Data Collection in Podcasting

- 7.5 minutes -

Podcaster and podcast-app developer Marco Arment came out with a scathing post on mass data collection entering the podcasting industry, in which he obviously has a big personal investment:

This New York Times article gets a lot wrong, and both podcast listeners and podcast producers should be clear on Apple’s actual role in podcasting today and what, exactly, big producers are asking for.

Podcasts work nothing like the App Store, and we’re all better off making sure they never head down that road...

It’s completely decentralized, free, fair, open, and uncontrollable by any single entity, as long as the ecosystem of podcast-player apps remains diverse enough that no app can dictate arbitrary terms to publishers (the way Facebook now effectively controls the web publishing industry).

Podcasting is the only medium I can say I enjoy absolutely. I like the way podcasters treat their audience, it’s easy to keep up with a podcast (podcasts usually involve followable weekly programming and have show notes to keep you posted), and, most notably, the ads are, while long, extremely tasteful and respectful, compared to ads in virtually every other medium. Why would anyone want to disrupt an oasis like podcasting?

Arment correctly identifies the potential pitfalls of data collection in podcasting, likening its negative impact to that of its effect on the online publishing industry. However, as with many of the things Arment has a strong opinion about, I’m of two minds when faced with the reality of the situation.

Some might say that a growth phase is inevitable, and I tend to agree. Podcasting has to grow at some point - out of the same handful of companies taking up the ad slots, out of the tired format of two white guys talking about technology, and out of it being mostly about technology at all.

Sure, there are a huge variety of podcasts today, but programs like Serial show that podcasts have largely untapped potential for breadth of subject matter, while maintaining the depth podcasts are known to bring. On top of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if podcasting is today’s most informative, educational, thought-provoking, and attention-retentive medium - there’s still opportunity for podcasts to take full advantage of people’s attention and capacity for contributive thought. This could even translate to engagement beyond just listeners tuning in on a weekly basis - see 99% Invisible’s last fundraiser. That positive effect could be amplified, rather than diluted. Today’s panel and one-to-one discussion format can only be taken so far.

In addition to that, podcasters are in a unique position to guide the industry through a better, amicable path of growth, considering that the industry is still relatively small in size and isn’t majority-owned or influenced by any big company, service, or app… well, except one, but I’ll get to that soon. Also, most podcasters, to my knowledge, are not the rabid data-hungry publishers of yesteryear. In fact, they have that as a lesson to learn from.

This is where Arment’s criticisms could prove to be useful. His position against disingenuous methods of data collection, which resonates a lot with other podcasters and those who follow him (including me), could be used to sway podcasting away from that and into more reasonable methods of data collection or funding in general, assuming that’s the end goal of data collection to begin with.

Perhaps my biggest reason why I’m still optimistic about growth being handled amicably is that the one company that has a huge share of control in the industry, Apple, is one of the only companies I’m confident that can and will do just that - another unique and fortunate position for podcasters. Arment says this himself:

Apple holds two large roles in podcasting today that should threaten its health, but haven’t yet:

The biggest player app: Apple’s built-in iOS Podcasts app is the biggest podcast player in the world by a wide margin, holding roughly 60-70% marketshare.

The biggest podcast directory: The iTunes Store’s Podcasts directory is the only one that matters, and being listed there is essential for podcasts to be easily found when searching in most apps.
Apple has only ever used its dominant position benevolently and benignly so far…

There isn’t much reason to believe that Apple will exercise their power negatively, unless you want to make comparisons to the App Store or, again, the online publishing industry, which I think are both red herrings. The fact that they held talks at their headquarters in Cupertino between their staff and notable podcasters is indicative that Apple is more attentive and receptive to external opinion this time around. (Whether they invited the right podcasters is a different issue, but now that others like Arment have spoken up, Apple might be re-evaluating the opinions expressed in those recent meetings if this new “openness” is anything to go by.)

There’s also Apple’s institutional stance on privacy. I think because of this stance, it might be in Apple’s interest to find and research better, unconventional ways of data collection that isn’t today’s JavaScript infestation. This can then be applied to Apple’s other services in dire need of data input, most notably Siri.

Whatever the outcome, I think the spark in public discussion about data being handled so early in the industry’s lifespan can only be a positive indication of where things might be taken next. I’d imagine podcast makers and listeners as incredibly intelligent people, always hungry for knowledge, and eager (and adept) to maintaining the culture around and between podcasts. I can tell for a fact, however, that we shouldn’t be shielding the medium and deflecting every opportunity for change and growth because of misguided paranoia. What results is stagnation. Podcasting is, and can be, better than that.