Taking a Step Back

IT Conversations will be seven years old in three weeks, and as often happens at this time of year I find myself taking a step back from the day-to-day issues surrounding The Conversations Network to try and see the big picture. Where are we and where are we going?

I’ve published the Annual Report and assimilated the results from our annual survey of members as I do every year, but those only address the mostly tactical issues (How well are we doing what we’re already doing?) as opposed to the more strategic ones (What should we be doing?).

This time around I’m going to go through the process more publicly than usual, partly because blogging about it helps me organize my thoughts, but mostly because I want to get input from as many people as possible.

When I started IT Conversations in 2003 virtually no one else was posting free audio recordings of conferences, events and interviews. It was relatively hard to do, so I had to invent many of the tools, processes and even a suitable content-management system for high-volume audio post-production. Over the years this became known as podcasting and hundreds of thousands of people learned how to do it.

Two years ago with help from our Boards of Advisors and Directors I realized that podcasting and video had become so easy and ubiquitous that the needs of the larger community had shifted from “How do you do it?” to “How do you find it?” The discussions that followed led to the creation of SpokenWord.org, our site for finding and sharing audio and video podcasts.

But while SpokenWord.org now has metadata for over 640,000 audio and video programs from nearly 7,500 RSS feeds, it hasn’t really caught on in the way that IT Conversations did in those early years. Ask most geeks, and they’ve probably heard of IT Conversations. But aside from our 4,000+ registered members, virtually no on has ever heard of SpokenWord.org. Sure, we haven’t done much to promote it, but neither did we do so for IT Conversations. SpokenWord.org just isn’t solving a big enough problem for enough people to make it worth our user’s time and effort to tell someone else about it.

Taking stock, what are our assets and our strengths?

  1. We have an excellent team of 35 (active) part-time writers, producers and audio engineers who create IT Conversations, Social Innovation Conversations and CHI Conversations, and good processes for recruiting, training and management.
  2. We have excellent processes and technology for audio post-production, task allocation, content management and automated show assembly.
  3. We have a good metadata directory for audio/video programs and feeds with personal-collection features (SpokenWord.org).
  4. We have an archive of 2,500 of our own programs.
  5. We do this all for less than $35,000 per year.

And weaknesses?

  1. The growth of podcasting (not just ours) is flat.
  2. SpokenWord.org has a very small user base and in it’s current form isn’t solving any big problems.

Don’t get me wrong. The Conversations Network’s channels are the best podcasts on their topics and SpokenWord.org is a terrific resource for those who do use it. But I believe we can (and should) do a lot more with what we have.

The Conversations Network is a 501(c)3 non-profit, which implies a mission to benefit the public. So the question to you (staff, listeners, members and readers) is: What should we do next to continue that mission? I’ve got my own ideas, but I want to hear from you first.

23 thoughts on “Taking a Step Back

  1. First: As someone who’s managed several sizable communities, I commend you on the outstanding job you’re doing.

    Second: Going forward, I’d welcome the opportunity to see more materials on platforms such as YouTube or Vimeo, etc. (With YouTube’s just turning five years old itself, I believe there’s at least circumstantial evidence that people also like to watch and learn…(I know about all the silly stuff that reaches high levels of traffic success…)

    Third: Evangelists might help, going forward. From my experience, it’s not just enough to do good work…someone has to let others know that good work is being done… so, whether podcasts or videos, evangelists could help bring attention to the excellent work that you’re doing…(In case you aren’t aware of them, you may wish to check out Word Of Mouth Marketing Association at: http://womma.org/main/

    Thanks, and Keep STRONG for another seven years!
    +VW

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  2. I didn’t know that there was a SpokenWord.com. This seems very important work that I just didn’t know about. I am still grateful to The Conversations Network!

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  3. Doug –

    Congratulations and many thanks for years of a job well done.

    Sorry this isn’t thought through but maybe a “starting point” idea is worth following up and if i don’t write it now I know I never will.

    I frequently take ITConversations podcasts with me on long walks/jogs or plug in while I am doing mindless chores around the house like lawn mowing, raking etc. My one regret with this mode of listening is I don’t get to write down the many links mentioned by presenters. I am guessing that the standards describing the podcast headers allow for a fair amount of metadata to be included. Am I right? Could this metadata be formatted in a standard way such that the links could be encoded in the headers, picked up by a smartphone/mp3 player app before the play starts and dropped into a file?

    JW

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  4. Doug,

    IT Conversations are great because they don’t require me to do much. I just subscribe to the feed and get content, which, sure, has some stuff I don’t need, but also has recordings I love. Extra episodes don’t cost me much (traffic is free, skipping is easy) so the benefits outweigh the trouble.

