Podcasting—the platform battle

aPicture of young man wearing headphones by Gauthier DelecroixIf podcasting is going to become a real business it’s going to have to leave the commercial dark ages behind, evolve some more sophisticated audio platforms and —let’s face it— pick a winner. This is the second of two posts about the evolution of podcasting. Part one is about the explosion of new formats.

How did we get here?

One of the geeky pleasures of the audio boom is the secret knowledge that the whole teetering, upside-down pyramid of podcasting stands on the back of a simple technology that’s nearly twenty years old.

It’s called RSS (which stands for Really Simple Syndication) and it was designed as the simplest possible way to share content on the early web —a way to publish lists of links to stories so that other web sites could receive them automatically. We use the word ‘feed’ when we talk about RSS and that makes it all sound very active —as if you’re firing your content out into the cloud when you create one —but an RSS feed is really just a regularly-updated list with a URL— a text file that’s so simple you could create one yourself, right now, if you felt like it.

RSS is simple and it’s not perfect —in its origin it was almost the definition of ‘quick and dirty’— but it’s been exceptionally effective. It’s impossible to calculate the number of articles and episodes shared via RSS since the late 90s, and, although you may not know it, you’ve certainly used it —you’ll use it today, in fact.

And the lovely, unforeseeable breakthrough that made podcasting happen was a minor tweak to RSS (thank you, Dave Winer) that allowed publishers to add media files to their article feeds. Suddenly you could syndicate your store of audio files (and video, for that matter), turning it into a globally available broadcast channel with hardly any effort. Then, in 2005 when Apple allowed users to plug these RSS feeds into iTunes, the idea of ‘subscribing’ to a podcast was born and the whole thing took off.

But the simplicity that produced the extraordinarily dynamic DIY content industry we call podcasting has also radically limited it. This passive, statelesspublish and subscribe’ model means that publishers can know essentially nothing about who is on the other side of the transaction, downloading the audio. So, while creativity in podcast formats and content is essentially out of control, innovation in distribution, ad-tech and in understanding audiences has hardly begun.

The upside, of course, is that Podcastland, at least so far, is a near-Utopia for privacy and freedom fans. The simplicity of RSS effectively inoculated podcasting against intrusive ads, data harvesting, fingerprinting and the rest of the miserable ad-tech toolbox. At least for the time being, subscribing to a podcast is the least compromising thing you can do online. In the increasingly predatory 21st Century digital marketing landscape, RSS is a glorious 20th Century anachronism. Long may it last, cry the listeners.

For podcasters and advertisers, though, the technology is irritatingly non-dystopian. It lacks some really basic features that they’re going to need if it’s going to become a real business, a self-funding medium in its own right.

What’s wrong with podcasting now?

User data is laughably thin. There’s some subscriber data locked up in Apple’s servers but, even if you could get it, it’d be close to useless, at least from a voracious ad-tech perspective. Podcast owners can now get nice-looking listening graphs from Apple and your own server data will tell you how often each episode is downloaded but that’s essentially it. There is no equivalent for the insane level of detail you get from Facebook Insights or Google Analytics.

You’ll learn nothing useful about how people listen. Want to know where your subscribers listen? What time of day? What they’re doing on their phones while they listen? Are they running? Commuting? On holiday? And what else are they listening to? Sorry. Not happening (you can ask them, though).

You can’t serve ads with any kind of intelligence —no pre-rolls or mid-rolls, no dynamically served audio at all— so no holiday ads during the commute, no Bisto ads on the way home and no control over frequency or day part. No geotargeting, no retargeting, no tracking, no spookily accurate robo-ads, no personalisation of any kind. For the time being it’s mattress ads all the way down.

But, of course, this low-tech Eden —this splendid anachronism —is not long for this world. Be sure, the ad-tech is coming, and it’s not just commercial podcasters who want to personalise audio —public service media will want access to these tools too.

The new audio platforms are already here

There’s a generation of new podcast hosting platforms. They’re offering podcasters a way to understand their audiences and —finally —to make some money. These new platforms deal with the holes in RSS by, well, getting rid of it all together. Run a search at tech business portal Techcrunch for “new podcast platform” and you’ll get a list of a dozen new and evolving businesses —ACast, Megaphone, Anchor, BuzzSprout, Stitcher… The business models vary but the pitch is obvious. In a hundred boardrooms, this week, someone will say— “audio is the new video, something, something, true crime podcasts are like crack for millennials, something, something, there’s no Netflix for audio, something, something, the targeted ad opportunity is enormous, something, something…”

So these platforms are going to start acting like platforms. Expect them to fight it out for ownership of the big podcast brands —just like Amazon and Netflix do with the TV brands. The audio business is inevitably going to look more like the crazy mosaic of rights, territories and exclusive deals of the video business. Your latest binge listen will be on ACast or Apple Podcasts or Stitcher but not “wherever you get your podcasts.” And the abandonment of cuddly old, simple old RSS will result in a wave of new and more intrusive ad formats. Get ready for personalised ads, ads that know where you are, ads that follow you from platform to platform and —you’ll like this —ads you can’t skip.

