How ‘social audio’ is making all the noise now

When I joined Clubhouse in February, I didn’t think I would end up listening to a ‘dating show’ on the platform for well over an hour. But there I was on a weekday listening to a bunch of Gen-Z kids conducting their own version of MTV’s iconic ‘Splitsvilla’ on the platform. The ‘room’ was chaotic, no one had any clue who was dumping whom, and even the ‘moderators’ disappeared at times because ‘yaar call aa raha hai’.

But the conversations that room opened up is a good reason why social audio is slowly bringing about a major change in social media. From Twitter to Facebook, Spotify and even LinkedIn, everyone wants a piece of this new ‘social audio’ pie. For the moment though, Clubhouse seems to be making the most noise in this space.

The ‘social audio’ pie

While Clubhouse has all the attention in the audio space, it is certainly not the first and going by the number of clones, it won’t be the last. India-based Leher app has been doing social audio and video since 2018. Just like Clubhouse, one can host rooms and do audio or even video chats. But Vikas Malpani, co-founder for Leher, admits the ‘hype cycle’ around Clubhouse is now higher. In his view, pandemic-induced boredom has boosted the growth of such formats.

“There is no other alternative. Long form conversations cannot be done on text. And group conversations are even harder on text, then you have no other option but audio/video,” he told indianexpress.com.

The growth in audio is also a reason why Flyx, a social network to discuss and talk about movies and TV shows, decided to launch its own audio-chat app called Bakstage this year. The popularity of Clubhouse “cemented” their idea that “there is huge scope in audio,” said Shashank Singh, co-founder and CEO of Bakstage.

The way Singh sees it, one advantage of audio apps is that “you can put the app in the background. And you can continue doing what you were doing before.” It reduces the need to engage with the screen all the time. That definitely works for Clubhouse where the audio from the Room you are part of continues even if you are browsing another app.

Clubhouse, social audio, Clubhouse audio, Clubhouse creator fund, Clubhouse india, Clubhouse Android app Clubhouse is drawing some of the biggest names to the platform.

For now, Clubhouse’s founders are confident that their focus on audio alone sets them apart from all the big names joining the space. And the numbers look positive so far. Despite being limited to iOS till May 2021, Clubhouse has already crossed 5 million downloads on Google Play Store with one million downloads in India alone. According to data from Sensor Tower, the app is among the top twenty on iOS in India for this week, though it has seen a fall. On Android, its ranking is way lower for the same period.

Still it has managed to draw some of the big names from Bollywood such as Vidya Balan, Zoya Akhtar on the platform. And it’s not just celebrities, but politicians and spiritual leaders in India are also taking to the platform. Congress leader Jairam Ramesh was also part of a room recently discussing his latest book. BJP MP Tejasvi Surya is also on the platform. Yoga guru Sadhguru is also on the platform and was part of a room to talk about ‘International Yoga day.’

In Kerala, such is the popularity of the app, that one’s feed almost always has plenty of rooms showing conversations from the Malayali community. Users have even created fake accounts for prominent actors from Kerala. Prithviraj Sukumaran, Dileep, Manju Warrier have all found their fake profiles floating on Clubhouse and have had to issue statements calling these out.

A very different take is of Swell, which lets users create audio posts and conversations of up to five minutes each. “The idea was to let everyone engage at a time of their own choosing,” Sudha K Varadarajan, co-founder and CEO of Swell, told our podcast Our Own Devices. Swell is still just a few months old and has only recently entered the Indian market.

Focus on creators

“We want to make sure the creator is in control,” Paul Davison, CEO and co-founder of Clubhouse said at a press conference after its Android app launch in May. The company has since then only doubled down on this strategy.

It has announced its Creator Fund for India, where it will fund, support creators who want to create their own shows on the platform. It also plans to roll out an option to tip creators on the platform, and is already beta-testing this in the US.