    I hoped that SpokenWord would be kind of the same thing, with a couple more features:
    A. Giving me more tech-related content: recordings from more events, etc.
    B. Letting me easily unsubscribe of series: for example, let me choose to have Technometria, but never download Biotechnation.

    Unfortunately, it turned out that SpokenWord did not work that way.

    Instead of just giving me any new feed tagged as Tech (maybe give a threshold of only adding feeds which have over N subscribers) and letting remove the ones I did not like – the site makes me chose user feeds (I don’t care about users – I need tech podcasts) and only lets remove episodes (I want to remove whole feeds – again, not user feeds but podcast feeds).

    So I loved the idea but after spending a week manually finding new tech feeds again and again and then manually removing episodes one by one – I gave up and went back to IT Conversations.

    Hope that helps,
    Dmitry

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  5. Dear Doug,

    Thanks so much for the work you have done over these 7 years!

    When ICT Conversations started, I recall wanting to suck it all in. Staying in my car after my commute to work to finish listening to e.g. Malcolm Gladwell who was yet to write the tippingpoint (not too sure about the timing, could be just after release)

    Both the deliveryformat & techology of the disseminated knowledge and the topics discussed were truly crossing borders. As always, the medium IS the message. The fact that you have to work with weird beta stuff to get to get truky excellent quality insights has a very special feel to it.

    Over 2,5 years ago I became an independent entrepreneur & consultant. I believe it is safe to say that this would not have happened if I did not listen to your podcasts in the early days that much.

    The stuff I heared gave me such insights, that my work at Accenture in the Netherlands gave me the feeling I was continually lagging the truly awesome developments. Finally I decided to go and explore & pioneer on my own.

    So in short: the impact of your work may be far greater than anyone can imagine, so keep it up!

    As for a possible direction for service/technology development, you may want to facilitate the remixing of talks more. Allowing people to make their own ‘digest’ versions of certain topics, whilst leaving references to the full speechcontext in tact may be an interesting yet challenging route to pursue.

    I stil have an image in my minds eye of Adam Curry taking a leak in a red bottle on your airplane and using that as albumart on one of his DSC shows!

    #insidersjoke I would say on Twitter 😉

    Cheers!

    Stephan (@OpenDictator)

    PS with the enablement of remixing, you may also want to incorporate cc-mixter type functionality. Automation of the proper use of CC licensed files is necessary ground to break. http://www.w3.org/Submission/ccREL/

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  6. Doug, congrats and keep it up. Success is still being in the game.

    My one observation is that your content, by it’s nature, being from innovators and conferences where researchers present, is close to cutting edge, closer than any other stream of content that’s being put out there.

    That said, the various universities who are putting courseware online, the many ‘idea’ led video sites from Big Think through TED and others, all are coming on strong.

    What’s needed is some form of curatorship, how people find stuff, as you pointed out as the prime consideration for Spoken Word.

    You have an excellent team of producers, perhaps what is needed is a cohort of curators, who can fashion pathways to content for listeners/viewers/readers from amongst your content from ITConversations but also these other emergent sites who provide high quality content both audio and video and who release it with the right to embed and share.

    Perhaps a wiki approach would do it, or perhaps some other open method which would engage the community in putting together a collective understanding of what’s current and interesting, drawing upon courseware, video sites and podcasts.

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  7. This is going to be random -‘so that’s one of the issues I have with Spoken word.org
    1 – It took me ages to cotton on to the fact that I had subscribed to several things that were in fact all connected – eg spoken word, PodCorps.org. It seems to be a bit clearer now but I think you can do more to address: what it’s for (the Vision Thing) and how all the various bits add up
    2 Having done that – a common membership would be good – I still can’t join the PodCorps forum because I though I’d joined, it thinks I’ve joined and we have a deadly embrace
    3 Certainly this side of the pond, no one I know knows you exist. There is a huge amount of material that comes into the public domain – often briefly – that no one then bothers to archive. (For example, my local council now webcasts its main meeting – they’ve gotten better at the sound quality, but there’s no guarantee that these will be archived. That’s important and they should be encouraged to do so. Automatic transcripts (fallible though they are) would be good. And what about a searchable version of UK Parliament? I know, but your ambition is to be the world’s repository!!!!
    4 Re-use needs to be made clearer. I make radio programmes, yet I’m not clear what archives are public domain, and what not. Also there’s the issue (not important for casual listening) of access to high quality files.
    5 I am the lone PodCorps stringer in the whole of Wales (a real country guys!!). Never had anyone ask me to help with anything. That’s sad.

    I’ll add more jottings later – but your email reminded I have an important meeting to upload …

    Great work btw!!!!!

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  8. Doug. Spokenword.org is a great idea whose time is not yet come. You are doing a great job and I feel with a little promotion, some partnership deals (get it embedded in popular podcatchers ) and some more patience, it can become a must have resource. Spokenword.org is a great alternative to iTunes and I would hate to see it go away..

