Two-way public media

By the time Dave Winer asked me to listen to his talk at the recent Public Media conference, it was too late — I’d already heard it on a drive to the airport Saturday morning. It is an inspired (and inspiring) discussion of what can and should happen at the intersection of podcasting, public media, and democracy.

Of the many themes that resonate powerfully with me, the one I want to focus on here is the idea of two-way public media. That can mean a few different things. One of the meanings Dave highlights is that the device which downloads and plays podcasts can also record and upload them, without being tethered to a computer.

Another meaning is that listeners become programmers, or rather, deejays, or better yet, webjays. Back in 2004 I became fascinated with Lucas Gonze’s webjay.org, which hasn’t changed much since then, or since its Jan 2006 acquisition by Yahoo.

In a December 2004 podcast, one of my first — and one of only a few that’s in the style of a story rather than an interview — I imagined how Napster-like collaborative recommendation would play out in a post-Napster world, thanks to the proliferation of free and legally-shareable audio, and to services like Webjay that would encourage and assist with annotation and remixing.

Things haven’t really turned out that way, at least not yet. Webjay remains a boutique offering. The dominant Internet audio applications — iTunes and Windows Media Player — optimize for consumption of commercial audio, not for production of free and legally-shareable audio. And by production I don’t mean just the ability to record and upload. What matters as much or more is the ability to annotate, curate, and share.

In the textual blogosphere we’re all webjays. When we find good stuff, it’s natural and straightforward to collect it, comment on it, and stream our remixed versions of it back to the blogosophere.

It’s nothing like that in the realm of Internet audio. Like others, I’m disappointed that Windows Media Player 11 does not support podcatching — I shouldn’t need to install iTunes on a Windows box to acquire that capability — but that’s a tangential point. More importantly, neither iTunes nor WMP11 invites me to annotate, curate, and share.

That’s largely because, as Dave correctly notes in his talk, the design center for these Internet audio platforms is music, and in particular, commercial music. There’s a very different kind of Internet audio, the kind that NPR mostly is, that ITConversations is, that my Friday podcast series is: commentary and discourse.

What could the mainstream platforms do to support this kind of Internet audio? They could offer blog this features. They could make quotation of audio as easy and natural as quotation of text. They could embrace and popularize the Webjay idea of shareable, remixable playlists.

For most people, of course, playlists are about music. When I made my open source audio podcast back in 2004 I was inspired by my favorite webjay, Oddio Katya, whose wonderful monthly Tunes in Overplay playlists have happily resurfaced after a long hiatus. A couple of years ago I imagined that, by now, there would be a flock of webjays like Katya, and that they would be helping me tap into the growing reservoir of free and legally-shareable music.

But iTunes and WMP11 aren’t designed to inspire future Oddio Katyas to curate and share what is freely available. And while I wish things were otherwise, I can understand why they’re not. The music business and the technology business are intertwined, and it is in neither party’s interest to facilitate the kinds of alternatives that the Internet invites and enables.

As Dave points out in his talk, though, there’s no such conflict of interest in the realm of public discourse. So there’s no reason why iTunes and Windows Media Player shouldn’t make it easy for me to create a playlist of his talk, and one of my own public radio commentaries, and a PopTech lecture from ITConversations, and a Long Now talk, and a LibriVox reading, and a Berkeley lecture, and then share that playlist on the web — where I can watch it morph as other people mix in related material that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own.

It’s possible today to treat public-interest audio and video as two-way media in this sense, but you have to be a bit of a propeller-head. I’d love to see that capability democratized, and I’d love to see my team take the lead in making it happen.

6 Comments

  1. Have you looked at Vodpod yet? http://www.vodpod.com/ It looks like they do parts of what you’re describing. I don’t think they do quotation of audio/video. I don’t think they do audio at all, for that matter. I found them via a widget provided for free w/ WordPress.com blogs. And, right now I just used them to quickly share videos that I like in the sidebar of my blog.