For Clubhouse, it would make sense to invest in creators on the platform given they are the ones who will ensure engagement and keep the audience tuning in. Creators too are taking to the platform in a big way, even those who have traditionally done well on video-driven platforms such as YouTube, Instagram.

Clubhouse, social audio, Clubhouse audio, Clubhouse creator fund, Clubhouse india, Clubhouse Android app Clubhouse is still testing payments to creators in the US. (Image credit: Clubhouse)

“A lot of people are not comfortable with video. It has a lot to do with how you look. Everybody can’t be funny in front of the camera. I can’t and I’ve directed for years. But if you ask me to do a five hour conversation on Clubhouse, then I will happily do it,” said Santu Misra, creative director told indianexpress.com over a call. Misra, who has helped create and direct some of the biggest influencers on Instagram, calls Clubhouse as a ‘radio for smart people.”

The freedom that audio accords over a video is a sentiment echoed by fellow Clubhouse host Janice Sequeira. She’s more than comfortable in front of the camera, having created and anchored the popular talk-show on YouTube, “Social Media Star with Janice.”

“Every time you’re on video you’re conscious about the way you look, conscious about your body language,” she explained. But an audio-only space, with no recording, removes these worries.

The intimacy of audio is also what is helping creators stay on the platform. “Perhaps the fact that it’s only audio and yet a two way dialogue can be established between the creators and audience makes it easier to converse at times,” Neha Aggarwal, a London-based creator told indianexpress.com. She runs the Travel Lounge club on the platform with over 10k members.

But holding a room where thousands of people are listening in, is an art and moderators often need to set and reset the agenda, given people keep floating in and out. This also explains why Clubhouse’s founders have decided to give so much power to moderators, who can bring up other people as speakers. Moderators can also mute and remove other speakers if they feel the conversation is veering in another direction.

“I make sure to reset the room every now and then for the newly joined people in the audience to give them a flavour of the nature of conversation. I also request everyone on the stage to mute their microphones, while someone else speaks and ensure everyone gets to join the stage and share their story in an orderly fashion,” Aggarwal said.

Sequeira and her husband Aniruddha Guha run the Bollywood Film Club on the platform with over 11k followers. They also regularly host chats with the biggest names in Bollywood from Vidya Balan to Zoya Akhtar, but have to make it clear to the audience that time is limited in such rooms.

The idea behind conversations with celebrities is to keep them free flowing. “We do not want to bring them and only talk to them about one particular thing. In an audio only platform, especially where they are not being recorded, you can talk about anything,” she said. In her view, it is never possible to bring up every audience member to ask questions, especially in big rooms with over 2,000 people, “otherwise the room will go on for days.” Though she adds that moderators need to make it clear to the audience as well.

Policing real-time audio

But while live audio might be the new favourite of creators, moderation in real-time audio is more community driven. Clubhouse has already faced charges that it did not act swiftly with regard to some rooms which were anti-semitic, racist, though the company did close these down after mounting criticism.

Of late many rooms have come up with a clear preference for one ideology from the growing threat of ‘Love Jihad’ to how ‘Sanghis’ need to be silenced. And when people from the other side get to speak, these quickly turn into a shouting match. The discussions can often go on for hours and the arguments are often heated as each side tries to school the other. Sort of like a Facebook or Twitter comments war, but with audio and more transient given the audio recordings don’t stay live.

Clubhouse is clear on policy. They don’t encourage discrimination, hate speech and abuse on the platform. And it does keep a recording if a room is reported for such content.

Its no-recording rule is already being flouted by many users in India going by the number of ‘Clubhouse’ clips which are going viral on other platforms like conversations from a room titled ‘Sex with Ex’.

However, moderating in real-time is easier said than done. Leher’s co-founder said this is almost impossible since it is not possible to have the policy team in every room. “Even today with such large forces, Twitter and Facebook are still struggling with moderation,” he pointed out, making it clear that the problem is not as easily solved.

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