Let's hear it for screencasting

New medium offers unprecedented avenues for training, discussion

Last January, when I first wrote about the medium that I’ve since come to call screencasting, it seemed an odd-enough topic that I felt obliged to justify it to my editor.

A year later it’s clear that my instincts weren’t leading me astray. I’m now using screencasts — that is, narrated movies of software in action — to showcase application tips, capture and publish product demonstrations, and even make short documentaries. And I’m seeing others around the Net starting to do the same. Now’s a good time to explain why I think this mode of communication matters and will flourish.

Let’s start with the simplest form: a screencast that highlights a product feature, offers a tip, or teaches a technique. An example is the 90-second short movie I made to show how I use a Firefox extension called Linky to efficiently review a set of linked pages. Of course I could explain the procedure using the written word. As one viewer of the screencast noted, however, “There’s nothing like seeing.”

We all know that most people use only a tiny fraction of the power of applications such as Microsoft Office. Technologists like to think that the people we disparagingly call “users” don’t want to make better use of their software and couldn’t, even if they tried. I don’t buy that. As a species, we learn voraciously when we can imitate what we see others doing. And there’s the rub.

If you think about it, we rarely get to observe in detail how other people use their software tools. Now that it’s almost trivial to make and publish short screencasts, can we expose our software-tool-using behavior to one another in ways that provoke imitation, lead to mastery, and spur innovation? It’s such a crazy idea that it just might work.

Meanwhile, I’m having a ball capturing product demonstrations, editing them, and publishing them to my blog as screencasts. I’m privileged to see a lot of interesting things, and it’s exciting to be able to share some of them with you.

These screencasts aren’t product reviews and don’t pretend to be. I think I’m often able to dig down beneath the surface of a demo in a useful way. I’m planning to do a bunch of demo screencasts this year, so you can judge for yourself.

Finally, there’s a sense in which screencasting can rise to the level of cinematic storytelling. I got a taste of that when I made a short documentary about the life of a Wikipedia page. It’s not a training film but rather an exploration of Wikipedia’s editorial process and its cultural commitment to accuracy, completeness, and neutrality.

The same week, a very different kind of screencast surfaced in the blogosphere — the ACLU-sponsored depiction of an Orwellian near future in which personal data is seamlessly joined and ruthlessly exploited.

For better and for worse, human experience is becoming intertwined with software systems of growing complexity. If we are going to make sense of our software-mediated lives and contemplate the values these software systems embody, we will need a means to tell one another stories: about how things are, how things might be, and how things ought to be.

I think that screencasting is the right medium — arguably the only possible one — for Wikipedia’s hopeful vision, for the ACLU’s dark fantasy, and for a lot of other stories yet to be told.

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