I believe that words are very important as labels, especially in technical fields. A terminology with commonly agreed definitions enhances communication and understanding in what can be a complicated area.
Unfortunately, in the modern Internet world, words and labels are often used in a very poor fashion. The pressures of marketing and appearance seem to win out over the need to be clear and consistent. Terms like ‘web 2.0′ and ‘mashup’ are used wrongly and inappropriately. I’ve written about this before – see the previous blog posting (‘What ‘mashups’ are exactly, and why I hate the term ‘web 2.0′‘).
Another word that is used in a frustratingly inappropriate way is ‘podcast’. A podcast refers to a particular type of Internet technology. Wikipedia defines it as:
A podcast is a collection of digital media files which is distributed over the Internet using syndication feeds for playback on portable media players and personal computers.
This is what I have always understood a podcast to be. The key concept here is that of syndication. A podcast is something that is episodic and updated at regular intervals like a radio show or a news item. Something that is broadcasted.
Podcasts can be allied to another Internet technology, RSS, so that subscribers to the podcast can be notified when an update to the podcast is available to be downloaded to a portable audio device, and listened to at leisure away from a desktop computer.
This is all fine and dandy, but what is disturbing is that the use of the term ‘podcast’ has now widened from this original meaning, and is now being used to describe any audio content on a website. Any normal, static and unchanging audio file on a website is in danger of being labeled a ‘podcast’. Audio files that are ‘help’ utilities or introductions to the features of a website are particularly prone to this.
Audio files have been around since the World Wide Web began in the early 90′s, and they are still a mainstay of the web, enhancing its multimedia aspects. You didn’t need an iPod, or indeed any mp3 player to experience this – WAV files could be played in many early Web browsers. And you still don’t need a portable MP3 player to experience audio on websites. And there is no need for a new term to describe this audio content.
I’m a great fan of the ability of the english language to mutate according to global trends and mass market demand, particularly when it comes to the Internet and the web, but misuse of a technology label like this is bad for several reasons:
1. It perpetuates misunderstanding amongst the users of a website.
2. It makes the owners of a website look like they are more interested in marketing and pandering to fashion than technical expertise.
3. It just looks plain ignorant. If the people behind a website can’t be trusted to get the words right, what else can’t they be trusted with?