Common sense suggests that even the fancy end of audio is never going to be worth more than a decent fraction of the video streaming business but the investors diving into podcasting now are serious about it and want to build a business with real scale. And, let’s be honest, it’s in everyone’s interest for them to succeed —the mattress ads are not going to sustain a heterodox commercial audio ecology for long and the planet’s already stretched public service providers certainly can’t do it on their own.

Realism (and good evidence from the rest of digital media) also tells us that although we’d love to see a hundred flowers bloom, the audio business is going to pretty quickly shake out to a small handful of big platforms —with one global player making the rules, setting prices, shaping supply.

Can we take an educated guess as to who that will be, though? Which of the handful of serious-looking platforms will dominate podcasting?

So who’s going to win podcasting?

All right, I’m just going to say it: it’s going to be Amazon (I’m taking bets —leave a comment if you want some of the action). “But hold on”, I hear you say, “Amazon’s audio platform is called Audible. It’s a repurposed audiobook catalogue and, despite years of effort, they haven’t made even a tiny dent on the non-audiobook business. An audio outsider like Amazon doesn’t stand a chance!”

You’re right, of course. They’re slow off the mark and Audible itself is a pretty charmless environment in which to win over the next generation of audio nuts. There’s even a reasonable chance that Amazon will just ignore the podcast revolution all together, write the whole thing off and focus on the Billions they make from retail, video and web services. But I doubt it. Here’s why it’ll be Amazon that wins podcasting:

They’re everywhere. Amazon apps —shopping, video, music, Kindle, Alexa —have hundreds of millions of installs between them. Installed on audio-ready devices and pre-loaded with credit card numbers and a detailed purchase history.

They have a billing relationship with millions of people. There are around 90M Amazon Prime accounts in the US and it’s estimated that each spends $1,300/year with Amazon (about a third of UK households are already paying members). Few have even a fraction of Amazon’s customer base, let alone paying customers. Audible itself is a subscription platform that’s cross-promoted to Prime subscribers and Amazon has made clever use of cross-promotion in launching a dozen other services over the years.

They know how to sell media to millennials. They’re no Netflix but Amazon Prime Video already reaches millions of people in podcasting’s demographic sweet spot. Audible, in fact, already commissions a small number of ‘original audio series’ (they don’t call them podcasts, of course) and cross-promoting them to the company’s other audiences will effortlessly produce the kind of listening figures that most podcasters would kill for.

They own the most promising new interface to the global store of audio. Echo is the best of the voice-controlled devices and it’s already in 11% of US homes (an adoption rate that looks similar to that of radio in the 1920s). Better yet, it turns out that audio is one of the most popular services among users (according to this RadioPlayer research, from the UK, radio is the most popular category of audio on ‘smart speakers’). The affordances are perfectly aligned. Who knew?

Their platform will permit all the scary ad-tech. No dependence on sad old RSS here so there’s nothing stopping Amazon from dynamically serving you ads, right into the audio stream —and all targeted with insane precision, because…

…let’s face it, they know everything. It’s not clear exactly what information the Audible app captures as you listen but it’s safe to assume that —in addition to Amazon’s detailed understanding of what you like to buy— they know where and when you’re listening, how often you listen, how far you get through a download, how many sessions it takes you to complete a listen. And it would be trivially easy for Audible to capture a more detailed picture, using the sensors in your smartphone to learn what you listen to while you’re working out, while you’re commuting, on your lunch break, in the woods, on an aeroplane, in bed, in the vicinity of a military base

This level of detail —especially if passed on to producers— would profoundly change podcasting, becoming the primary influence on choice of formats, voices, themes and styles across the business —just as it has in journalism and video. More, it might secure commercial viability for an industry that, frankly, still looks shaky.

The only question, for Amazon, is going to be “how much is this worth?” If podcasting turns out to be worth a tenth of video streaming, it might be worth the engineering and marketing effort to relaunch Audible as a podcasting platform. If it’s a hundredth, they’ll hesitate and may not even bother. And, incidentally, this may explain why Amazon has been slow to capitalise on Audible’s ubiquity. Is Amazon holding back because their data tells them that podcasting’s just not worth it? I do hope not.

