Is Live Audio the Next Big Social Media Frontier?

Social Media Article
20 mins

Forget streaming video and AR filters: the next big thing in social media could be the human voice. From the trendy, emerging app Clubhouse to Twitter Spaces, many of 2021’s biggest social industry stories have related to voice-only chat features.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at live audio pioneer Clubhouse, plus the well-funded rivals which have emerged in its wake. Join us for a chat on the frontier.

Clubhouse: the model for live audio on social media?

There’s a new social platform being championed by tech influences and media commentators – and that platform is built around live audio.

Clubhouse is a voice-based social network, where users can host, join or listen to ‘Rooms’, in which live conversations are held on a wide range of topics.

High-profile influencers including Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Oprah Winfrey and Kanye West emerged as supporters of Clubhouse during winter 2020-21, sparking rapid growth in global downloads of the app, from 3.5 million on 1 February to 8.1 million on 16 February 2021. According to Clubhouse CEO, Paul Davison, the app had 2 million weekly average users by summer 2021 – a small fraction of the audiences using Facebook, WhatsApp and other leading social platforms, but an indication of Clubhouse’s potential, nonetheless.

CNET’s video shows what it’s like to use Clubhouse.

The user experience of Clubhouse is centred on live ‘Rooms’, where users hold conversations on set themes or topics. Dipping in and out of these spaces can provide a remarkable window onto various interests and communities. In a recent Clubhouse session, our writer listened in to a diverse mix of Rooms, including a poetry workshop, a debate on the need for international intervention in Afghanistan, and a discussion group about the economics of fast food. Some of these conversations turned out to be more interesting and better moderated than others – and unfortunately, there is no guarantee of avoiding offensive language or statements in any given Room. Most of the time, the experience was positive and interesting.

Of course, the other side to Clubhouse’s user experience is speaking. Users can add their voice to a conversation by becoming one of the Speakers in a Room – which can be done by hosting a Room, by being one of the first to join a Room, or by pressing a button to ‘Raise your hand’ and subsequently getting approved to speak by a moderator. The Speakers in a Room take turns to talk, and are generally expected to mute their microphone while someone else is speaking.

If you’re interested in trying Clubhouse, at the time of writing, you’ll need to be invited by an existing user to join the app’s beta – a policy reminiscent of Spotify’s invite-only origins.

The good news for those who don’t currently know any Clubhouse users, is that the app’s makers have said they are “working hard to scale Clubhouse as fast as [they] can and open it up to everyone soon.”

Given the budding success of Clubhouse, it has been unsurprising to see established social media players subsequently making moves in the live audio space. For instance, according to Mashable, Reddit has been quietly exploring a new feature that would enable moderated voice chats, possibly similar to Clubhouse.

And then there are the big-hitting alternatives to Clubhouse which have already gone live. Twitter Spaces had its global launch in May 2021, and this was followed, just one month later, by the launch of Spotify’s music-focused live audio app, Spotify Greenroom.

Clubhouse remains the model for live audio-focused social media – but it remains to be seen whether the platform can build a user base to match its bigger rivals.

Money talks – so can social platforms monetise live audio?

A key test of whether live audio can truly be the next big frontier in social media, is how successfully platforms and users can monetise the feature.

Twitter announced the trial of a monetisation option for its live audio product, Twitter Spaces, in June 2021. The feature, which is called Ticketed Spaces, currently allows selected iOS users to host paid gatherings, where audience members would purchase tickets to access a live voice conversation. The host selects the number of tickets that will be available for a Space and sets a price; then audience members have to buy a ticket in order to access the Space.

If you’re interested in using Ticketed Spaces as a creator, you’ll first need to complete an onboarding process and link a Stripe account. As some users are finding out, there are also some minimum eligibility criteria for the current Ticketed Spaces trial. For a start, applicants must be 18 years old, they need to have an account with at least 1,000 followers, and they must have hosted at least three Spaces in the previous 30 days. It remains to be seen whether Twitter will eventually lower these barriers to entry.

