How social audio may boost or break your business strategy

Clubhouse, Spaces, Fireside… the “pivot to” season is opening again. Here’s what will work and what can go wrong with the next best thing” in media — emphasis on the quotation marks

Remixing is the technological force (and chapter) number 8 from Kevin Kelly’s The Inevitable (2016), a seminal work we’ve already debated and aims to interpret “the 12 technological forces that will shape our future.” In Remixing’s second paragraph, Kelly says: “We live in a golden age of new mediums. In the last several decades hundreds of media genres have been born, remixed out of old genres. (…) These new genres themselves will be remixed, unbundled, and recombined into hundreds of other new genres.”

Kelly’s logic is straightforward and compelling: the same way a newspaper article was once an extremely popular format (and today is on life support), new genres such as a tweet, a YouTube video, a podcast episode and others only entered into mainstream because in the “golden age of mediums,” the remix alone is not enough; it is essential to get the right blend consistently.

Naturally, a new media genre is not formed out of nothing just because someone thinks it’s cool. And it is not controlled by a person or a corporation only because they really, really want it. This is a time-consuming, money-drain, blood-shedding process that dictates, among other things, who’s going to rule this newly established industry. That’s one of the reasons this scene usually ends in cloning (as in Instagram copying SnapChat) or buying (as in Facebook acquiring Instagram…). “This isn’t about who invented something. This is about a format, and how you take it to a network and put your own spin on it,” summed up Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom when he was trying to explain the “controversy.”

Since the podcast era began its trajectory towards mass media, there’s always someone who says that the time has come for take audio “to a network and put your own spin on it.” Over the past 15 years, this has been a recurring “pivot to,” whose peaks were modulated based on the launch of influential audio-related products and services, such as Spotify, Apple podcasts, voice-enabled devices, Anchor and, more recently, this voguish mix headed by Clubhouse, Spaces, and Fireside.

You and Mark may have very different intentions in life — I hope — but just as you have been questioning if this Clubhouse thing is worth a shot, Facebook’s CEO has been wondering the exact same thing.

There is an extensive array of articles all over the web explaining how social audio (or audio-chat, as some prefer) works, therefore there’s no need to go into technical details. But just to present an overview, these three platforms have the same premise: gathering hosts and guests in a virtual space for voice interaction. People can listen to a couple of musicians discussing a collab they just recorded, there may be a group of comedians sharing stories about bad dates, or can be two 16-year-old dudes who have never run a company talking about entrepreneurship (really popular sketch, by the way). This audio-focused network — like everything on the internet — is an incredibly vast universe, for better or worse.

The key-attribute to all of them is that everything happens in real-time, and — at least for now — all conversations vanish “forever” as soon as the chat ends (except for Fireside, which has distinct mechanics).

Here are some peculiarities and differences between these three competitors:

Clubhouse

In May 2020, these guys were a promising startup with just over 1,500 users, and in less than nine months they became a company with a . So it comes as no surprise that Clubhouse is all the rage. At the time of this writing, the app was still invite-only, iOS-only and messy-only, but a lot of fun.

Once you’re in there, you can set up your own “room” — private or public — or browse other “rooms” that are already in progress. Besides “rooms,” users will find “clubs” on Clubhouse, which work similarly to Facebook groups. Any Flat Earth club so far? No, not really, but I have found a “Conspiracy Club” where “no theory too far-fetched, no conspiracy off limits,” so there’s hope.

Spaces

That’s Twitter’s version for Clubhouse, but with some significant differences. The user can set up a “room” — I mean a “space,” of course — and get his show on the road. Invitations and iPhones are not mandatory, and there’s no limit for the number of listeners at the same time (in Clubhouse the limit is 5,000 people). Another difference is, users can rely on the follower base they already have on Twitter, which is a big deal because in Clubhouse, you start your journey with the counter at zero.

But there’s a time-sensitive catch: Space’s not public yet. By now, the ability to create your own audio-chat on Twitter is limited to a select few. The company says it plans to let anyone start hosting Spaces next month — aka a couple of weeks. Expect a fascinating and confusing timeline from now on.