Bonus episode

I’m aware that I’ve left out some fairly important platforms. Not because I don’t think they’re important, although, actually, I don’t think they are quite as important. But I accept that some of these stories are going to be as interesting and influential as the big ones above…

Spotify’s Podcast offer is pretty rich but it sits alongside music uncomfortably —and there are some pretty hideous interface issues. The Swedes are about to raise a lot of money via an unusual direct listing on the NYSE, though and they could choose to blow a chunk of that money expanding their catalogue of commissioned audio content (and tidying up the UI). That would be interesting in itself, because it would represent an opportunity for institutional and retail investors to get involved in the next generation of podcasting platforms pretty directly.

Meanwhile, Who We Be, a new podcast tied to one of the platform’s big urban music playlists and presented by British DJ and broadcaster DJ Semtex, is probably a model for the next wave of speech audio from Spotify.

Soundcloud is also a podcasting company. Their stock of audio is enormous and the “wherever you get your podcasts” model means that lots of producers publish their stuff on Soundcloud automatically. But the money Soundcloud raised in 2017 is going to be devoted to keeping the company afloat and finding new focus. Building a new podcast brand is off the to-do list.

Google’s approach to podcasting is to make it another checkbox on the long list of services you can access via the mobile app. This checkbox approach commodifies the business, though, and makes it difficult to build a big, prominent brand. But we probably shouldn’t rule them out: they’ve already commissioned at least one original podcast series (although it seems to be on hiatus).

Apple’s podcast app got better in 2017. The data available to producers also improved. And no other platform can match the support the company’s podcast teams supply to producers in big markets. The charts and category pages they curate remain the primary way of finding the good stuff for listeners. There’s an obvious opportunity for Apple to convert this epic organic advantage (and a tiny shred of that enormous cash pile) into a serious new commissioning platform —although the company’s careful progress into video commissioning is probably a good guide to how this will unfold (Apple has commissioned eight TV series since hiring Jay Hunt in October last year, though).

Smartphone apps are very interesting (they’ll need a post of their own, really). They’re interesting because they can deliver a lot of the important platform benefits —a logged-in experience, dense listening data, recommendation and discovery, even a billing relationship —while piggy-backing the existing RSS-and-string-based infrastructure. No need to reengineer the distribution layer. These apps depend on the continued availability of content via the old RSS infrastructure, though, so if the big podcasts disappear into walled gardens, their catalogues will shrink and they’ll be left with only the DIY end of the market.

The podcast category in your app store is packed with interesting apps —some of which have been there for years and some of which promise an improved experience for listeners and even some income for producers (if you’re using one of these apps and you like it, leave a comment —I’d love to know which apps are doing this right).

The podcasting boom will support a complex services ecology. Lots of smaller businesses —usually with a national or niche focus —are providing services to the flourishing DIY end of the business. Hosting, audience measurement, editing, audio optimisation and —in some cases —advertising/sponsorship services. This is a good sign —a complex services ecology = a viable industry. Some of these businesses will try to scale up to become platforms. One or two might actually achieve it.

The BBC and other big broadcasters and publishers are in a tricky position. They feel an obligation to participate in the audio explosion. Some, of course, are grizzled pioneers in this business —try to count the number of online audio products launched by NPR, The Guardian and the BBC over the years and you’ll soon run out of fingers. They have big existing audiences, production talent and engineering know-how to bring to the game but they can’t easily challenge the mega-platforms on range or promotional clout. This is going to get interesting.

The first of this series of posts about podcasting is about the creative battle. Also read my 11 essentials for the modern podcast.

Picture by Gauthier Delecroix, on Flickr.

Podcasting—welcome to the symphonic era

This is not about the 90% of podcasts that are still three people at a table talking about something. Nor is it about all those podcasts that are basically a byproduct of radio production. It’s about the new stuff—the bigger, glossier, narrative formats that are going to change audio and storytelling for good. This is part one of a two-part series. Part two is about the platform battle and you should also read my 11 essentials for the modern podcast.

Podcasting is evolving fast. There’s a strong sense that we’ve passed some kind of tipping point, that this is how we’re going to consume audio (the stuff that isn’t live radio or music anyway) from now on. The creative battle is under way—formats, genres and production norms are all in play. The platform battle—who will distribute this stuff, who will own the payment gateway and the relationship with the customer—is about to begin (more about that bit in my next post).

Storytelling formats are going to set the tone and dominate the fancy end of podcasting. The iconic 2018 podcast is going to be a true story told using the techniques of fiction. Netflix is our model here, not a radio station. And things are moving fast. Serial —the groundbreaking hyper-addictive episodic story that started all this—already sounds old-fashioned, under-powered. But these formats are expensive and there’s a premium on scarce production talent so only well-funded organisations can play. That means it’ll probably be the three-letter incumbents (BBC, NPR, ABC…) and the newer, specialist outfits with their own funding (Panoply, Gimlet, Radiotopia…). The specialists have a significant head start.