While Ticketed Spaces creators will be able to earn revenue through ticket sales, Twitter is also set to secure a cut of the takings, as its official guidance on the feature reveals:

“Creators can earn up to 97% of revenue earned for tickets purchased to their Ticketed Spaces after platform fees on in-app purchases.”

“Once a creator has made a total of $50,000 in lifetime earnings from Twitter creator monetization products (including Ticketed Spaces and Super Follows), the creator will be eligible to earn up to 80% of revenue on future earnings from Twitter creator monetization products after platform fees on in-app purchases.”

We’ll be watching with interest to see which creators take Twitter up on its Ticketed Spaces offering, and how they’ll use the feature.

A likely key selling point for these experiences will be privileged access to information or personalities.

Consider paid webinars and group video calls – both of which are well-established product types across industries including education, investment, business and marketing. In these groups, the expert group leader or organiser charges attendees for access to the valuable information which is shared within the group. It’s easy to envisage this exchange of money for info taking place on Twitter Ticketed Spaces.

Meanwhile, the $100 million gross revenue for 2020 taken by Cameo, a service used by celebrities to sell personalised videos, evidences a demand for digital connection with prominent personalities. Twitter Ticketed Spaces – or a similar product – could facilitate a deeper interaction between celebrities and their fans. And unlike Cameo, the live audio format means the star doesn’t even need to put their makeup on.

Where do voice notes sit in the live audio landscape?

For many social users, live messaging has long since involved audio communication, in the form of voice notes. WhatsApp became the first big player to offer a voice note feature in 2013, and the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have all since followed suit. Essentially the same simple experience is common to most platforms: you press a ‘record’ button within a chat interface, record your audio and send the voice note, and then participants in the chat will be able to open the note and listen to it.

Voice notes in messaging apps lie at the borderline between live audio and recorded audio. The audio is delivered to the recipient live – but whether or not a note gets listened to straightaway depends on the recipient.

Either way, voice notes currently belong in just about any conversation about social media in 2021. The short, recorded messages have enjoyed rising popularity among certain user groups over recent years – especially so, it seems, during the pandemic. Writing for The Guardian, Magdalene Abraha captured the feature’s contemporary appeal:

“Communication fatigue last year manifested itself like never before. The pandemic proved a challenging time for most, burnout was real, angst was high, and being “Zoomed out” became a very real thing. When at home (which for many of us was almost all the time), the desire to hear people but not necessarily see them grew […].

“The voice note proved itself to be the perfect pandemic companion. As people’s homes became their offices, the need for communication that respected boundaries became all the more important. Herein lies the genius of the voice note – it maintains intimacy, being able to hear that friendly voice, while not being intrusive.”

This quote gets to the heart of the appeal of voice note messaging: warmer than a text message; calmer than a call.

That’s not to say voice notes are everyone’s preference. The Next Web writer Georgina Ustik sums up some of her gripes with users of the feature: “You have interrupted my music. You love the sound of your own voice and you should probably be in jail for trying to force me to do the same.”

As of autumn 2021, voice notes within social media messaging platforms are used far more widely than dedicated live audio platforms such as Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.

What’s next for live audio on social media?

Clubhouse has major competition for supremacy in the emerging voice chat market – and that’s not only from Twitter Spaces and Spotify Greenroom.

Another key participant in what Wired has dubbed “the war of the voices” is Discord, the hugely popular audio platform for gamers. With over 100 million active users and an ongoing project to extend its appeal to non-gamers, Discord could well be the platform that brings live audio to the social media mainstream.

Ultimately, live audio on social media could look a lot like Clubhouse or Discord’s current offering, but in a more mature iteration; or, it could look entirely different. There are plenty of smaller social platforms innovating in the social live audio space, including riffr, a social micro-podcasting platform where users share their ‘riffs’ on interesting topics, and Spoon, a social audio live-streaming platform. Who knows which features will capture users’ imaginations the most?

Live audio really does appear to be the next big frontier in social media – and in true frontier fashion, the space is still a bit of a Wild West. The brands and marketers who are able to gain a foothold in the months to come may have a head start, if and when live audio starts to settle as a long-term fixture of how people interact online.

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