Careful Tech 108: Why do so few podcasts include chapters?


Careful Tech 93: Why I write “podcast scripts”


Careful Tech 090: Rewarding yourself for online creativity


On internet obscurity: analytics be damned

At least five times in the past decade, I’ve started online projects, only to see them wither away from lack of attention.

Past abandoned blogs

Oh, I invest long hours at first: writing a mission statement, shopping for a WordPress theme, and hand-hacking the CSS. But once the actual content creation begins, I quickly lose interest. I may post sporadically for a month or two. But soon enough, I give up. Eventually, I surrender the domain name, and my “brilliant” concept vanishes from the internet.

Occasionally, these projects failed because I lacked passion for the niche. For example, I once founded a project called “The Outage”, which was dedicated to suburbanites who put down new roots in the mountains. It wasn’t a terrible website idea, but I soon realized that I was more interested in my own urban escape than in telling other people’s escape stories. The Outage died a slow death.

More frequently, I abandon my blogging efforts not because I’m disinterested but because no one else is paying attention. My posts generate nearly zero pageviews. My Twitter follower count barely budges. I put myself out there, and I’m met with dead silence in return: no engagement, no encouragement, no audience.

Obscurity kills creative drive, if you let it. Love me? That’s great! Hate me? Well, at least you’re following along. But ignore me? That’s the response that’s most difficult to accept.

Working in obscurity

Here’s what I’ve learned from these multiple abandoned efforts: when you’re starting from scratch—totally unknown—you need to find satisfaction in something other than audience engagement.

Imagine a wood worker, hand-crafting beautiful furniture on her homestead, high in the mountains. She’s miles from the nearest collector or customer, and there’s no chance of selling her handiwork—or even showing it off. No one will see the rear joint on that oaken cabinet. Nevertheless, the craftswoman spends hours sanding down its rough edges and carefully aligning the two joined pieces. She delights in the making, even when no one else will appreciate the end result.

I’m not kidding myself; this blog isn’t a work of art. But the metaphor works for me. If audience engagement were my only reward, it would be so easy to justify cutting corners. Half-ass the proofreading. Ignore that clunky paragraph. Skip posting for a day or two. Who cares, after all? No one’s paying attention.

From experience, that way lies surrender. When I stop delighting in the work for its own sake, I soon stop working altogether. When I let website analytics or podcast download stats serve as my primary motivation, discouragement festers, and I soon stop writing. It’s happened a half-dozen times before.

Analytics be damned

But it’s not going to happen this time. I’m determined to keep sanding down those joints, day after day after day. Despite feeling obscure and ignored, I’m going to keep making stuff. Rising before dawn. Posting every day.

That effort won’t be quickly rewarded with audience interest. In fact, I may never grow a sizeable following. My tiny reader and listener numbers may stay exactly where they are, and my creative efforts may never become anything more than a hobby. The analytics may never reflect my level of effort.

I’m okay with that. Screw the analytics. At least I will have made something. I will have tried. That’s pretty damned satisfying, in itself. ■


Only monsters speed up podcasts

Most modern podcast clients let listeners speed up playback, and the resulting audio is surprisingly decent. The pitch doesn’t shift (remember the “Chipmunks effect”?), and the average podcaster is still intelligible.

Faster playback gives listeners time for more podcasts—a welcome perk, since the library of available shows continues to grow exponentially. As the market explodes, faster playback seems like a no-brainer: more great conversations, no additional time commitment. What’s not to like?

My advice? Don’t do it. Keep that playback speed locked at 1x. While you’re at it, turn off clever features like Overcast’s “Smart Speed”, which saves time by cropping out silence.

Yes, enabling these options saves you time, but they have nasty side effects better left avoided. Consider:

  • Fast playback discourages thoughtful listening. Artful speakers use long pauses and measured cadences very intentionally. By slowing down, they give the audience time to sit with an intriguing idea, to chew on a tough concept, or to ask introspective questions. You lose all that by artificially rushing past the quiet.
  • Fast playback makes you a worse speaker. Because we spend so much time with them, podcasters have become our models for normal human speech. If your favorite podcast’s hosts are chattering away at 2x, your own speaking cadence will likely speed up, too. You might not notice the difference, but others will. “Why is Matt talking like a crazy person?”
  • Fast playback accommodates overconsumption and busyness. Podcast accleration treats the symptom without addressing the underlying cause. Solve the real problem: you’re too busy. If you can’t get through your podcast queue at 1x, consider paring down your list instead of rushing through it.

Of course, as a podcaster, I’m conflicted here. On the one hand, I want my listeners to hear my normal speaking cadence. On the other, if fast playback gives them time to catch today’s episode of Careful Tech? Who am I to judge? Accelerate away. ■

  1. Bunny and headphones artwork courtesy of Vecteezy.


Does Steve Jobs’ creative philosophy (“Make something wonderful”) apply to obscure bloggers?

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of Steve Jobs’ untimely death. Tim Cook, Apple’s current CEO, shared this reflection on Twitter:

Here’s a longer version of the same Jobs quotation, which Apple highlighted in the prelude to its September marketing event:

“One of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there…. Somehow, in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love, something is transmitted there.”

