The future of social networks might be audio

“I don’t plan on opening the app again,” Lorenz told Wired. “I don’t want to support any network that doesn’t take user safety seriously.” Her  experience wasn’t a one-off and since then darker, racist elements have appeared, suggesting the behavior that mars every other social platform also exists beneath Clubhouse’s exclusive, cool veneer.  

Gaming chat app Discord, meanwhile, has exploded during the pandemic. The service utilizes voice over IP software to translate spoken chat into text (an idea that came from video gamers who found typing while also playing impossible).  In June, to tap into people’s need for connection during the pandemic, Discord announced a new slogan—“Your place to talk” — and efforts to make the service appear less gamer-centric. The marketing push seems to have worked: By October, Discord estimated 6.7 million users — up from 1.4 million In February, just before the pandemic hit.

But while Discord’s communities, or “servers,” can be as small and innocent as kids organizing remote-but-simultaneous sleepovers they have also included far-right extremists who have used the service to organize the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies and the recent insurrection at the US Capitol.

In both Discord and Clubhouse, the in-group culture — nerdy gamers in Discord’s case, over-confident venture capitalists for Clubhouse — have led to instances of groupthink that can be, at best, off-putting, and at worst, bigoted. Yet there’s still an appeal to both: Isn’t it cool to talk and literally be heard? After all, that’s the foundational promise of social media: democratization of voice.

Speak and you shall be heard

The intimacy of voice makes audio social media that much more appealing in the age of pandemic social distancing and isolation. Jimi Tele, the CEO of Chekmate, a “text-free” dating app that connects users through only voice and video, says that the intimacy of voice inspired him to launch the app that would be “catfish-proof,” referring to people deceiving others online with fake profiles.

“We wanted to break away from the anonymity and gamification that texting allows and instead create a community rooted in authenticity where users are encouraged to be themselves without judgment,” Tele says. The app’s users start voice memos that average at five seconds, then get progressively longer. And while Chekmate has a video option, Tele says that the app’s several thousand users overwhelmingly favor using their voices. “They are perceived as less intimidating [than video messages],” he says.

This immediacy and authenticity is the reason why Gilles Poupardin created Cappuccino. He wondered why there wasn’t already a product that gathered voice memos together into a single downloadable file. “Everyone has a group chat with friends,” he says. “But what if you could hear your friends? That’s really powerful.”

Mohan agrees. She says that her group of friends switched to Cappuccino from a Facebook messenger chat group, then tried Zoom calls early on in the pandemic. But the discussions would inevitably circle into a highlights reel of big events. “There was no time for details,” she laments. The daily Cappuccino “beans,” as the stitched-together recordings are called, let Mohan’s friend circle keep up to date in a very intimate way — “My one friend is moving to a new apartment in a new city, and she was just talking about how she goes to get coffee in her kitchen,” Mohan says. “That’s something I would never know in a Zoom call, because it’s so small.”

Even legacy social media firms are getting in on the act. In the summer of 2020 Twitter launched voice tweets, 140 seconds of audio, that it dubbed Spaces.

“We were interested in whether audio could add an additional layer of connection to the public conversation,” says Rémy Bourgoin, senior software engineer on Twitter’s voice tweets and Spaces team.

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