What was it about the urgency of protecting your profits through the carbon transition that first attracted you to the wonder-fuel Hydrogen?

BP’s plant generating Hydrogen from Natural Gas, on Teeside.

It’s easy to check if a proposed tech solution to the climate crisis is legit or not.

Examine the solution; if it looks like it might have been designed to cleverly carry forward the capital structures and shareholder value of fossil industries to the post-transition economy then that’s all you need to know. It’s a wealth preservation device and building it will waste time we don’t have, push zero emissions further out, and risk further warming.

Hydrogen is a good example: we’re going to need it and we’re going to need a lot of it but only for some pretty specific applications – for very long-distance transport (boats basically) or for running plant that’s a long way from the grid, that kind of thing.

Used in other applications it’ll bring with it all the costs of a new industrial process and a new distribution fabric. Hydrogen at the scale proposed by capital is a way to reproduce existing ownership structures, to protect investments – and the absurd, distorting overhead of doing that – building and maintaining networks, developing and selling a whole new ecology of devices, growing new markets and so on – all for the single purpose of protecting the value of the corporations that got us here in the first place – will cancel all the benefits.

And don’t get me started on the demented logic of using electricity (green or otherwise) to extract hydrogen and then burning hydrogen to generate electricity (and all the crazy variations on that model). Used in this way Hydrogen is a dirty fuel.

We’re hypnotised by the social media giants. We’ve convinced ourselves they’re impossible to deal with. They’re not.

Picture: visibility by Jae Aquino from the Noun Project

The more frantic we become about the wickedness and power of the platforms, the more we confirm that power. The more action we demand of police and legislators, the more we confirm their exceptional status, their untouchability.

The standard position now—in the mainstream anyway—is that the social media platforms ‘wield too much power’, that they operate vital infrastructure recklessly, endangering democracy, threatening free speech, exposing our kids to harm, silencing the righteous and platforming the wicked.

The complicated premise is that the platforms are so very, very important, that they’ve come to fill a vital, irreplacable public role. That they’re ‘the new public square’—our agora—but also that they’ve evolved into a hideous, out-of-control threat to liberty, happiness and democracy.

As a result, the argument goes, we must act—hold the platforms to account, require them to operate their sprawling businesses differently. It’s urgent. Influential people write leader articles about the platforms’ power and venality, we discuss them in our legislatures, grill them in committee rooms, watch their CEOs sweat.

We demand the impossible—and it makes us look stupid

So the heat is on for the platforms. They must delete posts we object to and remove users who upset and bully others (oh, and they must simultaneously protect freedom of expression, leaving up inflammatory posts because of ‘the right to offend’). Everywhere, demands are made and sanctions proposed—vast fines, forced break-ups, exclusion from markets, mandated payments to publishers.

Legislators and columnists require the platforms to perform implausibly complex tasks—reading billions of posts to find content that offends, for instance, or policing membership lists to weed out the hateful or the banned. Some of these measures would be, if enacted, brutally intrusive, requiring a scary level of cross-matching and de-anonymisation, but somehow we’re able to overlook the obvious damage our most extreme instincts would produce.

More recently, we make ridiculous demands of a magical AI that doesn’t exist yet. We’ve convinced ourselves that software whose primary function is targeting adverts should also easily be able to preemptively locate child abuse, automatically dob in terrorists and take down offensive videos before they’ve offended anyone.

Of course the grim truth is that all this public bluster about the massive, overbearing power of social media is actually in the interests of the platforms. It suits them that we believe all this nonsense. We must continue to believe that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are both vital and evil.

Our dark fantasies make them stronger

The absurdity of the demands we make is paradoxically necessary to the platforms’ survival. They’ll ritually push back against our naive demands but they know that while horrified influencers and worried legislators are busy hand-wringing about their untramelled power, their continued economic dominance is protected.

