Ben Pettis

The Technological Re-enactment

Season 1, Episode 3

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A close-up photo of a hand holding an iPod nano which is playing a video

In this episode, I move away from talking about video podcasts in overly broad terms and try to get down and into the trenches. What was the process like of getting video podcasts onto a device to view them? And what was it like to actually watch a video podcast? And how did that affect the podcast intimacy?

To answer these questions, I first describe a method for doing media history that I’m calling the “technological re-enactment.” Unlike something like emulation or retro tech preservation, the technological re-enactment is meant to be more accessible by more people – largely thanks to its attitude of “close enough.” We don’t have to 100% replicate the technology of a given era, but we can try to get as close as possible by substituting in modern technology only when needed. By doing so, we can try and recreate the core aspects of what it was like to experience old forms of technology.

There are three main steps involved when doing a technological reenactment.

First, you need to identify the core characteristics of the experience that you are trying to re-create. These are features of the experience holistically, and don’t necessarily have to be specific pieces of hardware or software.

Second, you would determine what parts—if any—of the original experience you still have access to, and what parts you need to fill in with more modern technology.

Third, keep a running list of what substitutions you had to make, so you can consider how those more modern technologies affected the experience as a whole.

Ultimately, the experience of watching podcasts on the old iPod was terrible. Which wasn’t anything surprising: Given the limits of the technology – that is having to pre-load all the videos – along with the small size of the screen, it was just too much work for a less then stellar experience. This is because podcasts are characterized by forming an intimate connection between the podcast producer and the podcast listener. But when you have video, and can see that the podcaster is in a different place and time than you, the illusion of intimacy is lost.

And, as I’ve shown with my technological reenactment, adding suboptimal video technology on top of that is essentially just a death blow for the video podcast. Despite the promise of it being the “next generation of podcasting,” it’s not really surprising that it didn’t take off.

Supplemental Video on the Technological Re-Enactment

In this episode, I was going to give a bit of a walkthrough of my process of doing the technological re-enactment of video podcasts. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at doing a walkthrough in a brief manner and ended up rambling for upwards of 20 minutes. Even after cutting it down, it was just too much and we ended up too far down the rabbit hole. There will be a supplemental video episode with a full walkthrough for those who are interested. But otherwise, this episode just gives and overview of the process.

PodcastRE

I found the old episodes of video podcasts that I used during my technological re-enactment using the PodcastRE podcast database and archive. You can find out more information here: https://podcastre.org.

Handbrake Preset:

You can download a copy of the Handbrake preset that I mentioned in the video right here on the episode page on my website.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Get in touch with me - bpettis@wisc.edu or see my website www.benpettis.com. You can also tweet at me @ben_pettis_.

Music Credits:

License: https://filmmusic.io/standard-license

Additional Works Cited:

Owens, Trevor. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

Watch the episode here:
Watch the supplementary bonus episode here:

Transcript:


[Intro Music]

Ben:

Hello and welcome back to another episode of Beside the Rabbit Hole. I’m Ben Pettis, and in this season we’re considering the potentials and failures of the video podcast.

Now, the astute among you may have noticed that there is something different about this episode as compared to the previous ones. That’s right, I’m trying out a new microphone setup! Hopefully this will help improve the overall audio quality, so please let me know what you think.

Oh yeah, and we’re also in video this time around! I figured that since I’m asking questions about video podcasts, it was only natural to try and produce an episode of the podcast as an actual video.

In the last episode, I talked about how one of the defining characteristics of a podcast was the level of intimacy that gets created between a podcaster and the audience. And that when a podcast is produced as audio only, this intimacy can be much stronger. But when there is video added, you get this visual signal that the audience and the producer are in fact not sharing space and time together.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a time machine to be able to fully relive the mid-2000s experience. But I do have what might be the next best thing – ebay. I was able to pick up this 3rd generation iPod Nano off ebay for just $15, and I’ll be using it to do what I’m describing as a “technological reenactment”.