I don’t feel a strong sentimental connection to Apple’s co-founder, but I find him a fascinating figure: irascible and difficult, yet undeniably visionary, even prescient. At times, he was childishly petulant; at others, he demonstrated careful thinking. So it seemed worthwhile to reflect on how Jobs’ ideas might apply to my renewed blogging and podcasting efforts.

Now, “expressing my appreciation to the rest of humanity” isn’t the way I usually think about my daily writing and recording routines. But maybe it should be; too often, I get hung up on “appreciation” flowing the other way around: from readers and listeners to me. How many times did listeners download this episode? How many views did that post get? Could I ever earn enough followers to monetize this site? Is anyone out there even paying attention?

This sort of selfish obsession quickly leads to discouragement. I lose my motivation to write, and I’m tempted to quit, as I have so many times before. That’s why I haven’t enabled analytics on this site’s current incarnation; I’m terrified that knowing how few readers I have will derail my determination to rise early each morning and do the work.

The Jobs quotation above suggests a more productive approach: ignore my desperate desire for affirmation and appreciation. Instead, focus on the work itself: creating something good, genuine, and helpful. That mindset makes blogging more sustainable, more fun—almost automatic.

Now, the end result may not be “something wonderful”, in Jobs’ parlance, but if I’m investing “a great deal of care and love”, it will be rewarding—to myself, if not to anyone else. ■

technology Uncategorized

The podcast machine

If your favorite podcast is hosted by more than one person in more than one place, Skype probably makes that possible. Microsoft’s cross-platform communications service makes it easy to conduct high-fidelity conversations with people around the country or the globe.

But Skype doesn’t make recording those conversations easy. Right now, to capture Skype audio, podcast hosts rely on third-party Skype plugins and utilities. This software often proves tricky to use, and—because it’s not built by Microsoft—doesn’t integrate reliably when Skype gets upgraded. Plus, on sandboxed mobile platforms like iOS, third-party apps can’t access Skype’s audio output—that chains every podcaster to a traditional PC or Mac.

Microsoft could eliminate these janky add-ons altogether by adding record functionality to Skype itself. Users would no longer have to futz around with output channels, alternate mic inputs, or finicky background processed. And if the recording feature made its way to Skype’s mobile apps, phone and tablet users could join in on podcast sessions, too.

Even this dead-simple record feature would be welcome, but Microsoft could also do much more. For example, consider the “double-ender.” Right now, many podcasters eschew recording the Skype conversation itself, which may be riddled with compression artifacts or occasional audio drop-outs. Instead, each of the hosts records her own voice locally, then sends this isolated track to the show’s editor. That editor then re-assembles the component files into the final product and publishes the podcast episode. That’s a time-consuming workflow for amateur podcasters to follow week after week—and for many non-technical users, it’s almost impossibly complex.

What if Skype handled the double-ender automatically? For each podcast conversation, Skype could initiate local recordings on every machine on the call. Once recording stops, Skype would automatically upload each host’s track to a shared folder in the cloud (integration with Microsoft OneDrive makes sense here). Or, if Microsoft were really ambitious, Skype could sync up the tracks and spit out a multi-track file, ready for refinement and final publishing.

For those podcasters who don’t need meticulous control over the final edit, Skype could automate still more of this process. Imagine if Microsoft did the heavy auto-editing in the cloud, compressing, EQing, and leveling each track. Skype could tack on the podcasters’ preferred intro music and drop the final MP3 file into the podcast’s RSS feed. Suddenly, podcasting would be as simple as starting a Skype call.

I’d argue that this sort of all-in-one podcasting solution, done right, could at least break even, if not earn an outright profit. Microsoft could require Skype Premium (its paid option) for access to the podcast-friendly features. And OneDrive could serve as the podcast-hosting backend—again, for those users willing to pay. More importantly, such features would attract those creative, high-income users that Microsoft so covets.

So why doesn’t Microsoft go after the podcast market? Why haven’t they leveraged Skype’s central role in podcasting? I can think of at least two explanations. First, Microsoft might be worried about liability. Many countries have strict laws about recording phone conversations. In many US states, for example, all involved parties must be clearly notified when a call will be recorded—think of the automated disclaimer that you hear on most customer service hotlines. If Microsoft fears legal repercussions, Skype could implement a similar “auto-alert” function—notifying every user who joins a recorded call.[1] Or Skype could surface a consent dialog to every user before any recording could start.

There’s another potential reason Microsoft hasn’t augmented Skype for podcasters: maybe it thinks the market is too small to bother with. Compared with Skype’s vast user base, podcasting represents an infinitesimally tiny niche. But that’s a chicken-and-egg problem—which came first, the user-friendly tools or the customer base? Currently, technological hurdles make it difficult for non-technical users to leap into podcast production. Skype is uniquely positioned to lower that bar, grow the medium, and stake its claim at the center of the podcast universe.

  1. Skype for Business, Microsoft’s enterprise communication solution, already includes this feature.  ↩