Production is rich and multi-layered. This is what I mean by ‘symphonic’. In this podcast category, where Heavyweight, Mogul, Slow Burn and maybe a dozen other big shows live, the pressure to create complex productions —and emotionally rich stories —is going to be enormous. One inspired amateur with a microphone this is not. Resources and talent will be coordinated, teams assembled, walls filled with Post-It Notes. The best of the new generation of podcasts are already made on a pretty grand scale —they’re big productions with credits to match (16 people for this episode of Mogul, 47 for scripted drama Bronzeville —including a cast of 18, a caterer, a historic consultant and two executive assistants). Some of these podcasts are big enough and confident enough to have a ‘making of…’ episode.

There’s a tone of voice, a recognisable tenor, to these bigger, more ambitious podcast stories. Keywords: warm, humane, emotional, generous, personal, authentic. Podcasters like Jonathan Goldstein. Manoush Zomorodi, Roman Mars, Helen Zaltzman (and the form’s honorary Godfather Ira Glass, natch)… have a thoughtful, subjective, ironic way with their material. And in the writing there’s a deliberate continuity with the tradition of serious, crafted, non-fiction storytelling that produced all that amazing 20th century writing —the New Journalism, the whole clever lineage of long-form magazine writing too. Joan Didion in the New York Times Magazine, Hitchens in Vanity Fair…

There’s a ‘big city’, Public Radio, New Yorker feel to this stuff. Nothing rushed or half-baked about symphonic podcasting. This is luxury storytelling for nice people who probably still buy the Sunday papers. Audio that flatters the listener’s intellect and is as likely to make you cry as to smile. Incidentally, of course, all of the symphonic pioneers are American. This is not because they’re any cleverer than the rest of us, but principally because an economic model —venture capital— exists there that can mobilise large amounts of money for speculative productions that may never break even. Everywhere else producers are stretching existing production budgets or bootstrapping like mad. Radio producers, who think they already know all about audio storytelling, are going to have to learn some humility, too. Their skills will be vital but their cottage industry economics won’t.

TBH these formats can sometimes be a bit sickly. If Jonathan Goldstein makes me cry in the first reel again I’m going to unsubcribe; the enveloping sound world of Jad Abumrad’s gripping Supreme Court documentary series More Perfect is so detailed and so rich as to be a little too much. Everything in high-end podcast land is amped-up, slightly overdone. Look over the shoulder of a producer in this part of the market and you’ll see a workstation with dozens of active tracks. There’ll be subtle and engaging sound design, a commissioned score and incidental music and post-production effects. You can almost hear the producer’s titanic effort to fully engage the audience’s feelings. The signature emotional tone of the symphonic era is slightly over-wrought. Or maybe I’m just being too British about this. Anyway, dial it down, gang. No need to lay it on so thick. We can feel it.

Of course, I don’t want to over-do the analysis. Is podcasting evolving into a new and influential journalistic form, with its own shape, its own creative logic and its own economics? Definitely. Will it become grand and influential, will the symphonic era produce a generation of famous voices, writers and producers? Will it shape the culture? Possibly.

So that’s the creative battle. My next is about the platform battle that’s about to begin —who will distribute the new generation of podcasts, who will own the customer relationship and who will make all the money. And further down on this blog, you’ll also find 11 essentials for the modern podcast. Meanwhile, like I said, I think that we listeners are going to spend a lot more time sobbing into our lattes in the symphonic era, so here are:

Five episodes from symphonic era podcasts that will make you cry.

Heavyweight —Isabel (Gimlet). I love Jonathan Goldstein’s Heavyweight. I think it’s the signature symphonic podcast. Even though I’m frankly ashamed of the way he always makes cry (and usually when I’m on my bike, making it all very inconvenient, not to say dangerous). This one’s no exception. Goldstein provides evidence that he can achieve an emotionally complete storytelling experience even when his main character refuses to provide the resolution we all want.

The Allusionist —Joins (Radiotopia/PRX). One of my absolute favourite podcasts, Helen Zaltzman’s The Allusionist is all about language, defined very broadly. She’s evolving the show in a really interesting, dare I say, symphonic direction. This episode is an essentially un-presented sequence of very moving voices from the trans and non-binary community and it will also make you cry).

Ear Hustle —Left Behind (Radiotopia/PRX). This podcast, which came to the world via Radiotopia’s talent search Podquest (more about that here) is a stunning piece of work —my podcast of the year, by a mile. And one of those rare productions —in any medium —that I think stands a chance of producing actual social change. It’s made inside California’s San Quentin Prison. This episode, like I said, will make you cry.

Mogul —August 30, 2012 (Gimlet). Gimlet’s lovingly-made six-part doc about hip hop impresario Chris Lighty. This one (which is the climactic episode, so SPOILERS) will also make you cry. Sorry.

