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Podcasting in the Dark

Robert MacMillan

Byline: Robert MacMillan

More than 6 million American adults have listened to podcasts -- in your dreams.

For those who don't know yet, a podcast is an audio file specially formatted so that certain software programs can download it automatically and transfer it to an iPod or other portable media player. It's a little like on-demand radio. The Pew Internet and American Life Project in Washington reported its conclusion based on its daily tracking survey of Americans' Internet use ( see the methodology at the bottom of the report).

But the author of a the Engadget technology Weblog says the number sounds too high to be credible. Peter Rojas , freelance journalist, said he was skeptical about the sample size -- 208 people -- which produces a 7.5 percent margin of error (that's big). He says Pew now has backtracked, "saying that even they don't believe that 6 million Americans are listening to podcasts, and [have] admitted that the question they asked (if people had 'ever downloaded a podcast or radio Internet program') was a little overly broad since it could easily encompass all sorts of things besides podcasts. And since most people still don't know the difference between streaming and downloading, we bet that anyone who has ever even listened to Internet radio said yes to this question, too."

I called Lee Rainie , Pew Internet's director, but wasn't able to raise him this morning. Regardless of whether Pew stands by its numbers or backs off them, I wouldn't start calling podcast the technology of tomorrow. Blogs, podcasts and other ways of sharing your mind with the world are hip, which is why they make headlines. It's important to remember, however, that the hype over new technology doesn't always correlate with how many people are using it. (The notable exception is Sony 's new PlayStation Portable , which I'm not going to touch today).

At least to the tech press, podcasting feels like it has been around for decades. We're sitting here wondering what's next. Broadcast everything we feel like saying or playing to a bunch of people so they can listen to it on their iPods? Sounds nice. Call us back when there are 10 real podcasters left and they've all sold out to Infinity Broadcasting . Blogs? Yeah, we're tired of those too. Everyone has one now.

Only ... they don't. Podcasting and blogs are still novelties to most Americans. An article from the Hartford Courant showing up online today tells readers about the great, new podcasting phenomenon, same as everybody's been reporting since, gosh, at least a month ago. It's evidence that what many of us perceive as a part of normal, daily life is actually still trickling into the real mainstream, which lives inland from both our coasts.

Most people still have other things to do than figure out how to set up personal communications delivery services, let alone listen to those produced by others. More people will get into podcasting and other new methods of public access, but it will be neither the business opportunity that the corporate world might want it to be, nor some mode of expression that will fundamentally change the world and how we communicate.

I've said it before, and doubtless I'll say it again. Podcasting, blogging and similar ways of sharing our thoughts with the world are less important than the thoughts that we have to share. Hopefully the hype surrounding podcasting and blogging will evaporate and the ideas they present will take precedence. Technology is cool, but great ideas are cooler.

Ignoble Phone Network

Cheating on exams used to require some skill. You had to be pretty slick to slip a note or use a cheat sheet. Nowadays, the kids are soft; they just use their cell phones. This is the news from the New York Post , which said that wireless cheating is commonplace in New York City schools. "It's more convenient than digging in your book bag and getting caught," 16-year-old Park West High School student Dominique Lee told the paper. "It's small and teachers don't think nothing of it."

See? Technology is all about convenience.

The Post's findings come shortly after Schools Chancellor Joel Klein said that he is thinking of lifting a citywide ban on mobile phones. Despite the ban, kids report using the phones to send answers to classmates, store electronic cheat sheets and take photos of exams and pass them along to other students. Here's one example: " Rico Johnson , an 18-year-old senior at Park West ... said he saw a classmate receive answers for the January state Regents global-history exam. The answers came in by text message from a friend taking the same test at another school. The recipient then distributed the answers by cell to other students. 'It was not like, "Let me sneak it behind the teacher"' Johnson said. 'Every time his phone vibrated, he'd pick it up, look at the answer and be good with it.'"

Pulled 'Toothing'

Last year we, along with several other news sources, wrote about the practice of "toothing," a growing fad in the U.K. in which strangers send each other pictures and messages through phones enabled with " Bluetooth " technology in order to meet for anonymous sex. With a range of about 10 meters, the idea was that people could spot each other on public transportation, as well as bars and restaurants, and hook up on the spot.

Too bad it's a hoax. Wired.com reported that one of the sources in its story came clean: "After first creating an online forum, the pranksters persuaded friends to fill the site with scores of salacious, but fictitious, stories."

The source whom Wired interviewed wrote about the tale at his blog : "It is important that you understand that the concept of Toothing -- beaming a sexual text message to a random phone on a commuter-packed tube train -- is a bit like going into a crowded nightclub, throwing a brick at the dancefloor with a love letter attached, and hoping that the person it hits will agree to sleep with you. It's technically possible, and it's not going to happen. That made it even better when the whole world fell for it."

The blog poster claims the successful hoax resulted in its perpetrators: * Writing Penthouse Forum-style letters to satisfy a deadline in the Telegraph. * Getting a conservative M.P. to declare an interest in toothing as a way of meeting women. * Receiving an invitation to attend China's national sex exhibition.

It's worth remaining skeptical. Wired doesn't tell us the name of the Triforce source, and we can't find it on the site. And who knows? Maybe the hoax spawned the real deal. Not that we've ever gone toothing ...

How New Yorkers Eat

Online grocery-delivery services were one of the biggest casualties of the Internet boom, but FreshDirect -- by aggressively targeting the Gotham market -- is filling bellies and turning heads. "After two years and 2 million deliveries (and $600,000 in parking tickets), FreshDirect has become the online grocery service that many New Yorkers have embraced, even while its ubiquitous trucks, piles of discarded boxes and high prices have irritated others. In 2004 FreshDirect had $100 million in sales, almost double the sales of the year before," the New York Times reported . "Real estate brokers now routinely cite FreshDirect in their sales pitches in neighborhoods like Battery Park City, Harlem and Bayside, Queens, which are known to have poor access to fresh food." (There's a Whole Foods just down the road from Bayside on Northern Boulevard, but I digress.)

The Times said online grocery shopping represents less than half a percent of the $570 billion grocery business, but it is growing in urban areas such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Washington, D.C., and in California. Among the top services are Peapod in the Northeast and Safeway.com out West.

The article also contains interesting notes on how FreshDirect operates at its headquarters: "FreshDirect's 300,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City ... employs about 1,000 butchers, bakers, produce pickers and other food workers. Like the largest, coldest warehouse store imaginable, it includes two huge kitchens, a special room dedicated to bananas (always kept at 60 degrees) and miles of conveyor belts, which carry tubs from the far-flung departments -- health and beauty, coffee, dairy -- to the central packing area near the loading dock."

Send links and comments to robertDOTmacmillanATwashingtonpost.com .

COPYRIGHT 2005 Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group





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