I hate breaking the drought of (real, non-Twitter summary) updates with a gripe fest, but this has been bothering me for a couple weeks and I just wanted to get this off my chest. If you don’t listen to the podcast “This Week in Tech” (or TWiT), feel free to ignore this post. Of course, if you’ve considered listening but haven’t gotten around to it yet, this might be informative enough to help you reconsider, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
I’ve been a fan of Leo Laporte for a number of years, ever since we first discovered TechTV (before it died a miserable death at the hands of Paul Allen and G4). “The Screen Savers” was one of our favorite shows and became a nightly staple in our house for several years. When Laporte left TechTV and “The Screen Savers” was canceled (or, more properly, devolved into “Attack of the Show”), we had a small sense of loss. The show was entertaining and informative, and a big part of the entertainment value was Laporte’s friendliness and personality. The network was never the same after that, and now we largely ignore G4’s existence on our cable listings. (“X-Play”, the only remaining show from TechTV’s original line-up, is the only thing still worth watching on G4, and even then it’s not nearly as good as it used to be.)
When I discovered a year or so ago that Laporte had gone on to create his own podcasting network, I was thrilled. Several old TechTV allumni were among the guests and cohosts, and the selection of podcasts has been diverse, engaging, and ever expanding. The flagship of the network, of course, is TWiT, a weekly roundtable of tech industry players and journalists discussing the latest tech news. The show is often wild and unpredictable, spiraling down rabbit holes and meandering in bizarre directions, but that’s often part of the fun of the show. The bottom line, though, was that the show was about tech news, and it and Slashdot were two of my main ways of keeping on top of what’s been happening in the tech world.
Something happened in recent weeks to change that, however. Since I can’t follow the live streams (both for practical and technical reasons), I can only guess the sequence of events based on what’s been released in the podcasts or written by others after the fact. But from what I can tell, the TWiTters have been hosting a live wine tasting show right before TWiT starts recording on Sundays. Now I’m a teetotaler myself, but I won’t condemn anyone who wants to imbibe their spirits if they really want to. What self-destructive behavior they engage in on their own time is up to them. As long as no one’s forcing me or anyone else to participate and nobody’s operating motorized vehicles, they are free to destroy their own livers to their hearts content. But what’s really annoying is that once TWiT starts taping, everyone in the studio is already tipsy, if not totally soused. The wine continues to flow as the show progresses, and what follows is a train wreck of drunken giddiness and squabbling that’s only really entertaining to those who are equally inebriated. To top everything off, from what I’ve read the final podcast (what I’m actually hearing and complaining about) is heavily edited before it’s released; the live feed is even worse.
The latest episode is a perfect example. Subtitled “Corked” (which is appropriate; I originally intended to say “ironically” but I’m pretty sure the choice of subtitle was intentional), the show is a disaster of panelists talking on top of each other about nothing worth talking about. Leo, who is usually an excellent host and often does a great job of keeping everyone else in line, is interrupting his guests and spinning things even further out of control. John C. Dvorak, whose input I always find amusing and often enlightening, is equally rude and—from what I’ve read from those who saw the live feed—apparently egged on the other guests to get them even further inebriated. I was originally going to complain that neither of the female guests, Lisa Bettany or Shira Lazar, could manage to finish a sentence before being trampled upon by Leo or Dvorak, but Lazar was just drunk enough to be an unstoppable stampede of rambling who couldn’t let a topic go. As previously stated, one of the appeals of TWiT is its unpredictable nature, but this show was so far off the beaten path that there was no path left to beat. Somewhere, deep inside the tangled mess of four people talking at once about Twitter drinking games, is only the vaguest hint of tech news, a thin whiff of the scent of information that rapidly gets swept away by the torrent of uselessness that follows. And for the cherry on top, several times during the show Leo pauses to read complaints from the live chat room about how terrible the show has become… and makes fun of them. This following a single glimmer of insightfulness in a discussion about how important the community has become in modern online media.
