Social Audio Began As A Pandemic Fad. Tech Companies See It As The Future
During the pandemic, Reesha Howard got hooked on doing live audio chats from her smartphone. First she used Clubhouse, the buzzy, invitation-only app that surged in popularity last year with freewheeling conversations, game shows and celebrity appearances.
Then Twitter invited her to become an early tester of its new audio rooms, called Spaces. Like on Clubhouse, these conversations are live and ephemeral — once they're over, they're gone. (Unless a host records them, as NPR recently did with a conversation between host Audie Cornish and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.)
"They said they wanted it to feel like a dinner party, they wanted you to feel like you were hosting people in your living room," Howard says. "Well, that's my thing. I love to have people in my living room. I love for us to sit on the couch together with a glass of wine in our hands and we just go at it for hours together, having a good time."
Howard now regularly hosts Spaces on Twitter, including one called Viral Talk, where she interviews someone whose social media post has gone viral. She's done chats with the rapper Soulja Boy — whom Howard says she wasn't even following when she first sent him a direct message.
"Little old me, I slid into Soulja Boy's DMs, like, 'Hey, come on Twitter Spaces with me,'" she laughs. "And he was like, 'Sounds good.' And I'm like, 'What!?'"
In just a few months, Howard has gone from fewer than 100 followers on Twitter to more than 5,000. In her Twitter bio, she calls herself the "Queen of Spaces."
Howard is one of a slew of people making names for themselves in social audio. Now, tech companies from Facebook to Reddit to LinkedIn are scrambling to launch audio features, hoping to turn a pandemic-era fad into a permanent boom.
From tips to tickets: creating a business "from the get-go"
But there is another important piece of the puzzle for Facebook and other social networks: building tools for people like Howard to make serious money from audio.
"We think of it as something that needs to be able to turn into a business for [creators] from the get-go," said Fidji Simo, head of the Facebook app. In April, Facebook announced it was working on a bunch of features, including short audio posts, sound effects and "voice morphing," and live chat rooms, similar to Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.
The social media companies have a lot to gain from winning creators' loyalty. Audio chats could keep people on their apps longer. And the companies could eventually take a cut of the revenue their audio stars generate.
So they are racing to roll out ways for hosts to get paid. That's a big shift, says Esther Crawford, a senior product manager at Twitter who works on Spaces and other features.
"For a long time, creators bore the burden of making money," she said. "They had to do a lot of legwork in order to go get sponsors and advertisers."
Clubhouse and Facebook are paying some creators to launch shows. They and other companies are also letting listeners tip their favorite hosts and exploring ticket sales for exclusive events.
Twitter, for example, has rolled out a "tip jar" for power users, including top audio hosts, and is planning to launch ticketed Spaces soon.
"This is a way for creators to be rewarded for their time and energy that they're putting into hosting these public conversations on Twitter," Crawford said.
It's welcome news to Jazerai Allen-Lord, a brand strategist who hosts a weekly Twitter Spaces about sneaker culture called The Kickback.
She says she would be interested in charging people $5 for Twitter versions of the workshops and office hours she hosts on "how to put your pitch deck together or how to get a sneaker deal."
Howard, the Viral Talk host, says marketing matters too. It can be hard for people to find Spaces on Twitter, she says. But the company just introduced a new tab on its app dedicated to audio, and she's optimistic.
"The thing that will make the difference is how they promote us there," she said. "So as long as they can understand that some of the best voices on Twitter are undiscovered voices, then we're going to be A-OK."
Will social audio's appeal outlast the pandemic?
Yet the timing of all these audio-chat features seems a bit late. Pandemic restrictions have eased in many places and people are beginning to socialize more in real life.
The risk, as Jason Citron, the CEO of messaging app Discord, puts it: "People are obviously going to spend less time on these services, right?"
Still, Citron says he's confident that people have "formed new habits" during the pandemic, and some of those will stick.
"At the end of a school day or the end of a workday, people are still going to come home and their friends are still going to be on their Discord," he said.
Discord has had audio chat for years. Now, it's doubling down on audio with live events and paid tickets — areas where it will have plenty of competition.
Editor's note: Facebook and LinkedIn are among NPR's financial supporters.
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