    I don’t think I’m leveraging the power of what Vodpod offers, nearly as much as I could. But, I’m not going to try either. Why? I’m not going to spend the energy it takes to get all my friends on that service and then get them all to do the cool stuff. It’s the same reason that MySpace is popular, because everyone is using it. It certainly is not because of their features or smooth way “everything just works”. Heavens no! MySpace totally sucks that way and I would never use it, except that I find many other people there and there is an existing network of people.

    This brings me to my long-winded point. Many cool ideas like two-way media make a ton of sense, and I really hope they succeed, and I think they will. But, it will take the strength and power of monopoly technologies forced on us, or really popular but pretty sucky ones that we end up using just because that’s where everyone else is already. For that matter, go Windows Media! (no comment on former/latter there) ;) Clearly there is plenty of work to be done.

  2. I agree with Toby that Vodpod is interesting. In particular, the ease of publishing a play list or “theme thread” in a widget is critical. I have enjoyed listening to music that Fred Wilson [the VC] likes by clicking on the StreamPad widget on the left side of his blog at http://avc.blogs.com. I got to hear three great versions of “North Country Girl” that way a couple of months ago. Also, he used to have a podcast and he included those mp3s in his StreamPad playlist. I really liked that.

    A very interesting ongoing experiment is bloggingheads.tv. In particular, they are making the extra effort needed to “chunk” their videos. See http://bloggingheads.tv. Then, it’s easy for one of the regulars, Mickey Kaus, to link to a chunk; as he does at: http://www.slate.com/id/2160159/ –> control-F to “blurted”.

    An individual podcast is linear. In contrast, even a single blog entry is usually densely hyperlinked and thus non-linear. It is important to get the bits of a podcast chunked, and thereby made at least somewhat less linear. The YouTube experience suggests that 1-3 minutes is preferred for a chunk.

    In the short run the content creator will need to “chunk their own sound”. However, I can think of partial automations that will permit easier “social chunking”. A podcast capture program with Speech to Text could capture the ASCII of the podcast. The content creator or helper makes a fix up pass on the text and adds paragraph delineations. The podcast capture program is smart enough to note the timestamp of the paragraph delineations and the podcast is chunked and “search tagged” or “literal tagged” after a small effort by the creator, helper, or maybe, the Mechanical Turk. This pass could be fast. If the Speech to Text is “pretty good” the speed of fix up would be quick and I know that if it was me editing, I could add the paragraph demarcs while doing the text corrections “at the same time”.

  3. “I’m not going to spend the energy it takes to get all my friends on that service and then get them all to do the cool stuff.”

    Exactly. I’ve been using, and even creating, niche solutions for a long time. I love them but, as you say, network effects are a challenge. The easiest way to get network effects is to use/create a tool that simply lives in the cloud. Much harder to get a terrestrial tool (if that’s a valid analogy) to cooperate with the cloud. But I think it’s well worth trying.

  4. chunking means indexing and transcribing; blinkx is doing this for video and sound for search purposes and it would be entirely possible to ‘start play 2m 18 sec in and play the initial ad at this point’. It needs a more flexible attitude to content from the content holders. Until we get that level of flexibility, audio demands too much attention and work to be easily referenced.

  5. “It needs a more flexible attitude to content from the content holder”

    It’s hard, though, given the fragmentation of media technologies, formats, and standards. There’s the downloading vs streaming axis, on the one hand. And even within streaming, there are multiple technologies. An earlier comment referenced the chunked videos at bloggingheads.tv. Here’s the actual request for one of those chunks:

    GET /asx.php?url=mms://70.86.190.50/…/BM-300.wmv&in=2748&out=3205

    That’s for Windows Media. Analogous mechanisms exist for QuickTime and Real and Flash. Supporting mixtures of these mechanisms requires heavy-duty centralized infrastructure that will inhibit the grassroots spontaneity and vitality we’ve seen at the intersection of blogging and podcasting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s