The Great Pointless Debate
I really have very little to say on the recent debate surrounding the future viability of podcast networks. To me, it seems a lot like the age-old flame wars comparing Macs and PCs, and the more recent and equally bombastic arguments over iOS versus Android: everyone has their own personal preference, and we must all accept that. Taken a step further, everyone has their own personal preference, we need to accept that, and no one will ever change another’s opinion; it cannot be done, for there is too much evidence supporting both sides of these embittered arguments for a group of any size to overcome, no matter the length or veracity of their case. Now, that all said, I do have a few thoughts I would like to share regarding the larger argument at hand — that is, the discussion around creating good content and getting noticed, for I firmly believe that this — unlike its parent — is a worthy conversation to have.
The difficulty of creating something great is a thread that comes up a number of times in Marco Arment’s two blog posts, Sid O’Neill’s response, and Ben Brook’s article on the same subject. These three writers vary in their opinion on the challenge creating a good podcast poses, with Marco presenting a strong case for it requiring very little effort, Sid at the opposite end of the spectrum, and Ben somewhere in between. On this account, I have to agree with Marco: as someone who has spent a fair amount of time looking to enter the podcasting space recently, I can corroborate his thesis that the barrier to entry in this medium has become low enough so as to hardly exist anymore. With a minimal investment of $8, I can make a home for my fledgling podcast at Squarespace that — at least aesthetically — can compete with the best of them; pair that with a quiet room and even a MacBook’s built-in microphone will produce a recording of decent quality provided you either play with GarageBand’s settings for a little bit or run it through something like Auphonic. Granted, this combination will not rival the quality of the shows Dan Benjamin produces at 5by5, but until you can aim for his level, your shows don’t have to rival those of 5by5; this is not a zero-sum game.
In terms of another medium very near and dear to all those participating in this conversation, the barrier to entry of starting a blog is even lower: that same $8 will net you a powerful site on Squarespace, Twitter accounts are free, and you can either write in Pages or TextEdit for literally nothing; take your pick of either one of those two or a fancy text editor like Sublime Text, and then start typing. An hour or two later though, the only thing separating your creation — regardless of medium — from overtaking Marco, John Siracusa, and Casey Liss’ Accidental Tech Podcast, or John Gruber’s Daring Fireball, is the inherent interest your own thoughts and opinions possess. That, and the fact that no one will ever know you just recorded the most interesting, profound, impactful, and all-around greatest podcast the world will ever know, or wrote an epic that puts Homer’s The Odyssey to shame.
I have long held, although to my knowledge never stated publicly, that those at the top have a tendency to either romanticize their arduous climb, forget it completely, or suffer from some combination of both. All too often the answer to, “How can I get my work noticed?" is a rather reductive, “Work harder”, “Do good work”, or something similarly discouraging and unhelpful. No one likes to talk about the challenges left over after the hard work is done, but that does not mean they do not exist — far from it, actually. Starting from zero, count yourself lucky if you reach sixty in a year or two; for most, it will take much, much longer. If I had to guess, I would guess that this is the place from which most of the anger directed at Marco comes: us pawns sit here listening to Marco Arment — creator of Tumblr, Instapaper, The Magazine, and Adam Arment; host of Build & Analyze, Neutral, and the Accidental Tech Podcast; and the guy who could, if some are to be believed, buy a yacht with his spoils whenever he so desires — talk about fame playing a relatively insignificant role in the overall success of an online venture, and we scoff. “That’s fine for Marco”, we say. We do more than scoff, though: we get angry; and where does that anger go? You can have one guess.
A more important question, however, does not seek to discern the ultimate target for our collective anger, but rather the validity of it: does he deserve this ludicrous level of hate? I say no, and I say so because — once again — I have to side with Marco here: an audience such as the impressively large one he, John, and Casey collectively command absolutely will help a show get off the ground; I would read, listen to, and buy anything any one of these three make, and I often do. This install base, however, as Marco attempted to explain in both his articles, does not guarantee continued success: if something he or any one of his companions makes does not pass muster, no one will have anything to do with it. As much as I like Marco, every time he writes about politics I close the tab, mark the feed item as read, and scroll past the tweet; I have no interest in anything he has to say on that front, and I would count myself amongst his biggest fans.
Just because Marco writes it does not mean I will come, nor does it mean the elusive “they” will come either: just as we all do, he has to make something great in order to see any significant return on that time investment. The only advantage Marco has over, say, me, when launching an app or writing an article is that some unknown number, X, people will see it for sure: after that, its ultimate success is completely predicated on its build quality and functionality. If I interviewed Marco on this site tomorrow, X people would see it — that X number that will follow him anywhere. And depending on how that interview went, some portion of that number would stick around: if I did poorly, that number would be near zero; otherwise, a potentially much larger portion might choose to stay. The same goes for podcasts and podcast networks: if I started a show on 5by5 tomorrow, by virtue of it being a 5by5 show, a certain number of people would tune in for the first episode or two — this is 5by5’s “X”. After that though, the onus is on me to create something great. But in reality, the onus was always on me to make something great.