Fireside

Of all three, Fireside is the furthest from being launch publicly because it’s currently in beta with a very limited number of users. From what some tech sites were able to gather from a few screenshots, it intends to be some kind of Clubhouse, but enhanced with typical podcast features, like incidental music, sound effects and monetization tools.

As there’s still no real product, just these few tests and the word of Mark Cuban (yep, ), it is impossible to know what degree of reality we are dealing with in relation to the final version of Fireside. According to those same publications, Cuban dreams of turning his product into an audio platform with exclusive content, which could be translated as Clubhouse meets Anchor meets Spotify.

The short-term success or a sudden failure of any of these platforms will dictate Big Tech’s reaction and will probably design the market as a whole, because strange as it may seem, this is still a tango without divas. It is a rare picture, but there is no Facebook, Google, Apple or Amazon. Yet.

Maybe not even they know how to answer the original question and its corollaries. Is it worth the investment? Is there room for a new format in the golden age of mediums? And if there is, is it social audio?

The podcast market — different tonality, same texture — endured its private roller coaster over the years until he received a definitive badge of “consolidated medium.” This was mid-2010’s, a turbulent period in media history: many companies were still numb to that “pivot to video” hysteria, and hence really slow to open their eyes and ears to audio.

About the same time, businessman and bestselling author Gary Vaynerchuk — among a few others — began a process to convince his entourage that audio and voice could be the new Instagram. Those who fell under Vaynerchuk’s spell (just to be clear, ) opted for the simplest solution: let’s pull off a podcast and reuse it on YouTube — probably the thousandth bizarre version of media in the 21st century alone.

In that momentum, many of them, as you might have guessed, decided to create a podcast about nothing. And this silly equation already-famous plus turn-on-the-mic equals ka-ching ended up being a disaster in most cases. Their “struggle” has not been in vain though: it brought us a couple of lessons in order to answer the “is there room for a new format?” ultimate question.

Lesson number 1: if you’re not adding value to your __________ (whatever it is that you manage), don’t even bother. Being present on a new platform — especially a hyped one like social audio — and trying to build a new community around your brand may sound like a good strategy to stay relevant, but it’s also a maneuver that can go really bad really fast.

Lesson number 2, even more important than the previous one, is to respect the characteristics of the medium. One of the most elementary mistakes made when entering a new format is believing that it’s possible to simply adapt your material, pray ten Hail Marys and hope for the best. I can save everyone’s time — yours and Mary’s — and crystal-ball the outcome of that plan: it won’t work.

Remember blogs? Too much fun until it became too much work

Let’s gather around the campfire, sing our campfire song and listen to an ancient story. When blogs emerged, they became immensely popular as a result of their two-way interaction between author and readers. The reciprocal factor was essential for the structuring of this new media genre. A smart and successful blogger knew how to use readers’ comments as a source of information, persuasion, and incitement. Several bloggers made a name for themselves by promoting passion and chaos among their readers.

It was all fun and games until the moment when it became too much work. When the number of readers increased, and the labor of managing and moderating comments became more burdensome, many bloggers and news companies decided to ditch one of the characters in that bilateral interaction (guess which one). In their minds, they were so brilliant that one side alone would be enough to keep the party going. It wasn’t enough, obviously. And that’s how blogs — although they still exist as nomenclature, especially in Latin America — totally lost the main feature that turned them into a media genre.

The resemblance to social audio is hard to miss. Anyone who treats Clubhouse, Spaces etc. as a masterclass or a live podcast will certainly fail. Wait, so does that mean listeners expect to talk? Well that’s the thing: sometimes they will, sometimes they won’t. As with any new media genre, these routines will be adapted on a daily basis. If there are 1,000 listeners in a “room” or “space,” for example, it is expected that very few people will have a chance to speak. In other cases, depending on the theme, the host, the guests, more listeners will be able to weigh in during that session. But again, this will adjust over time, especially because a considerable part of users don’t even want to set the ring on fire in the first place, they’re only there to see it burning, as it happens on Twitter.

Answering the original question, yes, there’s room for new formats in this golden age of mediums, and, yes, Gary Vaynerchuk and his peers were right: audio is certainly a strong possibility. However, knowing whether Clubhouse offers the definitive social audio model is much more difficult to anticipate. The recent history of tech companies holds too many plot twists to fall into this trap: Friendster, MySpace, Vine, Periscope… all of them have one or more “what if” that would have changed the course of digital life as we know it.