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  9. Hi Doug,
    First of all THANKS! for all the good work.
    Second I would like to draw from my own experience. How did I get to IT Conversation? I was looking for some podcast from Clay Christensen and you had it on IT Conversation. I guess what I am trying to say is that content is fundamental, then SEO then everything else.
    If the growth of podcasting is slowing down than we need to understand why and what (if) we can do about it. My take is that any movement (if podcasting is a movement…) is composed of many people.
    1) People who are solving a problem they have by either podcasting or listening to podcasts
    2) Me-too people
    3) People who are only partially solving a problem they have through podcasting or listening to podcasts
    4) Fashion-sensitive people
    When a movement becomes more mature you tend to loose 2 & 4. When (better) alternatives come up, you loose 3 too.
    I guess podcasting is at this point loosing crowd to Facebook, Youtube and so on and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
    What I think should happen is:
    a) Serve better 1
    b) Expand to new geographical territories
    What I think should NOT happen is that you stop!!!
    How do you serve better 1? In no particular order: Technology, Content. Too bad I don’t have time to join you guys, I am sure I would love it.
    My $0.02,
    Gian

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  10. I have long been a fan of IT Conversations and I had hoped Spoken Word would help me organize, centralize and find more great stuff, but I had the same issues as Dmitry (above). As a usability specialist, I’m used to wrestling with interfaces that frustrate, but Spoken Word ultimately defeated me.

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  11. Growth, Science, Narrative. I started out listening to Moira Gunn on WUNC in 2004, I think. So I’m impressed with the growth of IT Conversations.

    Question: What is the desirable growth rate, and growth to what end? Appearances on NPR’s SciFri; the Discovery channel; or maybe Dancing with the Stars?

    I would advise crystal clear clarity regarding the definition of growth. There’s natural, logical growth driven by public interest in the topic relevance, then there’s growth in the service of profit. Many good ideas from other sectors of the economy have already made that mistake for us. So I would say be more thoughtful about what growth means.

    Personally I think that too many conferences, events and interviews involve individuals pitching what are really business ideas as public service ideas or as science. I feel this is potentially problematic. Differentiating those should be looked at.

    Third, fewer (not zero but fewer) boring presentations. I listened to a show in which a lecturer yawned during his own presentation. Maybe it was jetlag but still…. Anyway shows should be more engaging and slideshows are an example of this. WNYC’s Radiolab is another example. Not suggesting going to that format but somehow make the info more narrative, digestible to the growing number of Americans who were less than awesome in high school but are genuinely curious about tech, for instance.

    Regards,

    H in NC

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  12. I echo congratulations Doug, I’ve been an active listener (and sometime supporter when I can) for several years.

    Going forward, perhaps if you can encapsulate the skills you’ve evolved in getting, editing, and making good audio content, it could become a community toolBox?

    Not for those who are already podcasting, but perhaps for schools, or groups in less tech-savvy environments? Maybe a “conversations network” for community organizers, social justice or economic opportunity pundits?

    It could be centered around a telephone ‘call in’, with some online editing tools perhaps?

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  13. 2003 … December of that year I real-ized the design for my “discourse-based” system. And took a step back to see who was listening / attending / responding (since I’d started on that project while studying APL in ’78. MTS huh huh huh).

    In broadcasting I found my RFEs often quickly implemented. Likewise with such as NORAD/SAC. In web-tech … hard to say. Maybe in my next life I’ll essay on how the social process of innovation is diagnostic to the pathology of more general dynamics.

    /me sits and returns to listening

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  14. Doug,

    I am a consumer of the Conversations Network podcasts, an occasional user of SpokenWord and occasional promoter of SpokenWord. In my opinion much of the buzz based, viral growth of meta-repositories is over. This makes active evangelism a requirement. I actually think SpokenWord is unique and valuable just under sold and promoted. An easy initial step would be to contact all of the podcamp / new media conferences to ask for a mention (assuming you have no promotional budget) or ask the speakers to mention or demo the site. Thank you and your team for your efforts.

    Let me know how I can help!

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  15. Doug,

    Judging from the positive comments people are posting to your blog you sound like a PR agency’s dream client (and dare I say it, case study for why PR is so important). You’ve obviously got the goods because some of your subscribers can’t live without you, but there is confusion about your offerings even among those who subscribe. Clearly there is a broader audience that you could, and should, be reaching.

    I’ve been receiving your emails about IT Conversations since 2003 ever since I sat in on your SofTECH SIG about blogging. But I guess I haven’t been reading them closely enough because this is the first I’ve heard of SpokenWord.org. Don’t give up on it. As someone who has to keep up with the latest and greatest technologies and resources for my tech clients, it looks like a winner.