Note to Self —You Deserve to Die (WNYC). Manoush Zomorodi’s show is not the kind of podcast that would normally make you cry. It’s a podcast about the way we live in the networked era and episodes are usually on a spectrum that goes from self help to consumer advice to WTF-is-Silicon-Valley-doing-to-my-brain? This one is going to make you cry, though. Seriously. (and it’s the only one on this list that comes from an actual radio station— WNYC).

This post appeared first at Medium.com. Part two of this series is about the platform battle. Also read my 11 essentials for the modern podcast.

11 essentials for the modern podcast

This is one of a short series of posts about the evolution of podcasting. The first one’s about the new wave of ambitious, highly-produced storytelling formats – I’m calling it ‘the symphonic era‘ and the second is about the epic platform battle that has just begun. So I thought I’d collect some of the basic elements of the ‘symphonic’ podcast here. Consider this an incomplete list of things you need to do.

  1. Do bold, generous promotion. Give whole episodes to friendly podcasts and encourage them to tear them down and re-edit them for their own purposes – This American Life uses a cut-down ep from Gimlet’s ‘Heavyweight’. Radiolab carves up a whole ep from NPR’s ‘Rough Translation’. Edits can be really radical, an episode can be totally remade and feel very different but this is great promotion and very flattering to the source.
  2. Tease cleverly. Publish a ‘season preview’ or an ‘episode 0’ ahead of the main series. Heavyweight just did this and it really builds excitement. This would also work for returning on-air podcasts from broadcasters – i.e. episode 0 would be online-only, so could have a different tone and maybe a looser format and throw forward to ep 1.
  3. Publish a ‘making of’ episode (and a blooper reel and a cast interview and a story follow-up etc. etc.). Major productions like Gimlet’s ‘Mogul‘ and ‘Bronzeville‘ have done this – wringing the maximum possible value from their expensively-created content.
  4. Commission music. Whatever your podcast is, whatever the theme, no matter how unnecessary music may seem to your theme or format. It will amp up your podcast, make it feel more grown-up, more symphonic. I love the clever, lightweight music they use on The Daily, for instance.
  5. Mine the archive – and other people’s archives. You’ll need permission but, if it’s there, this is essentially free content. 99% Invisible resurfaces old Public Radio episodes that happen to fit a current theme. Radiolab routinely fills gaps with older eps, minimally reworked or updated.
  6. Invent formats – and give them funky names. Like Mogul’s ‘Cameos‘ – mini-episodes between the main ones that don’t carry the story.
  7. Oh, and do mini episodes between the big ones. Minimal effort, possibly built from unused tape from the main eps. Be cheeky about this, don’t feel you always need to create original content, don’t be uptight about your publishing schedule. People will be excited when they see an unexpected ep land.
  8. Put on live events – it turns out this will work with literally any podcast. Seriously. It will add energy, provide material, excite contributors and suggest new approaches. Does Sawbones, the ‘marital tour of misguided medicine’ need live shows in venues all over the USA? Not really. Does it work? Yes it does. In the US now, wherever you live, your local theatre or live venue will definitely have at least one live podcast show in the schedule. It’s the rules.
  9. Find a way to include the voices of listeners – even if you just get them to read the credits. The NPR Politics podcast gets people to read out the disclaimer about the podcast probably being out of date by the time you hear it (they call them ‘timestamps‘).
  10. Do ’emergency episodes’ – and not just for news podcasts. Any time there’s a real world event to respond to, get into a studio and lay down 20 minutes of chat. It connects you with the news, makes you seem up-to-date. Here’s one from the excellent FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast.
  11. Provide credits – name everyone! It gives your podcast weight, makes you look like a player.

Seven things I learnt from the British Library’s Magna Carta show

The British Library has a terrific, totally absorbing show about Magna Carta – which is the cornerstone of world democracy or a sort of baronial shopping list weirdly granted in a field by a King who didn’t mean it – depending on your perspective. It includes two original 1215 manuscripts and dozens of other beautiful documents. It’s not enormous but there is a lot of reading so the audio guide is worth the money. I’m not a historian – or even very bright – so I learnt a lot, like for instance:

1. Magna Carta’s actual connection to the present day is unbelievably tenuous. The whole thing was repealed a couple of months after it was agreed, the Pope (who was technically in charge at the time) rubbished the enterprise completely (which is what reluctant signatory King John wanted him to do all along) and hardly any of the charter’s provisions survive in law. That it has any influence at all should be a surprise. That it’s the central text of representative democracy and the rule of law all over the place is mind-blowing. This is how pieces of paper (parchment) become totems, people.

2. The first one isn’t the important one. Later ‘editions’ of Magna Carta, copied out by monarchs, bishops, lawyers, barons – each introducing their own variations, glosses, limitations, expansions – have been more important in the formation of law and practice. Henry III’s 1225 version is probably the most influential and the nearest to a definitive Magna Carta.

