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Tow Center

This American Life listeners are sharing audio in unexpected ways

December 27, 2016
Image: dearmiami/Flickr

Podcasters now enjoy a number of ways to share audio clips on social media, including WNYC’s Audiograms, Clipmaker, and the social audio app Clammr. In October, This American Life launched its own new social sharing tool, Shortcut, which was funded through grants from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Knight Foundation. Shortcut gives users the ability to create short audio and text gifs using transcripts of This American Life’s episodes. While tools like Shortcut fill a need for podcasters themselves, are users taking advantage?

CJR first wrote about Shortcut when it launched in October. Two months after the launch, This American Life presented some early data about how listeners are using Shortcut at a panel at the Tow Center. The data give some important clues about how users are sharing audio online: They go back in the archives and deep in the episodes–but they also tend not to share clips directly to social media.

In the first seven weeks, about 3,900 people used the tool to generate 4,800 clips. Although the 10 most-clipped This American Life episodes originally aired between June and October 2016, the data show that users are also digging through the archive to create clips. In fact, users have so far sampled half of the entire archive at least once.

The activity in the back catalog of This American Life suggests fans have interest, appetite, and most importantly, memory, for old episodes. For example, Episode 241, titled “20 Acts in 60 Minutes” which aired in 2003, is the 15th most-clipped episode. It was a departure from the classic format of This American Life. Instead of three acts, the episode had 20. The compressed format may have lent itself to many particularly memorable clips.

The transcript data generated by the tool show that the one of the most clipped lines from this episode comes from “Act Eight: The Greatest Dog Name in the World.” It’s the story of two brothers who were fighting over what to name their dog: “And then there was silence, and then from there he is Pasta Batman Loetz. Pasta, come on. Pasta Batman.”

Another popular line in this episode was from “Act Fifteen: Master Prediction,” from an interview with David Rakoff: “And in almost the only moment of decisiveness in my entire adult life–I’ve certainly never equalled this–I went in the next morning and I quit. And all I could think was Sayonara suckers. Good luck with your network. And we know exactly what the network was. It was the internet.”

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Interestingly, fewer than 1,200 of the 4,800 clips generated so far were shared directly to social media. The rest were downloaded and either shared to social media later as user uploads (rather than straight from the tool), emailed to friends, or enjoyed alone. This suggests that the sharing behavior of audio may be more private than the sharing of photographs (e.g. on Instagram), news articles, or memes online. Even short, engaging audio and text gifs still require more attention to scan and consume than a purely visual gif, photo, tweet, or news headline. And while podcasts create an intimate, up-close storytelling experience, those qualities might mitigate against meme-like sharing.

The data from Shortcut also show that listeners seem to have a common ear for material that they want to share, and tend to gravitate toward certain lines. The most-clipped episode to date is the post-election episode “Seriously?” which generated 948 clips. The most-clipped series of lines in the episode is from host Ira Glass, commenting on the relationship between facts and truth:

So that’s where we are right now. The presentation of facts is seen as partisan opinion, and then every day a barrage of untruths are presented as truth, and we’re just supposed to suck it up. That’s the moment we live in. That’s our country right now. And this is going to continue after this election, no matter who wins. Like, this is the rest of our lives, I think, this post-truth politics. With so many of us getting our news from social media and from sources that we agree with, it’s easier than ever to check if a fact is true, and facts matter less than ever.




Listeners also showed a slight preference for creating longer clips, suggesting a desire to incorporate context. Within any given episode, the clips users created didn’t just come from the beginning of the hour, either. There seems to be an equitable distribution of clips between Glass, the other hosts, and the guests.



While most clips from Shortcut are expressing “listen to this cool thing,” some are also expressing other ideas or feelings through the text and audio clipped from the podcast.



On the other hand, listeners are still sharing screenshots of the full transcripts of episodes (which are available on the This American Life website), suggesting that the tool may not be able to incorporate enough context for some kinds of sharing behavior.



Engagement in the archive reveals another interesting path for podcasters to resurface and monetize old audio. Many popular podcasting platforms, like Apple’s Podcast app, show episodes in reverse chronology, which tends to hide the extensive back catalog that many shows are quickly developing. New ad technology like Panoply’s Megaphone, PRX’s Dovetail, or Art19 use dynamic ad insertion to help producers monetize their back catalogs when listeners dip into old shows. And different podcast platforms are experimenting with new ways to serve up episodes that go beyond the default reverse chronology, such as RadioPublic and 60DB.

Audio on mobile and on the web is, for now, mostly a black box: not scannable, searchable, skimmable, or linkable to other digital objects. Shortcut is working to change that; the way it makes audio accessible and searchable to listeners during the act of listening may be its biggest innovation.

Elizabeth Hansen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Tow Center and a doctoral candidate in Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School.