Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pod Pod Pod

I was interested to read on the BBC technology website this week that the number of people listening to podcasts is still relatively small ("12% of US people online had downloaded a podcast"). This surprised me, firstly because that makes me an ‘early adopter’ of this technology, and secondly because podcasting has made positive difference to my life.

The first thing I like about my engagement with podcasting has been how cheap this revolution has been. I bought an old-style iPod shuffle (for my birthday) at a rock bottom price in June. To give you an idea of how unfashionable (and discounted) this pod was at the time the little pack of condom–like cases that protect the Apple-white wonder were the same price.

Initially, I had thought of my present as a good way to listen to music. Like many people, I set about recycling my CD collection into my hard drive. I also bought a few tracks from Apple of embarrassing 'old stuff' that I thought I had in my collection but it turned out that I didn’t. However, one fine day about a week after buying my iPod I decided to browse around the ‘podcast’ directory. I have to be honest and state that I nearly didn’t go any further because the directory took ages to load on to my computer (and I was also somewhat put off by the word 'podcast' itself). However, I did persist and what I found has opened my ears to a number of new opportunities.

Back in June the podcast directory on iTunes appeared to be dominated by US-based technology podcasts. This was not really that surprising because this community are always early adopters and so make a good audience for new platforms. However, I got lucky with my one test subscription because I listened for free to an episode of ‘Inside the Net’ by Leo Laporte and Amber MacArthur that spoke directly to some of the issues raised by the social software session at NLab back in May. However, there was also a human dimension to the interview in this podcast that helped me to engage with the subject.

One of the real strength of podcasting is that you don’t have to miss out on content ( as with most broadcasting models). For example, when I discovered that I enjoyed ‘Inside the Net’ I went 'back in time' and downloaded all the previous episodes. Similarly, you don’t have to miss out on programming going forward in time either. For having subscribed to ‘Inside the Net’ one week, I was delighted to find that he next episode of this podcast plopped into my hard drive the following Tuesday without any effort on my part.

Over the next couple of weeks I noticed a marked change in my behaviour. I started to bookmark my favourite websites with I listened to a cornucopia of new music on and I added a baroque range of extension to my firefox browser. In short, I began to be excited by the web again. However, I also became more productive in my peripatetic working life (as I had found an number of tools that helped to turn the 'media-lab' internet browser into a desktop)

I got lucky with my second subscription as well. I had set my heart on listening to a UK-based podcast and boagworld leapt out of the technology listings.

This is a podcast aimed at website managers etc. Now I am not a website manager. I am also not a website designer. However, I do have a website which serves both as research tool and as a gateway to some of my work. Until recently, I enjoyed website design as a 'hacker' hobby. Honestly, I liked web designing. However, recently I have become aware that there are not enough hours in the day to keep abreast of all the changes in web technology. Similarly, I am not sure that this hobby it is a productive use of my time. Web design has become a specialist activity. However, I am in an economic bind because I can not afford to get some one else to maintain my site. It has become a bit of an digital albatross. Worse still, it has begun to look rather old–fashioned in places (it commits the sin of having a ‘table-based design’ with ‘spaceer gifs’). Rather than serving as ‘shop front’ for my writing it has become a bit of a liability. The challenge now is to keep it up to speed with minimum effort.

I spend far too much of life behind a computer screen. Worse still, I also spend a lot of time reading books and journal articles for work. To be honest, I find myself all 'read-out' by the end of the week so that I don’t even bother to take a printed newspaper anymore because I know that I won’t want to find time to read it. I want to spend what free I have with my child (either that or sleeping and taking vigorous exercise). This is a shame because I find that I miss the shower of serendipity that you get from newspaper or a general interest journal like the Economist. I don't take specialist magazines either. Similarly, I do not get many opportunities to listen to BBC Radio 4 anymore so that I miss the warmth of the well-read word. However, podcasting has changed all that. Now, I go out running with the BBC world service in my ears. I can negotiate the hazards of the M25 with some wise words by Paul Boag about the CSS and web accessibility. This is wonderful because I am getting interesting, focussed content when I want it and in a manner that allows me to get out and about.

Boagworld was also a lucky find because it demonstrated the power of show notes. I can listen to the podcast while out on the road and can then dip into the show notes to make links to the various books or sites that struck a chord. Web links and a life? Is this possible?

More recently, I have become more ambitious in my podcast listening. I am taking conference podcasts from d.construct (care of a boagworld link) and I am enjoying popular science news from the Guardian. I am also subscribing and unsubscribing to free podcasts as I refine my own understanding of my listening tastes. In short, I am browsing the podcast world in a manner similar to my RSS-driven engagement with the world wide web. Even better, I am enjoying having a light-weight, mobile and aural interface with a wide, wide world of content.


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