I see the technological reenactment as a method that media historians can use to better understand the practices and experiences of a particular technology. Rather than something like emulation—which has the goal of reproducing and simulating old hardware and software, and unlike something like retro computing more generally – where people are concerned with preserving and maintaining old technology, the technological reenactment is a bit less concerned with a 100% perfect reproduction.

It’s not always feasible to secure all of the old hardware and software that existed in a given time frame. I’m only going back to the mid 2000s, and while I was able to get an old iPod fairly easily, getting a computer that could run the versions of iTunes that existed at the time would be a bit more of an involved—and expensive—process.

But if I want to get a sense of what it was like to download and watch video podcasts, I don’t really need a fully faithful reproduction of the hardware and software. The technological reenactement is a good method to use when “close enough” is all you need.

There are three main steps involved when doing a technological reenactment.

First, you need to identify the core characteristics of the experience that you are trying to re-create. These are features of the experience holistically, and don’t necessarily have to be specific pieces of hardware or software.

Second, you would determine what parts—if any—of the original experience you still have access to, and what parts you need to fill in with more modern technology.

Third, keep a running list of what substitutions you had to make, so you can consider how those more modern technologies affected the experience as a whole.

Like I said, the whole underlying theme of the technological reenactment is “close enough.” By being willing to overlook the exact hardware and software specifications, it may become more feasible for more people to do media history work, and in a wider variety of topics. While you do miss out on a 100% “authentic” (in heavy scare quotes) experience, it still lets you get at what Trevor Owens calls the “folkloric identity” of media. As compared to the artefactual or informational identities, this folkloric frame of preservation assumes that the material form of a media can change, as can the individual details of a story, for instance. But as long as the overall experience and cultural tradition is attended to, the folkloric identity is preserved.

So what does a technological reenactment look like for watching mid-2000s video podcasts in 2021?

[Background Music Begins]

First, I had to come up with the core characteristics of the video podcast experience. What was it like to watch video podcasts on mid-2000s technology? The mobile device – in this case the iPod – was not internet connected, and had a fairly small display. Even if I were to use the larger version of the iPod, it’s still comparatively smaller than the screens we have on modern smartphones. The lack of internet connectivity meant that videos had to first be downloaded to the computer, and then synchronized over—typically with iTunes. Oh, and the device also would not have Bluetooth – so no fancy wireless headphones. It’s a tangled mess of wires and 3.5mm jacks for me!

Okay, so those are the main characteristics. The next step is to figure out what parts I have access to, and what I need to fill in with modern technology. Like I mentioned, I was able to get an old iPod fairly cheaply off ebay, so I’m going to use that. But iTunes doesn’t exist anymore, so I’m going to have to just use the now split-up apps – Podcasts, TV, and Music – which are all separate, but still work for syncing old iPods. Unfortunately, the iTunes option to automatically convert video into an iPod-compatible format doesn’t exist anymore, so I’m using an external application to convert the video formats.

Step three is to list those modern substitutions and consider how they affect the overall experience. In my case, I think that using a different app to convert videos, and a slightly different interface to actually synchronize the ipod don’t make too much of a difference. Since my goal is to just understand how the experience of watching video podcasts was different than listening to audio ones, these are an acceptable amount of differences in my technological reenactment. Okay, so let’s get into the actual process…

[Background Music Ends]

So in terms of actually finding some old podcasts….

Alright, so actually we’re going to get into all the specifics here. When I had originally tried to talk through this in a brief fashion I ended up coming up with like, 15 to 20 minutes of me just rambling about stuff that honestly doesn’t matter that much. I’ll go ahead and take all the – the full walkthrough, and make that available as a bonus episode if you are interesting in seeing the full process. But I’m going to go ahead and just zip through things and give a summary of what I ended up doing.

First, I ended up finding a bunch of old video podcast episodes from PodcastRE which is this great online podcast database and archive. After downloading those I had to convert them into a compatible video format using a program called Handbrake. And then once I did that I was able to import them into the media library on my Mac, which amazingly was able to sync mostly as if it had actually been iTunes. So it was actually pretty close to the old process. Surprisingly, Apple kind of supports this old hardware. When I plugged in the iPod it recognized itself in the Finder, gave me all the sync options, so after I had downloaded and recorded all those videos, I was able to sync them over relatively seamlessly. Although, compared to the ease of pulling up the podcast app on my phone it definitely is a lot more of an involved process.

