One Trend I’m Watching in Consumer Tech: Audio
Twitter just rolled out voice tweets & Clubhouse is buzzing in Silicon Valley
I could not have found a more opportune time to write this than the day after Twitter first rolled out audio tweets to a limited group of users. In my periodic late-night Twitter timeline scroll, I came across my first audio tweet: paying homage to popular Jay-Z lyric and featuring the instrumental to Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk,” a user created what he called his “Twitter answering message” and had gone viral in a matter of hours. As a lover of Hip-Hop and 90’s R&B, I felt a deep appreciation for the tweet’s cleverness, but was also astounded at how quickly the Twitter community had adopted the new audio tweets and begun producing quality content.
Upon further consideration, I realized the quick adoption should not have come as a surprise. New modes of human experience are always in high demand whether, as consumers, we realize it or not. Audio is a mode that has existed for centuries but continues to evolve each and every year. In a blog post, Twitter’s very own Maya Patterson and Rémy Bourgoin detailed the new feature: “Over the years, photos, videos, gifs, and extra characters have allowed you to add your own flair and personality to your conversations. But sometimes 280 characters aren’t enough…There’s a lot that can be left unsaid or uninterpreted using text, so we hope voice Tweeting will create a more human experience for listeners and storytellers alike.”
The introduction of voice tweets to the Twitter empire comes, unsurprisingly, at a time where human interactions have been at all-time lows. With much of the world still under quarantine, and minimal clarity on reopening timelines, social media has become a refuge for human connection. But with vacations, parties, dining, and an overwhelming majority of social activities ground to a halt, there’s minimal fresh content — there are less events to flex on Instagram, less stories to recount on Twitter — leaving social media users to interact live more often. Instragram Live usage has skyrocketed in recent months (+70% in March), and Zoom has claimed 300 million daily Zoom meeting participants. Given these live interactions are real-time and thus hard to filter or doctor, our connections have become more raw, authentic, and spontaneous. There is less emphasis on aesthetic, vibe, and appearance; with most of us wearing sweatpants, we just want to feel. We just want to connect.
The good folks over at Twitter recognized this and addressed it, creating a new channel for its users to create content and further connect to each other. Twitter’s implementation of voice tweets also suggests broader capabilities for the app: according to Patterson and Bourgoin, “[users] will see your voice Tweet appear on their timeline alongside other tweets…you can listen as you scroll. You can also keep listening while doing other things on your phone or on the go.” Though voice tweets will capture no more than 140 seconds of audio, I can’t help but think about how users might create entire series of voice-tweets, resembling super-short podcasts, or an audio-only Quibi.
Though voice tweets mark a large step for Twitter, Twitter is certainly not the first company to leverage the increasing audio content and entertainment market. Clubhouse, has been all the buzz in Silicon Valley the past few months. The voice-based social media app, still in beta, is a platform where users can speak to each other in live chat rooms. Founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth have been oddly quiet and few details about the app have been released, but the app’s exclusivity has only bolstered the hype; last month Clubhouse closed a Series A round led by Andreesen Horowitz, valuing the company at $100mm. In just a few months, Clubhouse has gone from zero users to a beta stage of a small and exclusive roster of users boasting the likes of Kevin Hart, Van Jones, MC Hammer, Jack Dorsey, Ashton Kutcher, and a16z’s own Marc Andreesen and Ben Horowitz. Austen Allred, cofounder of Lambda School and an early Clubhouse user, drew Twitter as the app’s closest comparison: “You find, get to know, and follow people that you don’t know. But the audio format is fascinating because you can have it on in the background, it’s not a permanent record, it’s multi-way. People have actual conversations, which is something that doesn’t happen much right now.”
Operating in a space somewhere between a Twitter feed and a podcast, Clubhouse seemingly captures a spectrum of feelings and energy from being in classroom with candid, free-flowing discussion to being in a rowdy bar where jokes can fly left and right. The fact that the pop-up chat rooms disappear after conversations end only reinforces FOMO and suggests an authenticity missing from other mediums where interactions are thoughtfully filtered, doctored, and easily influenced. Both Clubhouse and voice tweets play into a broader trend within America’s tech consumption: audio is becoming an increasingly critical part of our entertainment and everyday lives.
In 2018, headphone sales hit $20bn in the United States alone, (a whopping +%27 YoY) and according to Edison Research’s Infinite Dial, the longest-running survey of digital media consumer behavior in America, podcasting awareness and consumption are at all-time highs.
Despite usage and consumption rising enough to warrant the “mainstream” label, the revenue podcasts generate is still rather small relative to the amount of hours people listen. This begs the question: how well can audio scale and be effectively monetized?
Twitter already has a strong foothold in the global social media environment, but Clubhouse will be desperate to answer the question above, drive the future of audio in consumer tech, and justify its $100mm valuation. A number of other social platforms will be knocking on the door as well: Watercooler, a recently released app that seems eerily similar to Clubhouse; Cuppa, a virtual coffee shop; TTYL, a social network catalyzed by headphone connection; and High Fidelity, an audio canvas for up to 150 people, will be fighting for share in the growing market.
While, the rest of the world watches, or listens, rather, to how these platforms develop, you can find me trying to finesse my way onto Clubhouse.
Are you building a tech company with a focus on audio? I’d love to connect — reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org