If Nick Clegg were to let on that it’s literally impossible for Facebook to read and filter everything posted—take down offensive or illegal content before it goes live, identify malfeasance as it happens—the mystique might begin to fade. These enormous web sites may be giant, exploitive ethical voids but they have no magical powers. They are cleverly-engineered advertising platforms, built for scale, but they are not inevitable, not essential, not even necessary.

We rage that the social media giants are not just ugly, hyper-efficient, profit machines but much worse—they’re futuristic, mind-reading robber barons, destroying our democracies, eviscerating our noble, centuries-old print media, stealing our children’s lives and happiness.

Shoshana Zuboff, in her 2019 hit, goes further, asserting that Dorsey, Zuckerberg et al have invented not only hyper-efficient ad targeting tools but a new kind of capitalism—a virulent and predatory one that’s somehow more expolitive, more alienating than the old one.

Our epic displacement activities

Legislatures everywhere are confused and paralysed by the apparent omnipotence of the platfoms. Their response is not to find practical ways to diminish their influence (and maybe tax their profits) but to panic and invent whole new categories of offense. In Britain an Online Harms Bill has begun its legislative journey. It’s a complex and well-meaning misplacement of energy—a blend of the undeliverable and the undesirable—that makes actually tackling the platforms harder, by further mystifying their operations, by redefining them as slippery, dystopian, essentially impossible to deal with.

But here’s the thing: they’re not untouchable, they’re not essential to our lives and they’re certainly not omnipotent. To say they are is to misrecognise them. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their satellites are ugly, exploitive, alienating places and they’ve hoovered up a ridiculous, intimidatory share of our attention, our advertising budgets and our waking lives but they’re definitely not important.

(I should note that there are places where the platforms are important: in those places where Internet access is provided or subsidised by Facebook, for instance, where Meta has suffocated the net, inverted it).

And acting like they are important—in some way inevitable—is paralysing us, leaving us stranded on their arid plateux, over-invested and over-committed. We’re so impressed by the scale and inscrutability of these fast-moving, hypermodern systems, their vast, deliberately-obfuscated structures and codebases. We’re so absorbed by the sleight-of-hand that made us all entirely dependent before we noticed they were just bullshitters (pyramid schemes, junk mail shysters) that we’ve become incapable of recognising our own agency, our own perfectly intact ability to dump these nobodies and move on.

The social platforms aren’t impossible to deal with but they are unreformable. Waiting for them to fall into line and conform to social and commercial norms, agitating for compliance and limits and sanctions just produces the most uncomfortable contortions, but instead of acknowleding this and figuring out how to push them into the sea we twist our legal codes into knots, trying somehow to fit the most exploitive businesses since the East India Company into our economies, our cultures, our polities.

Unwinding our dependence on the platforms will not be easy. Reducing their share of our attention, limiting the corosive, hollowing-out effect they have on our businesses, institutions, democratic systems and public discourse will not be trivial. Their epic access to cash and the institutional cover they’re able to tap into gives them access to essentially unlimited resources.

Giving up the platforms

We’ve convinced ourselves that dealing with the platforms requires an epic, multi-decade war, an existential struggle, fought through every national legislature, every institution, every school and media company. But we’ve got it wrong. We need to rediscover our agency, our confidence in ourselves and the courage to get on with flushing them out of our lives.

There’s an analogy with drug addiction. We know a lot about how to limit the malign effects of drugs on our lives and communities but instead of acting, rationally and humanely, to limit harm, we’ve spent decades fighting a pointless and cruel ‘war on drugs’ that consumes resources and lives to no effect but meets the cynical needs of politicians and elites. Boom.

Likewise, we know perfectly well how to dump the social networks (Jaron Lanier explained all this years ago, of course). We know what they’re doing to us and to our communities and institutions. Quitting will be hard but it is possible and it will produce a kind of self-reinforcing collective joy. Doing so will empower us, free our minds and make a whole new generation of real online communities possible.