3. Magna Carta didn’t make it into print for nearly 300 years. The first printed edition was published in London in 1508 (Caxton got going in 1473) and the first English translation wasn’t printed until 1534. That’s when its influence exploded. Hardly anyone knew it existed before that – the constitution nerds and rule-of-law geeks of their day. Once it could be passed around, though, in compact printed form, its language began to be used in laws, cited in disputes with overbearing monarchs, quoted in the popular prints. So – you guessed this already – the long-term influence of Magna Carta is actually all about advances in content distribution technology.

Part of the 1689 Bill of Rights
4. The Bill of Rights of 1689 is a much more important document. It’s an actual act of Parliament to begin with, using recognisable legal language, and most of its provisions actually survive in law. It’s the Bill of Rights that we have to thank for the modern idea of ‘civil rights’. Many later documents owe a lot to the 1689 Bill of Rights – not least its American namesake (if you Google ‘Bill of Rights’ the English one doesn’t show up until page two) and the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). I’m happy to learn that the resonant phrase “certain ancient rights and liberties” is from the Bill of Rights. It’s also, incidentally, unbelievably beautiful. Whoever wrote out the original document had the most exquisite roundhand. It makes Magna Carta look shabby.

5. The Cato Street conspiracy is one intense story. And it’s got the lot: a government spy, a honey trap, a ridiculous, hopelessly bodged plan straight out of a Tarantino movie and a brutal response from the state, including the last judicial beheading to take place in England. The conspirators set out not to assassinate a statesman; they set out to assassinate all of them – the whole cabinet anyway. Their beef was, er, vague, but hinged on the oppression triggered by the wave of European revolutions that preceded it. And Magna Carta was cited in the defence when the case came to trial.

Poster for Chartist meeting, Carlisle, 1839, from the National Archives
6. The Chartists knew how to design a poster. As I said, I’m no historian but the orthodoxy is that the Chartists achieved almost nothing. They were after the vote for working men but it was decades before suffrage was extended meaningfully (and did you know that it was 1918 before all men over 21 could vote?). Fear of dissent and revolution meant the Chartists were harried out of existence before they could produce any change. But, while they were active, they were great communicators and the first movement to make really smart use of mass protest, of what we’d now call ‘the street’. This poster, which is in the National Archives, is absolutely beautiful. A vernacular letterpress masterpiece. We should all aspire to such clarity (there are others, like this one, for a meeting at Merthyr Tydvil in 1848 and this one, for a meeting in Birmingham in the same year. All lovely).

7. 1935 was the 720th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta so, unaccountably, a year before that, a great pageant was held at Runnymede, site of the signing.

Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

The pictures and this Pathé newsreel suggest a very English blend of eccentric and noble, camp and dignified. I’d love to have been there. This BL blog post suggests something rather splendid and rousing: ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets a BBC Four history doc.

In praise of friction

Install Privacy Badger. It’s a plug-in from the EFF that blocks the nasty stuff that web site owners silently insert into your browser – tracking code, cookies and code from third-parties. It works in Firefox and Chrome (but only on a computer, not on your mobile). Now enjoy the genuinely freaky experience of wandering the web unrecognised. Not anonymous, just not known. Like a character in a William Gibson novel who’s had the implant ripped out. This is what it’s like not to be tracked (disclaimer: this only works for web sites. Your government is still tracking you).

The immediate effect is more friction. Gone: the convenience of breezing around the web like you’re a VIP. Barriers pop up everywhere. But, you’ll realise, the experience of showing up at one of your regular web sites and seeing that bloody cookies warning again and being asked to log in from scratch again is, seriously, charming. You’re logging in again because the web site you’re visiting, which is your absolute favourite, has no idea who you are. Friction is good.

Likewise, seeing the little Privacy Badger icon light up, telling you that 10, 20, 30 (sometimes 40 or 50) tracking elements on the page have been blocked, is the simplest possible reminder of the sheer density of the thicket of tracking code you’re entangled in now.

And the fact that some pages won’t display at all, or are just broken, because Privacy Badger won’t allow them to load code from another domain, is also – seriously – sort of bracing. As you go through the list of blocked elements looking for the one that’s stopping the page from displaying, you’ll learn more about how third-party code makes the modern web work. Consciousness raised.

Incidentally, it’s going to take you a while to notice, but you’re not seeing the usual chaff of Facebook, Twitter and Google gadgets either. They’re blocked.

Is this a bit paranoid? A bit weird? Yes. But it’s also profoundly sane. Blocking all this stuff, this invasive cruft, this miserable, intrusive web junk is a good thing not because it makes it harder for big media to make a living. It’s a good thing because it switches things around and puts you back in charge. It’s now your decision whether you activate all those trackers again. If you’re feeling big about it – magnanimous – you can switch Privacy Badger off all together for sites you trust. But that’s a decision you made, not a default behaviour (I’m a grown-up and I want great sites to survive. I’ve done this for lots of sites).

