Social Audio – what is it, who’s using it, why has it exploded. Here’s everything you need to know

Clubhouse App. Photograph: Unsplash

Psst...if you listen closely, you will hear that social audio is having a moment. In fact, it is probably the hottest startup space in the world right now.

What is Social Audio?

Unlike image-based platforms such as Instagram or text-based platforms like Twitter, social audio puts the human voice front and centre. It’s listening and actively participating in audio conversations in real-time. Picture a virtual chat show in which you, as the audience, can interact via voice and ask questions.

How did it become the new buzzword on the block

It began back in March 2020, when two Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Paul Davison and Rohan Seth launched a company called Clubhouse in the US.

Clubhouse is a drop-in audio chat app where people from around the world join together to talk, listen and learn from each other. Currently, the app can only be accessed through an invitation from an existing member so there is an air of exclusivity about it. It is also only available to IOS users which further adds to the FOMO factor. But once you’re in, you can create a profile, select your topics of interest like business, books or health, and begin joining rooms where live conversations happen. Some rooms have just a handful of people in them while other rooms hold thousands.

In just over a year, Clubhouse has grown to more than 10 million weekly active users. One reason for this is that big-name celebrities have got in on the action.

After Elon Musk announced he would be a guest of the Good Time show on Clubhouse, google searches globally for the app spiked dramatically.

The rivals tapping into the trend

Although Clubhouse is the most famous platform, they are not the only player in town. Twitter launched Spaces this month, its own take on Clubhouse, while Facebook unveiled plans this week for a suite of new social audio tools. These include Soundbites that will let users record and post voice clips on their News Feed, a Podcasts discovery tool, and a Live Audio feature dubbed Hotline. Reddit has also jumped on the bandwagon by releasing a Beta version of Reddit Talk.

In total, industry analyst Jeremiah Owyang has documented more than 39 social audio apps worldwide. This level of competition may explain the decline in Google searches for Clubhouse since it peaked in early February, as the social media giants with deeper pockets begin to flex their muscles.

Why social audio blew up

Jeremiah Owyang calls audio the “Goldilocks” Medium: "Text is not enough, video is too much; social audio is just right.”

While we have been stuck at home during quarantine, the desire for human connection and intimacy beyond text, and fatigue from too many video conference calls, have created the perfect breeding ground for audio. “You come as you are,” Owyang says. “You don’t have to be wearing your business suit. You don’t have to be wearing clothes, frankly.”

Andrew Hutchinson, an award-winning blogger, author and social media marketing analyst, agrees.

In an interview, he said: “The most logical reason is that social audio platforms have provided a replacement, of sorts, for incidental and serendipitous social interactions, which we're all lacking due to the various COVID-19 mitigation measures.”

“These incidental discussions we're missing - overhearing a discussion on a train, catching up with a workmate about their weekend - I don’t think we realise how valuable they really are.”

"I’m very much an auditory person, I don’t want to have to put my makeup on, or get dressed”

—Linda Reynolds
Linda Reyolds

However, not everyone has bought into the idea

Shaan Puri, a tech investor and former CEO of Bebo, has written a Twitter list of reasons why he thinks Clubhouse will fail. “It’s hard to consistently create live, audio-only content that will engage current users and bring in new ones,” says Shaan.

The explosive growth of this audio-based social network has also drawn scrutiny over how these companies will handle hate speech, misinformation and harassment. Moderating live voice chat represents a new set of challenges, with the Anti Defamation League (ADL) having already identified forms of hate speech on Clubhouse, according to Euronews.

So if the pandemic has been a significant factor in the growth of social audio, does that mean we’ll stop using this functionality once we go back to regular, face-to-face interaction?

“No, I don't think so, at least not entirely,” says Andrew Hutchinson.

“I suspect what we're seeing now, in terms of social audio usage, will follow a similar trajectory to video streaming, which saw a big rise in popularity in 2015, then gradually died down once it normalised and the novelty value diminished. It will ease back, and become just another part of the broader social media ecosphere."

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