In his book The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour develops the drug additiction idea. It’s not a hopeful book but he does believe we can break our social media addictions, that quitting our platform habit is both desirable and feasible— to get there he says we need an ‘escapology’, ‘a theory of how to get out before it’s too late’. And Seymour’s escapology isn’t just for you and me, it’s for our communities, companies, institutions and nations.

How to do this

And what’s clear is that our escapology won’t involve agitating for compliance with social and commercial norms, twisting our legal codes into knots, requiring ever more complex responses from the platforms. It’ll involve giving them up.

For businesses and organisations this means investing in their own platforms—neglected for a decade now—and winding down their sad dependence on social media. For people and communities it’ll involve getting organised and working out how to communicate and collaborate without the platforms. And don’t forget, all the tools for doing this still exist, all are still in use, some are still thriving.

Publishers (the mugs who provide the content that animates these sterile landscapes): write a new strategy that reduces your dependence on social media and moves you back onto a platform you control, over time. In the meantime, retrain your social media teams, tighten up your publishing tools to support the media types that work for you and not the platforms. Invest in community management, moderation and tools for deliberation and debate.

Government departments, NGOs, instititutions: do it now, don’t wait around. You have less of an incentive to stay on the platforms, you’re not so wired into their economics. Close and mothball your accounts, invest in your own web sites (some of which are already excellent). Use all the energy you’ve been pouring into social media to rebuild and spread your web skills, reintegrate your content assets and your social strategy. Trust me, if you’ve been investing in social for years it’ll seem weird to begin with, but once you’re recovered your momentum it’ll feel amazing to be putting all your effort into your own stuff.

Brands: tricky. You’ve moved your entire digital presence onto the platforms, you’ve tied your Facebook strategy into your launch regime and your ad budget, your brandter is fundamental to your identity. And, tbh, if this works out, if the rest of us can slowly reduce our dependence on the platforms and rebuild our autonomous presence on the internet, you might find yourself out there, just you and all the other brands, chatting to each other.

Individuals: okay, I know, there are endless tools and therapies intended to help you give up or dial down your social media—from radical abstention to carefully-measured social media diets (often administered by the tech firms that produced the febrile behaviour in the first place). I could not possibly add anything useful to the list, but please try not to buy into the trauma narrative that says the platforms make us miserable but we have to stick around on the platforms in order to work through our misery. If you do nothing else, find the log-in for your old blog and make a couple of trial posts.

Escaping the platform economy is possible, but to diminish its hold on us we must first recognise that we might actually want to.

Bluetooth should be our model for the next internet. Seriously.

Everybody knows now, we built the wrong internet. Instead of a democratic, participatory playground we seem to have built something predatory and exploitive. The solution—bear with me—is more awkwardness, more friction—Bluetooth!

(Listen, do not @ me about this. I know everything evil about the current internet could ultimately be reproduced in a more constrained environment, I know Bluetooth is probably not the actual model for a post-predatory internet (are there other models? Name them in a comment) and I know Bluetooth sucks in all sorts of ways. Humour me).

Here’s the problem, back then (I’m talking about the late 80s and early 90s—but the period of intenet hopefulness is much longer than that and really started at the end of the 60s), when we had the choice, we (techies, utopians, stupid dreamers) wanted the net to be flat, open and democratic. We wanted no hierarchies of access or quality. We didn’t want to recreate the phone network or a pre-Internet computer system—with dumb terminals dependent on powerful central machines.

We wanted proper Internet nodes everywhere—machines with IP addresses for everyone—not isolated clients hooked onto highly-connected servers concentrating bandwidth, CPU and data. We scorned centralised networks like X500, Minitel, the dial-up communities like Compuserve and Prodigy.

So we (the hopeful internet people) excitedly pushed full-service hardware out to the fringes of the network—into people’s offices, homes, pockets and cars. We wanted everyone to be properly on the net—with IP addresses, a real peer-to-peer set-up. It’s clear now, of course, that the effect of creating this ultra-flat network wasn’t the democratic one we hoped for.