Now that I have a handful of podcasts – both audio and video – on my iPod, I decided to try and listen to them. And to watch them. In various settings. And the big takeaway is that it was just miserable.

[Background Music Begins]

In terms of audio podcasts, it was actually really convenient to have a separate device just for audio. When taking my dog out for a quick walk, this was really convenient – though I did find myself getting tangled in the audio cables from time to time. Not a big deal, worked great.

Just for laughs, I pulled up one of the video podcasts – this was one from 2021 – just to see what it would be like to watch a video while walking. As to expected, it was absolutely ridiculous. This only lasted a few seconds. It was just miserable trying to focus on a screen while I'm focusing on trying not to walk into traffic. Not too much of a surprise there.

I didn’t actually get footage of this, but I also tried watching a few videos while taking the bus in to campus. Watching videos on the iPod. And again, it was just awful! Maybe this is just me, but I got a really bad headache trying to focus on the really small screen with the bus moving around. This also happens if I try to watch videos on a bumpy bus even on a larger device, so I don’t think it was just because of the small screen on the iPod.

In summary, the experience of watching podcasts on the old iPod was terrible. Which wasn’t really that surprising. Given the limits of the technology – that is having to pre-load all the videos in advance – along with the small size of the screen, it was just too much work for a really less then stellar experience. The only time I felt okay watching videos on the tiny iPod screen was while sitting at home, and even then, if I'm at home I would prefer to watch on my TV or computer instead.

[Background Music Ends]

But like I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t think it was the technology alone that prevented video podcasts from taking off in the mid-2000s. Today, mobile video is incredibly popular – TikTok trends and challenges seem to come and go every day, and smartphone use is incredibly widespread. These improved mobile devices solve many of the limitations of the old iPod – they’re larger, they’re more capable, they have internet connectivity, you don’t have to manually download and sync content. But they’re still not frequently used for video podcasts, despite being used for other mobile video.

Again, this is because podcasts are characterized by forming an intimate connection between the podcast producer and the podcast listener. Or I guess the podcast watcher. But when you have video, and can see that the podcaster is in a different place and time than you, the illusion of intimacy is lost.

And, as I’ve shown with my technological reenactment, adding suboptimal video technology on top of that is essentially just a death blow for the video podcast. Despite the promise of it being the “next generation of podcasting,” it’s not really surprising that it didn’t take off.

But, interestingly enough, in the last few months, there have been a handful of announcements – and not small scale ones, either, suggesting that there might be a future for video podcasts. For instance, in November 2021, Spotify sent an email to podcast producers promoting a beta launch of video support on the Spotify platform, claiming that “Video brings listeners right into your world, making podcasting a more engaging experience than ever“

So in the next episode, the last of the season, I’ll dive into these new announcements and consider whether there is a possible future for the video podcast. Catch you in the next one.

[Music Begins]

Beside the Rabbit Hole is a podcast that is written, show, and produced by me, Ben Pettis. Yo ucan get in touch with me to let me know what you think of the show, or if you have ideas for future seasons. My contact information is in the episode description.

Thank you to Kevin MacLeod for the music which is used as the theme song, as well as background music at various points throughout the show. Seriously, this guy has basically written the soundtrack for the internet, and has the whole world on his shoulders.

This episode used a few brief clips from various podcasts, and made extensive use of the PodcastRE podcast archive and database. More information about all of this can be found in the episode description.

I have a favor to ask of you – if you’re listening to this, and are enjoying it there’s something you can do to help the show. Please share this with others – friends, family, that annoying coworker who’s always asking you for podcast recommendations—it would really help me out, and I greatly appreciate it.

Until next time, thank you for watching!

[Music Ends]

Ben:

Doo-doot-doot-do-doo this is going to be the part where we cut in that screen capture I did before. Life is good!


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