Making sense of our networked lives

Two years ago, when I launched my yearlong series of Prime-Time Hypermedia columns on the O'Reilly Network, the term screencast had yet to be coined. It wasn't until November of 2004 that Joseph McDonald and Deeje Cooley would separately propose the term that I picked. A year later I found 325,000 references to the term in Google's index. Today, there are 7 million. Screencasts are being used by open source projects, by commercial vendors, and happily, as of last week, by InfoWorld reviewers.

While I'm delighted to watch all this unfold, I"m also mindful of the challenges ahead. On the standards front, media players and delivery formats remain in flux. And as screencasts (and other videos) proliferate, the problem of URL-addressable random access -- also unsolved in the realm of audio -- looms larger.

On the tools front, commercial software for capture, editing, and production is good and getting better, but there's plenty of room for improvement. And the commercial stuff isn't cheap, which deters casual and spontaneous use. Free or inexpensive alternatives could meet that need, but the Audacity of screencasting has (in my opinion) yet to emerge.

While these constraints will ease over time, here's one that won't. It's just plain hard, in any medium, to tell a great story. The best screencasts I've done -- and not coincidentally also the most successful -- speak to questions of why as well as how. Why does Wikipedia work? Why would I want to use As networked software increasingly mediates our lives and our work, we'll need to to make sense of these new modes of experience. Telling the stories that help us do that is the highest and best use of the medium. It's also the most elusive.

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