The effect (and this is a very long and contested story that I won’t get into here) was to put, alongside that gorgeous, rich, full-service IP stack, a full-service exploitation stack, right there on the computer in your spare room and then later in your laptop and your mobile, then in your TV and your car and your bike and your toaster…

We lit up most of the homes on the planet, every smartphone in every settlement on earth and a trillion other devices and—let’s face it, while we weren’t really paying attention—permitted the corporations building the thing to load these devices with hardware and code optimised to own and monetise our behaviours. A happy social experiment that’s now a grim, spiralling disaster.

So, here’s the thesis: It’s much too late to re-engineer our beloved full-IP internet in a less predatory way. The die is cast, the chipsets and protocols and architectures are too deeply embedded, the miserable, exploitive business models are baked in to the hardware irreversibly. The Internet has been subtly converted from utopian playground to dystopian data mill.

But, alongside the complex, integrated, end-to-end Internet—the one we now know to be broken, salted with surveillance and exploitation—there was another architecture, another arrangement of resources and access permissions, a humble standard called Bluetooth.

You’re going to have to bear with me here: Bluetooth—funny, dysfunctional, bleeping and disconnecting Bluetooth—the tech you use to connect your phone to the speaker in the kitchen—should be our model for the next, non-predatory internet.

Why? Because it’s in almost every respect less evil than those other ways of connecting devices. It’s a thinner, less ambitious protocol than, say, wifi, which wants to be transparent, frictionless, complete.

Bluetooth was designed to solve a smaller set of problems (allowing you to shout stock market trades into your phone while driving your Audi Quattro around Lower Manhattan to begin with). And Bluetooth’s lower status and more limited goals mean that devices have, even now, never acquired the status of full network nodes. They hang off of full network nodes, servicing them, adding features (they’re like those Pilot Fish servicing sharks).

Bluetooth devices are not peers—they’re secondary nodes, symbionts—they even have a ‘master-slave’ relationship with actual network nodes. Hierarchy is visible, explicit, in the Bluetooth world.

So here’s the idea: let’s swallow our pride and rebuild the Internet on the Bluetooth model—at least the user end of it, the edges—moving users from the full-service internet out there to a more limited, less predatory platform. Let’s retain the fast backbone and the full-service bridges and switches and hubs and servers and cabinets and massive, stupid, monolithic platform applications but let’s strip out the perfect, end-to-end functionality that turns your PC into a data collection node, a surveillance device.

Let’s be clear: Bluetooth’s not ideal, not risk-free (there’s a history of exploits and there are major limitations to the architecture) but its weaknesses actually make it a good model for the next, non-predatory Internet. It’s simpler and definitely less inherently exploitable, nodes don’t automatically connect, don’t fire identifying date out to web sites and apps in the background, usually don’t have file system access, don’t share personal information and don’t expose basic hardware services to others. Apps running over Bluetooth can’t crawl freely up the stack into your address book or your social graph. They’re sandboxed, contained (I know, I know—there are big exceptions to all this).

Bluetooth is, by design, a gloriously limited technology. A Bluetooth Internet would be 50% more awkward, 50% less end-to-end, 50% less frictionless. But it wouldn’t automatically share your location, it wouldn’t pass through cookies and tokens without asking. It would make fingerprinting and triangulation harder. And it wouldn’t require the surrender of your fragile subjectivity in exchange for allowing you to share photos with your friends.

But the risks that flow from the exploitable Internet—predatory apps and platforms, ad networks that trade in user intentions and desires, your permanent absorption into corporate data trees, exploitation, ownership, control—none of these would go away, but moving the user internet to a simpler, more awkward, more constrained technology would slow it all down, make it all much harder. We’ll fix the net by embracing the old evils—friction, awkwardness, latency.

How to achieve this? How to actually flip the architecture, throw sand in the gears of surveillance capitalism? Sorry, no idea. Maybe another post.