Speaking of Periscope, Kayvon Beykpour, Head of Consumer Product at Twitter, who is Periscope’s and Space’s frontman, believes there will be more players in the social audio wars. By his logic, the “voice-sharing” market won’t be like the “video-sharing,” “photo-sharing,” or “280-characters-sharing” markets, where there’s a clear monopoly. “I don’t think social audio is going to be winner-takes-all. I think there’s going to be a lot of interesting startups and big companies that build this,” he said on an a few days ago.

But regardless of whether he’s right or not, is it possible to trace some kind of route that leads to more hits than misses — for you and Mark?

Of course it is.

If you are a “Mark” — Cuban or Zuckerberg — or someone who has a similar investment power of these two, the potential success for this platform, if it aims to become a new media genre, depends on four factors:

  1. Keeping the product truly innovative — new tools, solid structure, and improving UX are not only critical, they do need to represent a constant update process.
  2. Keeping the product relevant — which can be done with a series of media actions that, interestingly enough, several tech companies have shown a lot of difficulty in achieving or getting the right tone.
  3. Arranging international expansion as soon as possible — social audio is about very different languages, so is the path from niche to mainstream.
  4. Investing extensively in content moderation and data protection, issues that, for incomprehensible reasons, companies keep underestimating like it’s 2015. “We would be kidding ourselves if we thought we could be the police officers for all live audio conversations happening globally at any given point in time,” Beykpour said about moderation in Twitter Spaces.

My nod is usually a lie.

Now, if you’re not Twitter or any of the two Marks, and you belong to the spectrum of “users, organizations, or companies” that intend to add social audio to your brand strategy, there are also some trails that may be more useful than others:

  1. Do not try to convert this format into something that it is not. Voice-chat is not a live podcast with a guaranteed audience: some of the folks in that “room” most likely expect to have the opportunity to be heard as well. Remember: there’s a reason it is called “social audio” and not “audiobook.”
  2. Do not renew the YouTubers’ folly of a podcast-about-nothing. It’s simply impossible to adapt the material that already exists to use it in social audio. The same goes for any modus operandi that you believe it has been a resounding success on another platform.
  3. And finally a tip from the previous list that also applies to this one: the need for content moderation cannot be stressed enough. The minute your “room,” “club,” or “space” becomes a place that allows the spread of fake news, hate speech, misinformation, promotion of violent extremism etc., I’m sorry, but you’re done.

Okay, so let’s assume I’m right (a huge risk by itself), and social audio does have a future as a new media genre. What are the predictable “what if” scenarios that can beget potential plot twists similar to those that changed the course of so many products in the recent past?

It may seem silly, but the first conditional factor is standardization. What lexicon will be associated with the format? What will be the “I tweeted” verb for voice-chat? And the “YouTuber” version for creators in audio-focused platforms? I know what you’re thinking: that’s not important, man, “Stories” was a highly questionable choice and it has been working handsomely for Instagram. Yes, totally true. But “rooms” and “spaces” are not exactly a great start either, so they better get this glossary right from now on.

The second main issue is monetization. Twitter believes it will solve the money problem with Super Follows, while Fireside promises tools and mechanisms that will facilitate the cash flow between users and creators. One thing is certain: monetization is paramount and whoever finds the best strategy in this field will have a huge advantage.

The third and last point cannot be measured in words, numbers, or dollar signs. The “remixing” process mentioned in Kevin Kelly’s book is crucial to the new media genre consolidation. Today, at this moment, the Clubhouse/Spaces model seems to be a remix that brought together the right formats to build the perfect match, but that’s not an exact science.

The main variants lie in user’s behavior, which is only predictable to some extent, and in the remixing itself, which is a phenomenon in constant motion: “Innovators recombine simple earlier media genres with later complex genres to produce an unlimited number of new media genres. The more new genres, the more possible newer ones can be remixed from them,” Kelly summarizes in his book. Which means that, when it comes to social audio, this is just the beginning of the conversation. And that can be a good thing, if you're paying attention.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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