Canny web site owners are responding to users who block their tracking code by popping messages saying things like: “we notice you’re running an ad blocker. Would you be a nice person and switch it off?” Some won’t allow you in at all if you’re running an ad blocker. And this is cool. It’s the right way round. It makes your contract with the publisher explicit. Everything’s in the open (and Privacy Badger will still show you a list of tracking code, even for sites you’re not blocking, so you’re in the know). There are also legit ways for publishers to stop Privacy Badger blocking their sites.

Publishers will tell you that friction = death for sites on slim margins and with sharp-elbowed competition. They’ll tell you they couldn’t possibly make the tracking trade-off explicit. And they’ll tell you it’s all already in their terms of use. And my answer to that, of course, is going to be something like: “there’s your problem.”

The electro-mechanical sublime

I visited the quite amazing Museum of Pinball in Paris last weekend. It was a revelation.

The pinball machine (‘Flipper’ in France) represents some kind of high point in pre-digital coffee bar thrills. The genius of cramming so much potential ecstasy/kinetic joy into a case the size of a kitchen table. A crazy-noisy-beautiful thing. A cafe owner could buy or make a calculation and rent by the month and that would bring a joint to life. The pinball business model created a short-lived crucible of electro-mechanical innovation and creativity. Pinball was where it was at for the decades before Space Invaders, and those machines were intense: each one was a kind of unhinged son-et-lumiere right there in the corner of your favourite bar. Listen to this:

The appeal of a pinball table is direct and unarguable. You stand connected at the pelvis to a machine that’s shimmying and rocking with trapped energy. A table-top atom smasher. Multiple mechanisms hidden in there, all making their presence felt – tipping, tightening, tripping, spinning, colliding – in rattling, ringing release. And it is all about tension and release – the physical, finger-tip appeal of the spring and the stressed steel strip and the ready-to-trip (will it trip? Will it?) analogue trip-switch. The whole thing is tightly-wound, like a Loony Toons watch about to explode. The anticipation is unbelievably intense.

And there’s the intoxicating, stammering clanging of all those too-loud-too-loud bells – the racket that couldn’t help but dominate your bar or youth club’s soundworld, like an anti-social, de-tuned one-man band or a broken, over-amplified harpsichord. For a bar owner, signing the rental contract for a Flipper was sure going to change the vibe, whatever kind of establishment you ran. Bring you up to date, stamp your place MODERN, jumping, alive.

Pinball machine artwork is bright, back-lit, screen-printed commercial art from unpretentious upstairs commercial art studios. It’s naive art. Frozen for essentially the whole life of the form (until its decline in the 80s) in a hazy inter-war no-place populated by boxers, gangsters, cowboys, strongmen, secretaries, lounge lizards, hostesses, airmen: figures of quotidian glamour – and not a licensed character among them.

Disney, Warners, the comics, the pulps, the big radio shows of the era – they had no presence here. The imagery is all bargain-basement, generic pop cult figuration. Probably because the attraction of pinball is really all physical. No Donald Duck or Rita Hayworth or The Green Hornet could possibly have made a teenager drool more over the new Gottlieb as it was wheeled in from the kerb.

See if you can get your head around this, though: before 1947 pinball was a pure game of chance, a spectator sport. You fired your steel ball into the arena with all the finesse you could muster and then you just stood there, watching as it bounced down the table to the drain (OK, you might palm the lip of the machine or even lift it up and drop it – if the owner wasn’t looking – but that was the extent of your control). Pinball machines until this time, you see, had no flippers. THEY HAD NO FLIPPERS.

Flippers arrived with the Gottlieb Humpty Dumpty in 1947 and, because they were simple and low-powered you needed eight flippers to provide enough oomph to send a heavy steel ball all the way back to the top of the table. And the arrival of these little mechanical bats must have been a shock to the system, must have changed the game forever. And what, exactly, could the attraction of a flipperless pinball table have been anyway? Like a Norton Commando with no wheels or a Gibson Les Paul with no strings. No idea!

The stinging inevitability of failure is the driving force, of course. You can’t beat a pinball table, you can only defer the end. Your score clangs to a new high but in the end your last ball arcs between the flippers like a guided weapon. It’s a lesson in acceptance. It descends. Nothing can save you now. And that’s when you realise, those flippers are ultimately ridiculous: not weapons, not even bats, just a lot of futile, flapping. Pinball’s like life.

Uber’s bubble

So it turns out that Uber isn’t just a neoliberal bulldozer, dismantling restrictive practices, labour codes, tax regimes and all that – according to this article at ValleyWag, it’s also a subprime bubble waiting to happen. Uber’s problem: hiring new drivers isn’t fast enough, especially drivers with fancy cars – and that $17B valuation won’t justify itself. So the company has to reach out to participants who couldn’t normally play, especially people with poor credit (other groups are targeted: veterans, for instance).

