The Chatty Future of Social Media
From Clubhouse to Discord to Twitter, apps are giving people a voice online. Literally.
EARLY LAST YEAR, just as quarantine boredom set in, Alex Marshall got an invitation to test a new app. Marshall, an investor at First Round Capital, hadn’t seen any of her friends or colleagues in months. But when she downloaded the app, named Clubhouse, she could hear many of their voices, as if they’d suddenly showed up at her house to hang out.
Marshall was one of Clubhouse’s first 100 users, and she quickly got hooked on the app, which works like an audio chatroom. She joined rooms with friends and strangers and, once, the rapper E-40. Sometimes she and her partner, who also works in venture capital, would be sitting on opposite sides of their apartment only to discover each other in the same Clubhouse room. “It felt like a cocktail party where you could walk up to a group and eventually jump into the conversation,” she says. For a while, “it was my favorite place on my phone.”
Clubhouse’s timing couldn’t have been better. Audio-social apps have launched before, but never in a time of mass social isolation and screen fatigue. Even in closed beta, Clubhouse has demonstrated the potential of the medium. There is no scrolling on a screen, so you can participate while driving or washing the dishes. The rooms are open and transient, so you can wander in on a whim rather than needing to call a specific person, like on Facetime or Zoom. You can sit back and listen, or jump in and wax poetic. And because you can hear everyone’s voices, interactions with complete strangers feel oddly intimate—like listening to a podcast where you can weigh in.
Clubhouse isn’t the only app trying to win your ears. Discord, which launched in 2015 and has 100 million users, decided this year to pivot from an audio platform for gamers to an audio platform for everyone. Twitter is rolling out its own version of sound-based social, called Audio Spaces. Other audiofirst upstarts have also appeared, many with names that sound like alternative file formats: Wavve, Riffr, Spoon.
So begins the war of the voices, to see which platform—if any—can shape the future of social networking. Social media has a way of disrupting established media. In the early 2000s, online tools atomized news publishing, as newspapers and magazines ceded ground to professional websites and amateur blogs—and, in 2006, a new “microblogging” service called Twitter. Audio is tracing a similar trajectory. For years, radio stations were broadcasting’s primary gatekeepers. Then podcasts appeared, and everyone from former NPR hosts to Joe Rogan started to record and distribute their own shows. Now, audiosocial networks make it even easier for anyone to broadcast their conversations to the wider world.
Thanks to the popularization of smart speakers, headphones, and earbuds, you can listen to all these new voices as you go about daily life. “We have headphones for different occasions, speakers for different rooms throughout the house. Consumers have really geared up on audio products,” says Ben Arnold, an analyst at the market research firm NPD. In 2020 the sale of Bluetooth headphones, speakers, and soundbars totaled $7.5 billion—a 20 percent increase from 2019—according to NPD. The emergence of digital assistants on so many of these devices has trained consumers to look at headphones and speakers as two-way platforms. People listen to their speakers, but they also talk back.
Naturally, then, audio-based social media has found a home in this ecosystem. Older audio platforms like Discord gained an early foothold among gamers, who needed a way to strategize—or trash-talk—with other players. Now, Discord is working to overcome the misconception that it is only for gamers with a big rebrand (new tagline: “Your place to talk”). Clubhouse is similarly going for mainstream appeal. Its rooms are a mix of music industry chatter, speed pitches with investors, strangers vibing, and amateur astrology readings.
For these audio-social apps to grow, they’ll have to encourage users to keep talking— and host conversations more people want to hear. Discord has found some success by nurturing its nongamer communities, with chats for book clubs and Boy Scout meetings, according to Stan Vishnevskiy, cofounder and CTO. Other apps, like Clubhouse, may do better to cultivate influencers. “That’s what this space needs: the equivalent of Tiktok creators, who can take the content in a new direction,” Arnold says. Creative voices could make these platforms stand out even after the pandemic, when people can spend time in the same room with their friends again.
People also need to feel safe on these apps, which means nascent platforms will need to figure out how to moderate usergenerated content. Will Partin, a researcher at Data and Society’s Disinformation Action Lab, says audio-social networks will face the same big questions as text- or image-based ones: chiefly, how and when to censor what people say. These questions gained new urgency after a pro-trump mob, organized in part on social media, stormed the US Capitol in January. But the audio format may pose new problems. “Platforms usually rely on machine learning, user reports, and contracted moderation teams to distribute the enormous task of moderating a social network with millions of users,” Partin says. “The basic structure for audio content doesn’t change, but it does present different technical challenges,” like creating a large training database of audio snippets.
Clubhouse, which is still in its closed beta, has already faced issues with harassment. (The company did not respond to interview requests.) And Twitter hasn’t shared how it plans to enforce its rules on Audio Spaces, but, of course, it has long struggled with problems like abuse and disinformation on its main service. “One of the big challenges of open social networks like Twitter is that what’s OK in one community is seen as wrong in another,” Partin says. “It’s hard to make a policy that’s going to make both groups happy.” He added that Discord, which gives its closed communities tools to police themselves, has had more success with moderation at scale. “This doesn’t, of course, mean that issues of harassment go away,” he says, but that letting communities police themselves “strikes me as a much more honest, practical way of approaching the complexity of social life.” Vishnevskiy added that the company is constantly monitoring the service for violations of community guidelines.
Audio- social networks will need to figure out how to make them inclusive in other ways. When Twitter introduced “audio tweets,” a precursor to Audio Spaces, accessibility advocates pointed out that there were no captions, rendering the feature useless to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. (Twitter later added transcriptions.) Discord has introduced some accessibility features, but only after users complained.
However these audio-social networks manage their growing communities, there’s a long way to go before they reach mass adoption. Marshall, the VC, still spends most of her time in her apartment, but she hasn’t spent as much time on Clubhouse lately. The app continues to grow, and its users seem to be molding the identity of the platform day by day. But Marshall, like so many early adopters, is already looking for the next thing.
“The app’s rooms are a mix of music industry chatter, speed pitches with investors, strangers vibing, and amateur astrology readings.”