The Lonely Listener

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Stan Alcorn investigates why Internet users almost never share audio the way they share, say, pet videos:

“Audio never goes viral,” writes radio and podcast producer Nate DiMeo. “If you posted the most incredible story – literally, the most incredible story that has ever been told since people have had the ability to tell stories, it will never, ever get as many hits as a video of a cat with a moustache.” It’s hardly a fair fight, audio vs. cat video, but it’s the one that’s fought on Facebook every day. DiMeo’s glum conclusion is an exaggeration of what [viral video-maker Bianca] Giaever reads as the moral of her own story: “People will watch a bad video more than [they will listen to] good audio,” she says.

Those in the Internet audio business tend to give two explanations for this disparity.

“The greatest reason is structural,” says Jesse Thorn, who hosts a public radio show called “Bullseye” and runs a podcast network called Maximum Fun. “Audio usage takes place while you’re doing something else.” You can listen while you drive or do the dishes, an insuperable competitive advantage over text or video, which transforms into a disadvantage when it comes to sharing the listening experience with anyone out of earshot. “When you’re driving a car, you’re not going to share anything,” says Thorn.

The second explanation is that you can’t skim sound. An instant of video is a still, a window into the action that you can drag through time at will. An instant of audio, on the other hand, is nothing. “If I send someone an article, if they see the headline and read a few things, they know what I want them to know,” a sound artist and radio producer told me. “If I send someone audio, they have to, like… listen to it.” It’s a lot to ask of an Internet audience.

For some radio makers, social media incompatibility is a sign of countercultural vitality. Thorn has called his own work “anti-viral,” and believes that entertaining his niche audience is “still so much better than making things that convince aunts to forward them to each other.”

(Image by Flickr user JB912)