Two recent stories about blogs and podcasting have something in common- they both tout them as still-cutting edge Net technologies that are having greater and greater impact online and offline. Unfortunately, both articles also point out a huge problem with these Net applications. The data about just exactly how many people are tuning in is so wildly varied despite the hype that all signs point to another Net bubble that's going to burst.
An the SFGate article, How an ex-VJ transformed conventional media into the vox populi, we hear the story of how Adam Curry's visionary idea kicked off the podcasting craze which has reached mainstream media. What we also hear is this:
"It is difficult to determine how many people are making or listening to podcasts. Even the most reliable numbers are vague: A survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in Washington, D.C., released in April estimates that 29 percent of iPod or other MP3 player owners have downloaded podcasts -- that's more than 6 million Americans. EMarketer took a more aggressive stance, claiming that 10 million people will download podcasts this year.
But a Forrester Research analyst, in an April report, found that only 1 percent of online households currently download podcasts -- that's about 700,000 podcast users. To add to the confusion, a survey from the Diffusion Group, a Texas research firm, stated that 80 percent of people still listen to their downloads at the computer, which shows that many still aren't actually hearing podcasts on a mobile device."
It goes on say that Curry isn't bothered by this speculation and why should he be? He's got advertisers lining up after all.
Then in an Christian Science Monitor article, Blogs now have a world of influence, we hear the same uncertainty about the audiences for blogs:
"... if you build a blog, don't expect a lot of people to come. Only 6 percent of online consumers read blogs, according to a study of 68,000 households by Forrester Research in September 2005 (www.forrester.com/ER/Press/ Release/0,1769,1028,00. html). This figure, however, is only a snapshot of the US consumer - not how blogs are read or used worldwide. No doubt many blogs written in the United States are read by people abroad, particularly blogs on pop culture and politics.
In fact, a study done for Jupiter Research says that blogs have a "disproportionately large influence" on society. The reason? It's not how many people read a blog, it's who reads it.
The Jupiter study, which focused on blog use in Europe, found that while "active users" of the Internet make up a small portion of overall Internet users, they were starting to dominate public discussions and even have an impact on people's buying habits."
Interesting? Yes. But kind of disquieting also. The fact of the matter is that the blogs that bubble up to the mainstream consciousness and reach the biggest audiences are the ones that cover political scandals and offer up free music. But in terms of readership, it looks like the blogs have the same problem as the podcasts- no one has a real handle on the numbers.
What this means is that two factors that usually drive the consulting business are now swooping in on these Net fields: fear and ignorance. When a new technology comes out, any self-respecting company doesn't want to be out of the loop and behind in the tech wars so they'll sign on and try it out no matter if there is ever any real advantage to doing so. This means that not only will companies themselves create their own blogs and podcasts (which you usually wouldn't want to pay attention to as they're glorified press releases) but they also want to attach themselves to respected brands, which means sinking money into other peoples' ventures too- in other words, paying ad money at blogs and in podcasts. Inevitably, this will also mean more start-ups and speculative investors who see an opportunity to exploit.
Remember the last time this happened? The Net was still wild west territory were companies were still figuring out how to work it and use it to their advantage. Start-up companies could do a concept like zippers.com and find eager investors just because it was a brand new Net company. They didn't need any capital or business plan, they were hot and on the Net with a flashy presentation and that was good enough. Then the inevitable happened. Circa 2000, Wall Street started to realize that these companies were empty shells and they started collapsing, taking millions of dollars of investors' money with them while the smart entrepeneurs who started up the businesses in the first place had already cashed out for piles of money.
Now with speculation running wild as hype about blogs and podcasts, could the same fate be in store for them? There are already companies bankrolling them (as the articles above testify) but are investors going to be any wiser this time and if the bottom falls out again, where will that leave these technologies? The last bubble burst didn't kill off the Net but it did have the advantage of clearing out a lot of B.S. start-up companies and the same will no doubt happen this time. Also because these technologies are so pervasive and easy to use now, you'll still have thousands of users who will keep at them even if they never make a cent off them.
But not to worry- at this moment, new Net technologies are being crunched out, ready to pique the imagination of the next generation of Net nerds and eventual prospectors panning for gold and so will the cycle continue...