Now, I’ve been a webcartoonist for a decade, so I’m no stranger to the vast swing between amateurism and professionalism when it comes to online media. Before there were basement-dwelling podcasters, there were basement-dwelling webcartoonists, and you can tell in both cases which ones take their craft seriously and which just throw things out without any care for quality. I consider Laporte an accomplished pro, and virtually every other show on his network stands as shining proof of that. “Security Now!” is brilliantly informative (and my personal favorite), “FLOSS Weekly” (when it updates) shines the spotlight on some great open source projects, and “Jumping Monkeys” (before it went on indefinite hiatus) was a great parenting podcast for tech-savvy parental units. In all three of these examples, Leo is an excellent cohost to the show’s main star, showing his versatility with rare skill. He asks the questions many of us are thinking, assuming the role of the everyman so the expert can answer to the fullest. The TWiT Network as a whole is an example that many podcasters should look up to, a yardstick of professionalism by which all others should be compared.
All except for TWiT itself. Leo, what the heck happened?
I won’t stop listening to “Security Now!” or “FLOSS Weekly”, both of which I enjoy immensely. If “Jumping Monkeys” ever comes back, I’ll resubscribe in a heartbeat. My wife loves “net@nite”, “The Daily Giz Whiz”, and “Munchcast” and keeps bugging me to listen to them. But TWiT… oh, TWiT, how the mighty have fallen. What was arguably the best show on the network is now the worst.
What’s incredibly ironic is that in a recent episode of “net@nite” (unfortunately, I don’t know which, but my wife thinks it’s either #85 or #86), Leo chastized Kevin Rose for a drunken comment he made on-air that caused a bit of an Internet stir. He commented that in today’s world of streaming media, celebrities have to assume that they’re always on the air and that anything and everything they do will be rebroadcast repeatedly, even stating that it’s a big mistake to be drunk while recording. Maybe it’s time Leo listened to his own advice.
I’m still not sure whether or not I’m dropping TWiT now or if I’ll give it one last chance. Leo posted on FriendFeed that the “message [was] received” and, based on overwhelmingly negative feedback, there will be “a little less wine and a little more tech in future TWiTs”. We’ll see. What’s ironic is that it was Audible.com‘s sponsorship of TWiT that turned me on to audio books, and now there’s a good chance that audio books will completely replace TWiT during my long, boring commute each morning. It’s Leo’s loss, not mine.
I hope to post more on this when there’s more data to post, but I thought I’d throw up a quick note stating that the latest episode of the Security Now! “netcast” features a question posed by yours truly. (The best part was listening to Leo Laporte stumble over my long-winded rambling. 🙂 ) The high-quality version of the show can be found at the previous link; a low-bandwidth version as well as a text-only transcript can be found at the corresponding page at GRC.com. A search in the transcript for “Darlington” will take you to the beginning of my question; in the netcast, it starts around 38 minutes, 22 seconds in. (Of course, I encourage everyone to read/listen to the entire thing.)
For the full effect, though, you’ll also need to listen to/read the previous two non-Q&A episodes of the show, #149 and #151. (Low-bandwidth and trascriptions can be found here and here.) The entire dialog concerns the recent trend of ISPs selling out their customers to allow third-party advertisers to come in and install hardware at the ISP to facilitate tracking the ISPs’ customers’ surfing habits across sites. While the ad companies in question claim to not be recording personally identifyable information about the ISPs’ customers, the capability is there and the possibilities for abuse are enormous. It brings back many shades of the DoubleClick controversies of the late 1990s-early 2000s, only much more ominous. I provided a unqiue standpoint to the discussion: that of a Web developer hosting a site and encountering similiar mysterious “first party” cookies set for my domain but not set by me.
The full body my question is present, but I’m not completely satisfied with the answer. 😀 Let’s just say I think Steve Gibson made an assumption about the GPF site that’s not 100% true. I’ve replied to his response with additional information. I don’t necessarily expect another response (he does, after all, have his own agenda to follow on his show), and even if he does it will likely be in episode #154, the next scheduled Q&A episode. If anyone is interested, I’ll post updates if and when this occurs. If I don’t get a response, I’ll post my response here, especially since it contains some disturbing observations about “first party” cookies that have mildly paranoid folks like me nervous. (I’d hate to see what it does to really paranoid people.)
