Video dominates the internet. It accounts for somewhere between 70 and 80 per cent of all online traffic, with over half a million hours of footage uploaded, and a billion hours watched every day on YouTube alone.
The ease with which video can be created and shared has led to a new era of self-made global celebrity, but while video grabs all the attention on social media, audio – its more unassuming, modest cousin – has also been making waves.
In recent years, an unexpected surge in the popularity of podcasts has proved two things: firstly, that people still have a fondness for recorded speech, and secondly, a sizeable number of creators believe that their work is best showcased without the distraction of video.
Last week, repeated requests from the Twitter community resulted in the company introducing an audio-only option in its video streaming app, Periscope. Many people evidently like to be heard but not seen; others prefer to listen but not watch.
“Audio is the way that we as human beings have been communicating for a long time,” says Michael Mignano, chief executive and co-founder of Anchor, an app dedicated to simplifying the process of podcasting. “A lot of people are self conscious about putting themselves on camera, but the beauty of audio is that it’s just talking. We’ve known how to talk on the telephone for most of our lives, so it comes very naturally. We’re good at expressing ourselves and being creative without being seen.” Indeed, it could be argued that dispensing with lenses and screens could make for a more authentic way of communicating.
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According to Richard Plom, staff engineer at Twitter, video-shy users of Periscope have been “covering the camera lens” with tape in order to facilitate an audio-only experience – an inelegant solution in a technological age. After three days of development, Plom and his colleagues introduced an option, triggered by pressing a microphone icon, which converts recorded sound into images of soundwaves, and these replace the video portion of the Periscope broadcast. The audio is essentially being shoehorned into a video format – but it neatly solves the problem, and could conceivably kickstart a genre of topical mini-podcasts.
Why podcasts are so beloved
Podcasts have had an unusual arc of popularity. The term, coined back in 2004, was named after Apple’s mp3 player, the iPod, a device that was still in its infancy. Today, only a small proportion of podcasts are consumed on dedicated audio players, while smartphones have become the de facto delivery method. Mignano believes that the rapid increase in both the quantity of podcasts and the number of people listening to them is down to that change in the way we consume media.
“We now have this understanding that there’s this ocean of content out there that we can access from our phones,” he says, “and for many people that has almost led to a discovery of the medium. While podcasting isn’t music, I think its popularity is very much related to the explosion in streaming music – Spotify, Apple Music and so on.” In addition, apps like Anchor – and now Periscope – are making it a lot easier to record and distribute audio to large numbers of people.
The main appeal of the genre is that it’s passively consumed. You don’t have to sit and studiously watch anything, or spend time actively scrolling through – it’s a multi-tasking medium that allows you to do other things while you listen. “There are hours in your day when consuming audio makes a lot more sense,” says Mignano. “For example, radio has been a dominant medium in the car for one very good reason: you can’t consume any other kind of content when you’re driving!” This puts podcasting and its various bedfellows in a unique position: it saves people time (because it allows them to do other things simultaneously), but the fact that it’s not really a scrollable, skippable medium forces people to pay attention. It’s almost the antithesis of the skim-read: slower, more laidback and manageable.
Its relationship to radio broadcasts also make it feel like a familiar genre for many people. In addition, Mignano points out the inherent intimacy that perhaps isn’t quite so present on your average YouTube channel. “I mainly listen to podcasts with headphones,” he says, “and it’s almost like I’ve got this person or people in my ears. Something about that makes me feel like I know the broadcaster, that there’s a relationship there. I think it’s a very authentic format. You almost feel as if a friend is talking directly to you.”
Communicating via 42 second bite-sized audio clips
The fact that audio tends to be less brash and is consumed in a more leisurely fashion makes for a strange relationship with the fast-paced, noisy world of social media. The two almost inhabit different worlds, with the former finding it difficult to promote itself on the latter – indeed, if podcasters want to make any kind of impression on Twitter or Facebook, they’re required to convert clips into video format first.
Earlier this year, a company called HearMeOut announced the launch of a social network based around 42-second clips of audio – referred to as mini-podcasts – which they hope will convey “the true meaning of our thoughts”. This is the exact space that the spontaneous world of Twitter now appears to be moving into, but it’s far from clear what the tool will end up being used for. “Live broadcasts of audio on Twitter would definitely lend themselves to short bursts of content,” says Mignano, “with thoughts rolling off the top of your head. But will people scroll through their Twitter feeds and pause to listen to audio? It’ll be interesting to see if people actually decide to consume the content.”
The history of the web has shown that when you make something easier to do, it unlocks people’s creativity. In the same way that no one could ever have predicted the popularity of YouTube “unboxing” videos, the future of online audio broadcasting could take many unusual turns, and Twitter’s alteration to Periscope adds additional mystery to the equation. But with podcasting, smart speakers and voice activation all now very much in vogue, it points to a world that isn’t necessarily dominated by screens, and where human voices still have real power.