Podcasting is often described as a community, implying that we all should be good neighbours. What does that mean?

The point erupts from time to time (see Scott Roche’s podcast ep “Public Critique” from a few months ago, or John Miereu’s taking-the-Canadian-polite-hat-off, “Social Media: It’s Okay to Rock the Boat!” post), and sparked an interesting discussion on Twitter last night (look for the #podcrit tag). (Aside: if you know of more examples of this kind of discussion out there, please add them in the comments.)

(This is part one of a two-part series that sprung up from that discussion. The second part will follow.)

There were essentially four discussions that came up:

  1. Podcasting needs more real criticism in order to get better. Too much criticism is too soft, and really just supportive fluff.
  2. Podcasting needs to grow the pool of listeners, not just cross-pollinate the listeners we already have. New blood, rather than spreading old blood around.
  3. The notion of “podcasting standards” gets raised — not only in terms of production and content quality, but also in terms of the physical structure of podcasts, the use of tags, and other mechanical things to assist intelligent podcast discovery.
  4. The notion of “genre” has been abused within the podcasting arena; specifically, podcasts aren’t given genres, but “podcasting” is classified incorrectly as a single genre.

(These are my distilling points from the conversation. The discussion ranged quite a bit, and I’m sure I’ve missed something…)

What follows is my consideration of these questions, along with some ideas on what we might do.

To my mind, there are really two different areas of solution here, the human one and the technological one. For the human solution, we need more people to feed back into the community with constructive criticism if we are to improve. We need to be more honest with each other, dig a little deeper and pull out useful things to say rather than just give unquestioning support. It’s time to let the kids grow up, and stop with the unconditional love, and tell them how the world really works.

We need to set some quality standards that are reasonable and helpful, and get them used. We have to tread carefully here, of course, not only because every new podcaster goes through a learning phase and should be allowed to make mistakes (and face fair but not harsh criticism), but also because podcasting itself continues to grow, and new ways of doing things should always be encouraged, even if it breaks any arbitrary guidelines currently established.

How do we do this? Every podcaster (including me!) loves to receive any feedback, but it feels a bit like pulling teeth sometimes. It’s very, very hard to get feedback. Do we make it too hard? The standard tools of feedback are email, voicemail, voicemail-over-email, comments on posts, Twitter, forums, email lists, in-person remarks (very rare!), tip jars, subscription rates, directory ratings/comments, recommendations, promo-swapping…

Isn’t that enough? Numerically, it seems significant, but why then do people not give feedback?

I’ve had a suspicion that the distance between consuming podcasts and remarking on podcasts was too large. We listen to podcasts on our portable device, far removed from our computer or phone. But with the growth of cellphones and (often, free) voicemail lines, this seems less likely. And there’s also the fact that — at least when Uncle Seth wrote “You Don’t Need An iPod” — “68% of people just listen on their desktops”. There’s no distance there.

But then again, I look at my own behavior. I listen to a lot of podcasts — it’s my primary entertainment medium. But how many do I comment on? Um.. Well.. Very few. Even when I have a beef. Sometimes when I have something supportive to say, or a glaring error.

Why? Is it just that I’m a really nice guy, and that all podcast listeners are too nice to respond?

I think it might have something to do with the question we ask our listeners. What is that question?

“What did you think of that episode?”

You know what kind of answer you get to a broad question like that? One of two kinds: a very broad answer, or no answer.

Maybe we need to ask better questions! Maybe we need to make feedback into a little form, asking specific questions.. And then we need to put it on the device itself (somehow).

Imagine the scenario: you play a podcast, and then at the end, it asks: “Please fill out the survey you see on your screen, or press ‘No thanks’ to skip it.”

Yes, it will annoy listeners.. But they will likely provide feedback.

Now, getting this on a device is probably unrealistic… The market is dominated, for better and for worse, by Apple’s iPod. They were moved to include podcasting when it started, but have quickly taken over the marketing of it. This is bad, because Apple has demonstrated little leadership with regards to podcasting. (I’ll feel a little better if it were Google, but only a little..)

So, perhaps a survey at the end of each episode post on your website? It’s a step in the right direction, even if not in-your-face.

And let’s not fall back to the old “standard”, craptacular mechanism of asking to “rate my episode”. That’s the same question as before (“What did you think of that episode?”) only in a simple, braindead, visual, easy-to-respond method.

Beyond all of this, we need more critics in the podcasting world. We need people who will actually say: “This is bad, because …”. The because part is crucial, of course, and the reasons behind it should never be “… because I think his nose looks funny” or something equally trivial. Meaningful criticism is important.

Criticism is hard. It comes and goes. They aren’t necessarily going to be liked, especially when they say things that are negative. It’s been tried before, and there are a smattering of examples still out there. (Remember “Podholes”?)

These critics need to be given more prominence, more celebration, more weight. They are really, really important to improving our craft, but can provide some signposts for people looking for new podcasts. They can also be made up of your existing audience.

Remember that survey? Now aggregate those results from the specific questions, and post the results in a box prominent on your podcast page. Make those who don’t have them conspicuous by their absence. Make having them a badge of honesty, a standard to which we all hold.

(As an aside, there is a problem with any weighting scheme, of course… The numbers “1” and “5” are given too much credence — very little is “all bad” or “all good” — and the numbers in between are seen as failures. This is a cultural problem, unfortunately, but if we can avoid inflated values in podcasting at least, we might have a chance.)

Of course, there is a huge problem with critics: there will never be enough of them. The number of podcasts is “huge” (I still don’t know exactly how many there are out there; it’s an ongoing problem, but estimates of “huge” aren’t going to be wrong). The number of critics will have to be equally huge.

The only way there might be enough critics is if every podcaster becomes a critic. Hey.. wait.. That might work..

Suppose there was a central area for podcast criticism, where people could post critiques and evaluations. Throw in a little Slashdot: critiques could themselves be rated and commented on by the public. Throw in a little Digg: popular reviews push to the top of the stack, get front-page views. Throw a little meta-rating: popular reviewers hold more weight. Throw in a little directory machinations…

This idea needs work, but I think it starts to address the problem. Critics are fractured, isolated, separated. They are lone voices, important, but difficult to find. They need to band together, become a force as big as podcasting, to keep it in check.

If you are on Twitter, use the #podcrit hashtag to become part of the conversation; I’ll continue to monitor it. Otherwise, feel free to comment here, email understandingpodcasting (at) gmail.com or telephone 1-206-203-2292.

I’d like to end this post with the simple “What did you think?” question, but given how much I railed against it as being the lazy way out, let’s try this questionnaire instead:

  1. What role do you think critics do, can and should play in podcasting?
  2. What standards should we try to create for podcasting? What features should we evaluate podcasts on?
  3. If a site specialized in podcast critics, would you visit it? What would you use it for? What features would you be looking for?
  4. Did you find this post to be well written? If not, where do you think it needs improving?
  5. Did you find this post to be factual and coherent? If not, where did the author make mistakes or make giant leaps of logic?
  6. Did you find this post to be too long or too short? Where did the author write too much, or where should the author expand on their ideas?
  7. There were no illustrations in this post. Do you feel that it could have used an illustration or two? What sort of illustrations would have helped?
  8. Have you subscribed to the Understanding Podcasting podcast? If so, how did you find out about it? If not, you can find the subscription button on the right hand side.
  9. Do you know of other blog posts or podcasts which are discussing this material? If so, please list them — specific links are really helpful, but general Google-able information also works. If not, what other material in this area do you think should be addressed?

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