Just a head’s up to say I’ll be guest hosting Friday’s installment of the Jesus Geek podcast. I apologize in advance for any static or artifacts in the audio; chalk that up to my podcasting inexperience and not as an overall indicator of the quality of Jesus Geek as a whole. I’ll post a direct link to the download page as soon as I see that it goes live.
Update March 21: Aaaand… here it is.
Here’s my line of reasoning: In this episode, Leo Laporte and his unusual round of suspects are joined by Jonathan Coulton, geek musician extraordinaire. Aside from discussing a few topics of current note (like the death of HD DVD), they discuss a recent concert by Coulton where Leo and company joined him to play Rock Band before a nerd-filled audience. They go on to talk about the “new” Internet phenomena of niche entertainment targeting–skipping the big, mass-market blitzkrieg typically used by music, TV, and movie studios and canvasing thousands or millions of potential customers, to instead go directly to your core fans, the few dedicated people who are the ones that will really appreciate what you do. Coulton talks of making a living catering to a small handful of hard-core fans and how this is much more fulfilling that the big media alternative, where both the artist and the audience are faceless statistics on the bottom line of a balance sheet. And they discuss this with such freshness and enthusiasm, as if this is were the next new thing, some epiphany that no one has yet uncovered.
What I find so funny about it is… those of us in webcomics have already been doing this… for years. 😀
I’ve noticed this a lot over the past near-decade of GPF‘s existence. Blogs, podcasts, and other forms of grass-roots media have all cropped up during that time, putting publishing power in the hands of the masses, becoming “innovative” and “groundbreaking” in bringing content production to the people. But a fair number of “new” trends (and problems) associated with these technologies are things I remember seeing crop up among webcartoonists several years before. Long before the term “blog” was coined, I remember chatting with other cartoonists on mailing lists and news groups, swapping ideas about search engine optimization (before that term was coined as well), getting and retaining readers, how to monetize your site, etc. It’s entertaining now to watch many tech headlines to see “fresh” ideas crop up that I’ve personally tried–and abandoned–a couple years before. It’s like the wheel reinventing itself every couple of years, only with different colors and/or materials.
Of course, I would never be so conceited to believe webcomics “did it first.” Webcomics themselves borrow heavily from the underground comics movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, where small independent publishers ducked under government sensors to push out innovated and controversial content directly to the people who wanted them. What changed between then and now is that the interconnectivity of the Internet moved this from basements and back rooms to hidden mailing lists and chat rooms, eventually making its way to the mainstream, all while expanding the sphere of availability from isolated pockets of common interest to global reach. It would also be naive to believe this flow of “innovation” is one-way; RSS and other syndication technologies took off first in the blogosphere, and was only later ret-conned and shoe-horned into webcomic automation systems as a handy update notification system.
Perhaps one of the reasons bloggers and podcasters didn’t learn any lessons from webcartoonists is the difference between skill level–real or perceived, take your pick–required for entry. Cartooning obviously requires some level of artistic talent as cartooning, in all of its myriad of forms, is a form of art. It’s often a commercial art, intended more to generate revenue than anything else, but an art nonetheless, conveying ideas and emotions graphically. And while a well-crafted blog certainly requires a talent for writing, that is often easier to come by than the ability to both write and draw. Thus the critical mass of webcartoonists is much smaller than that of bloggers and podcasters, making it less noticeable to the mainstream. That’s also why “break-out” blogs now seem to be a dime a dozen, but it’s still major news when an online comic gets noticed by big media and gets optioned for TV/movie deals. Everyone knows about blogs and maybe even reads a few, but there are other comics on the “intraweb” besides Dilbert?
I’m not sure if there’s anything useful to these observations, other than the fact that they amuse me occasionally and it gives me something to post about. I’m not sure if anyone else has made these kinds of observations or, for that matter, anybody else cares. But I’ve often wondered if those underground cartoonists of yesteryear thought to same way about us webcartoonists as I have about bloggers. I’d like to think so, just because it creates a nice symmetry. I can’t wait for bloggers to sit around in the old bloggers’ home, thinking such thoughts about whatever comes next. “Those kids with their holocasts… if they had learned the lessons we did about AI search, they’d be raking the quatloos by now….”