Observations with Alecks

music

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?

Overcomplication

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.

Medium

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.

It's Space-Grade!

Stop worrying

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.

#podcasting20 #rss #podcasts #music #films #audiobooks

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.

#podcasting20 #rss #music #audio #video #bitcoin