Competence can fuck off

I learn that Photoshop is thirty. The small revelation that goes with this information is that I’ve been using Photoshop for thirty years.

A screenshot from a very early version of Photoshop

That’s more than half of my life so far. I began using it in my twenties, at the other end of the 1990s, under Margaret Thatcher, under George H.W. Bush, before the first Gulf War, before the Internet had escaped from the Universities (before the web had escaped from that cave under Geneva).

The other revelation, the bigger one tbh, is that it’s possible for a person to spend three decades using a tool fairly regularly without ever acquiring more than the most elementary competence. I’m still a total amateur. I have no idea how to do any but the most basic tasks. Most of the tools and functions are mysterious to me. It’s a huge, deep, layered artefact — like one of those infinitely recursive mind-toys in Borges (or maybe one of Tim Morton’s hyperobjects).

But there follows another revelation. That maybe there’s nothing wrong with this. That using an important tool—a vital set of practices, a complex cultural gadget—without actually mastering it, is okay. Or at least okay for me. That the constant, low-grade anxiety produced by not being very good at things—or being okay at lots of things—might be wrong, self-destructive, stupid.

Even that, for me, this might be the right way to do things: a workable strategy, an appropriate response to the complexity of the tool-world, the contemporary mess of shit that I’m supposed to learn. Maybe I should just leave perfection, competence and mastery to the deep-but-narrow types. It obviously makes some people happy to know what all the modes on this sodding thing do. Good for them. I’ll be over here, fiddling ineffectively.

Destroy Bitcoin. Smash the mining rigs

crypto mining rig - Cryprocurrency360.com
Photo by Cryptocurrency360.com

I first published this at Medium.com, where it’s become my most popular post.

It’s a disaster. There’s no point messing around. Let’s kill it now

Bitcoin (and its many mutations and outgrowths) is a planetary-scale mistake, a whiny tech-bro fantasy and an environmental catastrophe that’s already happening. A sane world would pass a UN resolution, add a Bitcoin annexe to the Paris agreement, reclassify the Blockchain as an illegal weapon and pull the plug on the whole cryptocurrency disaster.

The problem is Proof of Work, the ingenious technology that underlies Bitcoin and substitutes the deliberate expenditure of energy for old-fashioned, fiduciary trust in verifying financial transactions. Proof of Work allows users of Bitcoin to trust transactions even when they have no idea who originated them and in the absence of a trusted issuer?—?like a Central Bank.

To be clear, Proof of Work is clever (it was originally invented to make it harder to send spam email)?—?an intriguing thought experiment. It’s also a terrible idea. Proof of Work literally burns the planet in order not to have to rely on a central banker. Consequently it’s become the ultimate libertarian ‘fuck you’ to normies and communists and eco-freaks. It’s financial fracking.

Bitcoin is already out of control. Like a laboratory experiment in a movie that looked kind of interesting but by the time the scientists realised what it could do it was already too late because it had been released from the lab by a disgruntled technician and is now eating the world.

Meanwhile, out there in the world, many otherwise sensible people are apparently hypnotised by Bitcoin and the Blockchain (which, terrifyingly, generalises Proof of Work to the whole world economy) much as they were by the web and computers (and coal-fired power stations and asbestos and radon and the mercury they used to cure the felt for top hats…).

Governments, regulators and investors, instead of pulling on their superhero suits and figuring out a way to uproot Bitcoin and throw it into a volcano, are doing the opposite. They’re funding the construction of an increasingly elaborate and toxic network of Blockchain technologies and businesses, appointing ‘Blockchain Czars’, funding research, funneling money to the crypto fanatics, and coming up with increasingly stupid ways to apply Blockchain everywhere (a famous global consulting firm is even trying to promote Brexit and the Blockchain as a kind of hideous, conjoined opportunity for Britain).

And the consequences are already obvious. Proof of Work, by design, uses fantastic quantities of electricity and mountains of special-purpose computing kit. Worse, the algorithm makes the task more difficult as times passes, specifically to prevent Moore’s Law from reducing the cost of participation.