    The market, and the way people must communicate news and ideas, has changed dramatically since you launched IT Conversations. Now everyone on Twitter or Facebook or any of the other “happening” social media sites is broadcasting something. In the majority of cases they are just contributing to the noise and confusion out there because they don’t have a strategy in place to convert traffic into customers from any buzz they may generate. I think you just need to invest some time re-positioning yourself, honing your messages (tell people why they should care), and promoting your services through traditional and social media channels. My corporate Web site says that “brilliant ideas don’t sell themselves,” and that’s perhaps truer than ever.

    I am so pleased that I read your post closely this time. I need to start exploring and using your valuable services.

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  16. A colleague mentioned IT conversations a couple of years ago and I have been listening ever since. I think the quality of the content on the network is fantastic. I have never made a donation.

    To be honest, the reason is that I am overwhelmed with donation requests each day. If I look over the podcasts I am subscribed to and listen too on a regular basis, many, many ask me for a donation each episode. I get asked for monetary support, for example, from it conversations, this american life, radio lab, the flex show, planet money, the memory palace, fresh air, etc (I listen to podcasts all day long…)

    Anyway, when I think about it, there is a monetary incentive for me to listen to IT conversations (I program for a living and get a lot of information I use in my work from the shows.) I would probably pay for the content if you gave me more of a push. So I would consider more aggressive moves to get people to pay.

    I have felt for a long time that NPR should offer two streams of their shows: one that is chalk full of pledge requests, and one that is pledge request free that only people who make yearly donations can subscribe to. I would give you the same advice. I guarantee it you push anyone like me who is on the fence about donating to do so.

    Anyway, please keep up the good work.

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  17. Doug. You’re a great guy doing a great job. Perhaps Spokenword is ahead of its time, ITC was great and simple. It was just sent to me and I listened to what I wanted. Spokenword was like moving me from a tricycle to a jet fighter. I was overwhelmed. I appreciate the F-14 and all it can do, but I’m a busy guy and I need something sompler for me now that is more ‘push’ based until I get around to flight lessons. Thanks for asking.

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  18. Doug, Thanks for your well-done works.
    I met ITConversations 4 years ago in Tokyo when I was searching an technique topic word podcast. The archived topics are amazing and the audio quality is perfect.
    (1)I do think GOOD SERACH Funtion is the key to manage a huge content. So my opinion is that META-Data is important. It may take our great effort and is long way to go to make use of Semantic search, but our better classification of meta-data make some sense.
    (2)Is it planned to adpot some international or multilanguage contents in the future?

    Again, Thanks you and your team.

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  19. Doug,

    First of all, happy birthday!

    The number of comments here suggests that IT Conversations and SpokenWord.org still command attention from thought leaders in the field.

    My own view is that the Web is becoming increasingly video-centric. What’s missing, however, is the piece that makes this easy. YouTube is fine for hosting, but they’ve been disappointing in terms of offering tips and tutorials on how to create personal narratives, storytelling and citizen journalism on behalf of alternative publications, nonprofits, NGOs and individuals who want to make a difference.

    I’ve seen first hand the knowledge, training and skills gap of social change organizations and nonprofits. It’s profound, and a $25/month Lynda.com model doesn’t do the job.

    I’d be interested in collaborating on a new initiative that brings together the right combination of assets that solves a problem that will only increase over the coming years: video and social media literacy.

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  20. Great work! A new version of iTunes forced me to heed the promos and use spokenword’s aggregators. I subscribe to about 20 audio feeds and love the time savings.

    Since 2005(?), IT conversations makes it possible for me to discover quality content I would likely never come across. Thanks again!

    I shouldn’t totally demean the interface by calling it Windows-like (coming from a mac fanboy), but let’s just say it could stand a little improvement to make it intuitive. If you brought that to reality, you could maybe get more traction, or maybe I’m wrong about that.
    Having given you that feedback, I better donate something right away so I’ll feel better:)

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  21. I totally agree with the people who are talking about more in-depth metadata. Links to shownotes or related content would be great, as would keywords for search engine optimization, as would even a little “thumbnail” type recording excerpt so that we could check that the quality of the recording is up to our standards before we commit to downloading the whole thing.

    The other reason I am writing is because I think one of the main problems I originally had with podcasts is that the effort of downloading and transferring files to my portable device was just not quite part of my habits before leaving the house. The Google Listen app has provided a solution: I can search and download and listen portably all from the same place. I don’t think this availability is all that well-known, because if it was, I’d imagine everyone would be fervently downloading podcasts to their smartphones, and subscribers would be increasing drastically. I don’t know if there are other apps or services that does this, but there very well could be; I haven’t looked.

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