I've never been precisely sure what about the iPod inspired people to finally notice the microphone jack on the backs of their computers, but Apple certainly wasted no time in taking credit for the apparently immaculately conceived podcasting phenomenon.
After a dozen years of internet radio wandering through the obscurity with neither audience nor credibility, Apple's backing married the arrogance of the average Joe with corporate America's desire to keep copyrighted materials out of the untamed and unpaying. Podcasting, which was once simply known as recording audio into a digital format, finally lets you listen to someone's MySpace page from the comfort of an interstate traffic jam.
Listen, I am a freelance writer. I have my very own blog, like everyone else on the planet. I even co-host a largely ignored podcast of my own, so I'm certainly as culpable to the self-centered mentality of the internet as anyone else. I am, in true internet tradition, an unapologetic hypocrite, critiquing the foibles of online doctrine while at the same time fully indoctrinated myself, but with the surge of podcasts we should be aware of their unintended effects.
As podcasts gain recognition and credibility - as much as user created content can gain credibility - companies inevitably feel compelled to address and participate. Within our own gaming sphere that means media outlets like Games for Windows, Gamespot, IGN, 1UP and pretty much everyone you've heard of are forced to start their own podcasts. And by necessity the must populate those podcasts with original content. This means the finite amount of actual content already stretched thin through blogs, magazines, news feeds and websites is stretched just a little bit thinner. The interview with Dave Jaffe becomes a video-podcast rather than a feature article. The preview of Command & Conquer 3 is broadcasted rather than written.
In terms of large sites, the difference is hardly noticed, but the further down the food chain you go the more one medium is sacrificed for the sake of the other. But why should the delivery method matter? So what if an article is delivered by audio instead of written on a website? Doesn't that just broaden the potential delivery of that content?
The problem lies in the visual and text-based foundation of the internet itself. Search engines, for example, have no technology in place to provide context for audio content. Google, Yahoo, MSN - they can't provide reliable results on the increasing amount of audiovisual content, and that means one of the most significant strengths of the internet, the ability to search and surf online by keywords within texts, is rendered ineffective. Until companies can create some kind of search crawler for audio content, podcasting subverts quick and easy searchable data.
But, there's a larger issue I take with podcasts. They are, all too often, unscripted, unrehearsed and diminished by the instantaneous and usually wandering nature of speech. Say what you will about reporting on the internet, but the very act of writing something down, particularly something that is fed through any kind of editorial process, forces the author to exert more thought into what he's trying to convey. Writing allows for revision, where speech allows only for backtracking. The level of discourse online is already considered haphazard enough, so the growth of a medium that discourages crafting reasonable arguments, relishes in off-the-cuff remarks and fosters a one-take mentality of discussion, only serves to reinforce the problems that already exist.
As with any medium, there are excellent podcasts available, many of which employ the strengths of broadcasting with a format that makes sense. And, also as with any medium, these outstanding broadcasts are not necessarily the norm. Podcasting certainly has its place, and its own popularity proves it has an audience, but as a delivery method of meaningful data it has yet to be either broadly accessible or generally worthy. It is a phenomenon populated too often by sarcasm in the place of criticism, vulgarity in the place of wit, unsubstantiated statements of fact in the place of research and hyperbole in the place of reason, which is to say it suffers from all the problems already inherent to the internet, and it magnifies them.