So, as Bitcoin is issued, the miners who do the work of verifying transactions and creating new coins?—?often in locations that are already under environmental stress or where electricity is subsidised or easily stolen?—?use more and more power.

The economics of Bitcoin mining is obscure (and contested?—?see the comments from crypto fans at the bottom of this post, too) and the arbitrary difficulty of verifying blocks can go down as well as up but the bottom line is that issuing all of the possible Bitcoins will cost the planet a staggering, possibly unsupportably large amount of energy, cancelling environmental gains made elsewhere and pushing energy sustainability further into the future, even in the best case for mining efficiency. We definitely can’t afford this.

Right now, mining Bitcoin is using as much electricity as the nation of Austria. The Bitcoin fanatics dispute these numbers (“No way! Definitely not Austria! Maybe Ireland.”) and wave their hands, vaguely promising alternatives to Proof of Work and ranting about the cost of running the hated fiat system. They rave that the pressure of having to mine more and more pointless Bitcoin (and Ethereum and Dogecoin and whatevercoin…) will somehow force the energy giants to innovate, to invest in renewables and?—?seriously?—?to get nuclear fusion working before Bitcoin melts the ice caps.

And that’s just Bitcoin. There are dozens (hundreds) of other Proof of Work-based currencies and hundreds of other products and technologies and services based on the Blockchain either live or in the pipeline. An investment boom is under way. And as international governance breaks down?—?you know: Trump, Brexit, nationalism, climate-driven conflict and migration, civil war and cyberwar?—?acting collectively to control or shut down Bitcoin looks less and less likely.

Is this how it will actually end? With the hum of a billion mining rigs ultimately drowned out by the gurgling inrush of the sea?

The problem is compounded now by the fact that Bitcoin is effectively impossible to kill. You can’t unmine bitcoins?—?and even if you could it would probably cost as much power as mining them (intriguingly, we might be able to burn them, though). You can’t stop a transnational, decentralised mining effort that has the organisational logic of a cult and is already accustomed to operating in secret, at the end of country lanes in poor regions (and pretty soon under the sodding sea).

As Bitcoin grows, the only effective way to stop the miners and the evangelists from taking the planet down with them?—?while they continue to fantasise applications for the Blockchain and gloss over its unarguably disastrous cost?—?is to keep the value of the currency below the cost of mining the coins, making it pointless to run a mining rig. Doing this will be hard, though. Satoshi’s algorithm provides clever incentives to keep miners mining and hordes of deranged HODLERS are already committed to keeping Bitcoin’s value up, way beyond any rational ceiling. Dark new libertarian-nationalist alliances will see Bitcoin as part of their fight-back against globalism and the hated, money-printing central banks. This shit could get real.

But it might be possible to slow the juggernaut down enough to allow it to quietly die, to become an authentic anthropocene fossil. If governments were to collectively outlaw cryptocurrencies, for instance, if utilities refused to supply power to miners (and, hey, if responsible citizens resolved to spend their weekends locating and smashing up the rigs. Go Luddites!), we might just add enough cost to make operating the network pointless. Once the economics of mining turns negative there’ll be no reason for the miners to get up in the morning. They’ll power down their rigs and go back to synthesising ketamine or coding botnets or whatever they were doing before. The network will fade away. The value of Bitcoin will collapse, the cryptocurrency experiment will end.

Photo by CryptoCurrency360


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Podcasting—the platform battle

Picture of young man wearing headphones by Gauthier Delecroix

UPDATE 2022. I got this completely wrong – at least the bit where I decided who will win the podcast battle.

If 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 web —a way to publish lists of 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 its own 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. The fabric of the mid-period web – the explosion of sites that became the blogosphere – was essentially a product of RSS. 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. And give people titles. Anyone who ever listened to a recording is a producer, anyone who ever advised you is an exec.

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.