So, last year, they teamed up with big auto lenders to offer subprime loans to all comers. And they say it’s really not a problem because these drivers will be able to afford their special rates (which will be a click or two below normal subprime rates) because of that massive new Uber income. It’s not clear how many loans have been written, nor how many have gone bad, but I don’t need to tell you where this is going.

Uber isn’t the lender (that’s Humongous Auto Credit Co. or whoever), takes on no liability and isn’t even claiming a commission – this is purely about adding drivers fast. And, remember, Uber drivers aren’t staff. They don’t even have contracts. To fire a driver, somebody at Uber just swipes left. Blocked.

So, to recap: Uber, a privately-held business, is driving a boom in subprime loans, in as many markets as it can. That epic valuation won’t allow Uber management to take their foot off the gas any time soon and, incidentally, they’re perfectly insulated from the downside by these arms-length deals with lenders. This is just in ride sharing, of course – as Uber moves into other activities they’re going to need to bring on a lot more eager disrupters. It’s going to be ugly.

BTW, I met Martin Wolf the other day, my absolute favourite media economist – at Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. He doesn’t like ‘neoliberal’. There’s nothing neo about these robber barons, he says. They’re old-fashioned 19th Century liberals, rebuilding an old-fashioned 19th Century liberal economy, complete with increasingly vulnerable, un-tenured employees; opaque, unaccountable, ownership structures and captured legislators.

The Valleywag article linked above links on to an admiring Fortune piece and to a short Bloomberg item from when the scheme was announced a year ago. According to the FT they’re planning to look for another $1B at a higher valuation too.

Hashtags are dead

20140918-195158-71518793.jpg
The use of hashtags by brands and organisations is dead, is what I mean. We now know how trivially easy they are to weaponise. They’re big, slow-moving targets for propagandists and terrorists. Clouds of branded chaff, too easily turned bad.

And brand countermeasures – closing accounts, removing content – are so ineffective, so after-the-fact, as to be pointless. And the more successful your hashtag, the more likely it is to be ‘hashjacked’ (sorry). No brand, no matter how ‘edgy’, can take the chance. The bad guys (the very, very bad guys) have a new social media strategy. It’s too late.

Let’s move on. Chris Messina’s invention will persist. Still be a good way to spontaneously organise a group on Twitter but as a way to label content or to rally the brand-loyal to your big show, they’re history.

And for marketing people they were never really about engagement or any of that Cluetrain stuff anyway. They were about measurement, about making ‘the conversation’ visible so it could be labelled and counted which, if not actually evil, is at least pretty cynical.

People will continue to talk about your brand, conversation will continue to peak around big events, sentiment will continue to ebb and flow. You just won’t know. 

And to be honest, I’m not sad. Twitter will still be a terrific place to share ideas and chat with interesting people (and I’m certain that no data scientist will be put out of work). Hashtags had become a kind of online litter anyway. A kind of consensual spam. Let’s think of something new.

Feminism and me

As a young man, I got my feminism from three sources: first, mum and dad. Not radicals, not even feminists. Working class trade unionists who lived the struggle. Second, the academic stuff I soaked up at college: bracing, mind-altering stuff from Laura Mulvey, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous; teachers and artists like Marie Yates, Mitra Tabrizian, Simon Watney, Cindy Sherman – people who offered me a new way of talking about life and art. Then there was the big one: music. The fabulous, raucous post-punk voices of the Delta 5, the Raincoats, the Slits and, above all – for this fanboy anyway – the Au Pairs. The mighty Au Pairs (look them up).

I’ve got a new source, though: Twitter. It won’t have escaped your notice that Twitter has become home to a new generation of clever, bolshy, uncompromising, articulate feminists. Feminists who are working out new positions, new language, new responses to oppression and discrimination – in the wide-open public space that Twitter offers. Feminists, incidentally, who are not afraid to take on actual sexist scumbags (and those ‘men’s rights’ cavemen). But who also offer a constant challenge to settled positions and to the complacency of old gits like me – people who can’t understand why we can’t just be nice to each other.

This resurgence of disputatious, public feminism on Twitter has got everyone thinking. These activists sometimes make my skin prickle in a ‘not in my name’, ‘how dare you assume’ kind of way but they’re constantly challenging me and they’re updating my worldview in real-time. They ask me what I think about rape and abuse, gender, FGM, porn and sexuality, women’s work and capital. Twitter, of course, since the beginning, has been a crash-course in contemporary thought and there’s never been any shortage of feminists on there but it seems to have become a kind of high-speed laboratory for radical thought, thinking about liberation and social change. And it’s gripping stuff.