Observations with Alecks

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What is a podcast?

Whether you listen to them or not, it goes without saying you have some idea of what a podcast is. Maybe you make one yourself. Maybe you use a podcast app to listen to a few regularly. Above all else, you've likely heard something along the lines of “did you hear about that podcast?” It's part of our culture.

Yet, while there is general agreement that podcasts exist, is there agreement on the definition?

Podcast (noun):

An audio programme produced on a regular basis, delivered over the Internet in a compressed digital format and designed for playback on computers or portable digital audio players, such as the iPod. — WiktionaryInterestingly, users removed “RSS feed” from the definition in 2014

a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet — Merriam-Webster

a digital audio or video file or recording, usually part of a themed series, that can be downloaded from a website to a media player or computer — Dictionary.com

A series of digital media files distributed over the internet to which a user can subscribe by means of a syndication application. — The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition

All of these touch on technically relevant descriptions of how a podcast is distributed or the medium in which it's distributed and still completely fail to describe the culturally disruptive phenomenon podcasts have become. When you casually converse about a podcast with someone chances are low that you're talking about the particularities how you listened to it — unless you're deeply involved in the surrounding ecosystem of podcast creation, hosting, or application development.

Even more, none of these definitions are in agreement. Sometimes podcasts are regularly produced, themed, audio, video, subscribed to, automatically downloaded, or... music?

Categories

Like anything else in the world, people like to assign podcasts to categories. The current state of the podcast category system is sort of like Yahoo's web directory, which was from the mid-1990s.

Some applications have come up with a few methods of search, but usually nothing is super reliable without a lot of curation. Otherwise you are either given a specific podcast name to look up, or a creator, having put a keyword on their podcast, might get lucky and have their podcast trending under the keyword they used. Maybe you're looking for something new and use the category to discover it during browsing.

Take music, for example. Listen Notes has a music category for music podcasts. It's great at first glance, but go through a few to find something new and you'll realize there's a problem.

The Is-About problem

Categories given on podcasts only tell you what the podcast is about, not what the podcast is. Browsing through the podcast “music” category, you will find podcasts both about music and podcasts that are music.

Tailored user experiences

When you set out to do an activity, you typically expect that activity to remain consistent until you're done with it. Music listening and podcast listening affect your brain differently, after all.

Mixing the two activities is relegated to specific types of playlists, like Spotify's automatically generated “Your Daily Drive.” When the content is mixed, you expect it.

Spotify is only able to do this by requiring creators to identify their content as music or podcasts up front. Even some existing podcast music experiences depend on specific RSS feeds.

No wonder it's confusing to define what a podcast is! The assumption is — unless you have the ability to specifically force people onto your platform and categorize your content appropriately — any RSS feed serving audio media is just a “podcast.” But, given the Is-About problem, we know that's not true.

If we had a way to identify music separately from podcasts in a decentralized manner, we would automatically provide a way to search for music without getting it mixed up in our podcasts. One might even develop an application specifically to listen to music served from RSS feeds.

Podcasting 2.0

How does this fit into Podcasting 2.0? Dave Jones, from Podcast Index, states the following:

Podcasting 2.0 is a set of forward looking ideas combined with the technology to realize them. It's a vision for what the podcast listener experience can and should be. That experience has stagnated for over a decade, with almost all of the improvements coming in isolated sections of the ecosystem. There hasn't been a single, unified vision from the podcasting community acting together with one voice. So, we've ended up with fragments of innovation across the podcasting landscape with no central driving goal in mind. Podcasting 2.0 is the expression of what that goal could be.

The original movement of “Podcasting” took the concepts of radio-oriented audio programs and disrupted an industry. While RSS has been used successfully for other things like blogs and news, efforts beyond radio-oriented audio have largely stagnated while the internet ecosystem moved forward.

Podcasting 2.0 is the second wave of this disruption. Documentarians can release new documentaries without worrying about censorship for promoting controversial ideas or lost revenue from simply being unglamorous. Video creators can work with hosts to distribute their content without covering it in unwanted, unrelated advertisements. Authors can get their work out to their audience without being stomped on by big tech. Independent musicians can take back control of their content and their income streams.

Your audience wants your content. They do not care how they get to it as long as it's a reasonable experience and will even reward you for your content if they find it valuable.

In Podcasting 2.0, this content is available to any application. Not just the ones the “platforms” allow you to use.

Source of truth

But, Podcasting? Some may be asking, what about [insert other standard or platform here]? I'm a big fan of ActivityPub, for example. Blockchain tech is very promising to solve otherwise hard global problems.

But the key differentiator is RSS XML has remained an open, valuable, and uncomplicated way to to define what content you have available to any application that wants to see it. Any person with a computer can reasonably create an application that reads RSS.

The fact that RSS features have largely stagnated over the past decade or more isn't due to any fault of RSS itself — no one has stepped up nor had the momentum to unify the community. After all, doing things in the open for everyone requires a certain level of agreement on how to make new features available. It just so happens enough of us have decided we're not gonna take this anymore.

RSS remains a source of truth for content — not just podcasts — but we're missing a way to identify non-podcasts.

The Podcast Namespace

If you haven't kept up — or, perhaps, just haven't heard — part of the Podcasting 2.0 movement is to extend RSS to make new features available. Finally, after nearly two decades.

Given the Is-About problem identified above, one thing we need to add to The Podcast Namespace is a way to identify content outside of its category. I've written a basic proposal to get the process started, but we need much more discussion on such a critical idea.

It's prudent for us to identify content for the purpose of a user experience but also for the application. The fact is, some content will use more/different Podcast Namespace features than others. For example, some in our community are looking at how to tell an application that a feed is an audio tour.

An “audio tour” is a type of “podcast” that has location markers for a user to follow along while listening. The only way to identify if something is an audio tour right now is to, well, scan all of the millions of available podcasts to check or simply guess. This works but is unreasonable to any user or developer.

Developers

Particularly, we need developers to get engaged. We already know content creators exist for the content discussed, many of whom are struggling to get by working on their passion projects.

Once we can come to a conclusion about how to identify this content, applications can be created to use it. Podcast applications already exist, but using them to listen to anything outside of a “podcast” is a poor user experience. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, podcasts are the main thing RSS has been used for.

Music and audiobooks have gained a little more traction because they “fit” into existing applications, but mixing them into “podcasts” is often just messy. It's a different experience even if they are all just “audio.”

The concept isn't limited to audio, either. Video has been available as “vodcasts” for a long time, but it tends to be an afterthought in podcast applications. That's partially because there simply aren't a lot of video RSS feeds, and hosting video is more difficult than hosting audio; but there's also no standard way to identify if a feed is primarily for videos without guessing.

Some have already talked about how to create feeds for cooking recipes, too. This is a completely new concept. Imagine having a recipe application that can use content from other people anywhere in the world without you having to browse through a search engine and loading questionable advertisements... all while hoping the recipe is displayed in a reasonable manner. With value4value, you could even reward these chefs for their recipe from the app.

Telling the application what a feed is for is arguably more important than telling the user. The user either already knows what they are looking for or are looking for ways to discover something new. They don't care if your parmesan chicken recipe is distributed in the same way as their favorite comedy podcast.

Conclusion

Whether it's limited to a culturally significant idea of people talking about things sort of like an old-time radio show, or a method of distribution of digital media, we're not here to decide what “podcast” means.

Importantly, with Podcasting 2.0, we finally have a way forward to identify other types of content in a socially-relevant, meaningful way while allowing creators to control and distribute said content to their audience.

Right now, most of this content consists of typical podcasts. We are working together to change that. Let's stop waiting for others to do it for us.

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