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Radio Free Internet, Part II: Grasping and Spreading the Word

by bpick

Part I was an introduction to the problem of the spoken word not being integrated into the text-based and social web, and explained why the spoken word is hard to search. Part II (in a series of three) is about how the spoken word loses much of its audience by being somewhat hard to consume and difficult to share.


While you’re driving or walking or doing any kind of work that doesn’t let you pay extended attention to a screen or page, it’s easier to listen than to read. But in a few ways, the spoken word is more difficult to consume than text.

1. Most people can read faster than others can comprehensibly speak.

2. Unlike audio, text can be consumed at your own pace – you can dwell on one word, follow a link or skim paragraphs looking for the topic of interest to you.*

3. Related: You can’t easily scan audio quickly for the part that interests you, and audio is typically delivered in big slabs, so you know the size of the meal but not the size of the next bite. That makes it easier to get distracted.

4. If you don’t recognize some of the words or names, you can easily copy-paste them to look them up. You don’t have to worry about mis-hearing something, though you do have to look out for the odd typo.

* There are even tricks in writing text to hold people’s attention, like bolding key words, using bullet points, and (one of the great methods) making the whole article a list, so that the reader consumes info in smaller bites and knows how many bites are left.


Maybe you’re thinking that people share tons of audio files (even kids do so illegally), and that lots of people listen to podcasts every day – they’re shared via iTunes and RSS feeds and blogs.

But sharing the particular content of audio is very burdensome. Unless the transcript is thoroughly time-stamped, it can take time to find the audio of the words you want. Once you’ve gone to the trouble of finding the good audio, often you don’t have an easy way to link to just that one snippet. If you have to tell the audience at what time the good part starts, you’re requiring effort from them. Some video sites, like BloggingHeads and Hulu, will allow you to select a particular part of a video to share, and that’s a good first step.

People naturally tend to share what is easily digestible: text, graphics, or short-form video, in small bites. It’s better not to have to say, “Listen to the good part between 13:10 and 14:24,” especially in short messages like social networks and chat require. On Twitter, it’s relatively uncommon to see anyone linking to audio or even pointing out a single cool part of a longish spoken-word video.

These are huge barriers to making a lot of information useful for today’s web. Anything that’s difficult to search, link to, or process quickly is going to lose attention. The less effort demanded of the audience, the more likely it is to move.


Can you guess what features might be naturally useful, given the problems laid out in Parts I and II? We’ll apply the principles above to lay out how an enterprising company could profit from solving this problem in Part III.