Podcasting 2.0 – When Semantics Matter
Diving into controversy
If you know anything about me, you know I'm a very technical person. I am often the first person to point out when someone is merely arguing semantics that have no impact on a technical solution.
Perhaps stirred by the news that Anchor is only creating RSS feeds for its podcasts if users request one, James Cridland of Podnews recently responded about the semantics of “What is a podcast?“
An argument about the benefits of an open ecosystem certainly helps.
However, it’s probably not too helpful to tell people who have just spent an hour listening to their favourite podcast on YouTube that, in fact, they’ve not been listening to a podcast. Because they have.
My last post even led with the exact same question. I'd go as far to say and agree that a podcast doesn't require an RSS feed. From a technical perspective, it's all semantics; one could implement the exact same functionality without RSS feeds and still keep it open.
The fact is an RSS feed is a standardized data interchange format. The tradition of using data within RSS feeds to supply audio files and other contextual information within an open ecosystem has worked well for the last nearly two decades, and there's no reason to stop.
But something phenomenal happened.
Falling for fallacy
For better or worse, the cultural phenomenon known as “podcasts” has outgrown its original technological implementation.
Reasons and motivations for this aside, it means podcasts have won. They've become more than an implementation detail. They are a modern representation of a cultural idea which has transcended what any single entity can control; that's the point.
Arguing about whether or not an RSS feed is required for this talk/theater-oriented, on-demand audio experience is merely a distraction. Organizations will either use it or they wont.
It's on us to keep the general art of podcasting open as a platform for free speech, available for all when the closed platforms ultimately fall apart. The proposition that podcasts don't require RSS feeds — while an effort I otherwise disagree with — wholeheartedly validates the Podcasting 2.0 movement by affirming RSS is for more than podcasts.
But how do we add more than podcasts? What if I want to create an application that utilizes RSS for films or music?
If you're like me, many of you are thinking about nerdy tech-details of hosting or client-side implementation of new features. I get it. These concepts are new and non-trivial.
But we need to slow down. Before we can figure out what kind of data or user experience is needed for something like films, we need a way to know what's classified as a film. It's more than just a video file, and it's often a different user experience from watching YouTube or a television show.
Ask anyone if the film “Pulp Fiction” (pretend it's in an RSS feed) is a video podcast and you're likely to get either very confused looks or laughter, even if the delivery mechanism is fundamentally the same. But the same person knows films aren't limited to distribution on VHS tapes or DVDs.
Similarly, the move away from a definition of a podcast that mandates the use of an RSS feed makes the problem easier for us.
A long-solved problem
Users already know what they want. Even if they can't give you a definition of what it is, they know how to find it. Long before the internet — even electricity — people had stories around fires, cave paintings, town squares, theaters, books, newspapers... Currently these experiences are primarily, or at least most obviously, realized through different levels of applications or social media.
TikTok is the most obvious recent example of this phenomenon. It's not the company that made it popular, either; video shorts have been around for years, perhaps most notably from Snapchat.
It turns out semantics have already solved this problem for us. The distinction between the application and the medium they represent is a subtle, yet, significant point.
The medium is the message because it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action. The content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association. Indeed, it is only too typical that the “content” of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.
— Marshall McLuhan (Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964, p. 9)
Podcasts are a medium in their own right. Why not embrace it?
The construct of podcasts as a medium offers us a new, powerful opportunity: We can, at once, define a podcast beyond its technological implementation and use this concept to logically distribute other mediums within the same system of podcasts while not adversely affecting existing podcast applications.
We can use this idea to offer applications discoverability of mediums, existing or new, and give said applications hints at how to handle the content distributed by these mediums beyond only knowing how to handle an audio or video file.
Films and audiobooks might just be one item per RSS feed, because that's how users expect these mediums to behave. You don't typically search for the studio that creates a film when you want to watch the film — you search for the film itself.
Music, which technically plays fine in any existing podcast player, is often grouped into singles or albums but a user might prefer to follow the artist for new content.
The above user experience scenarios are only possible with knowledge of the medium — something which is already happening within the ecosystem of applications and websites but has yet to be called out explicitly within a content distribution framework.
Inversion of control
This isn't only for films, music, podcasts, or audiobooks. The mere standardization of data in an extensible, open, decentralized ecosystem with a method of practical real time updates opens up a whole new world of applications.
If someone has a new idea for a medium that doesn't exist yet, or they want to take an existing medium that's been locked into proprietary applications, it's as simple as defining it and showing the world. Why not take the concept of “video shorts” and open them up to the floodgates of reasonable competition?
As unlikely a scenario as it is, TikTok, Instagram, or even Spotify could just be hosting companies for video shorts, photographs, or music, respectively.
The inversion of control for applications to implement or define a medium without worrying about economies of scale within a decentralized ecosystem is possibly the most disruptive concept in technology since the creation of the World Wide Web.
For all we know, Adam Curry may well one day be clutching the last podcast of its kind within his cold hands, but a medium-agnostic, adaptable, open ecosystem laid out by Podcasting 2.0 will live on forever.
Podcasts have grown beyond their original technological implementations that solved very specific problems into a medium in their own right.
Now is the time to extend the same courtesy of the open ecosystem to other mediums and take our own advice:
Stop worrying about the closed systems. We've already won.