different experience than the next person. To some listeners of podcasts, this issue is the last thing on their minds, if not even on the radar. For those who consider themselves in the trenches, this is the exact opposite. I can’t say what percentage of everything is crud, but I know that my opinions on the matter are going to differ from every single person that reads this.

The simple fact is that we have a long way to go. Chances are, it’s going to get even more messy before it starts to straigten out and make sense. I’m doing more with my podcast with these thoughts in mind, but I have only so much time and resources to donate time to all the projects in my life. It is a constant battle.

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