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The Social (Audio) Network

You might have noticed that Facebook means to make a bit of noise on the digital audio front this week.

Yesterday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by Sidechannel — the shared Discord project that I’m a part of with seven other independent newsletter writers (more info here) — for an interview with Platformer’s Casey Newton, where he announced several audio-related features that are slated to roll out on the Facebook platform in the coming months. As it turned out, Zuckerberg’s Discord appearance was part of a broader press push around Facebook’s new adventures in audio, which also included an official blog post and a Bloomberg story with a few quotes from Facebook App head Fidji Simo. Though, interestingly enough, Recode’s Peter Kafka preempted the push with a scoop on Sunday evening that got the bulk of the product announcements spot-on.

Here’s a list of the company’s upcoming audio-related features that were announced in an official capacity:

  • A Clubhouse competitor called “Live Audio Rooms” that will be deployed both on Facebook Groups and Facebook Messenger. (The New York Times first reported the existence of this product back in February.) Facebook’s blog post on the matter also mentioned that the new feature will allow users to convert their live conversations into on-demand recordings for later consumption and that there’s some intent to get public figures to use the tool in a broadcast-like fashion. Put together, it seems the company is poised to pursue all possible social audio use cases the same time, whether it’s the many-to-many social media context or the one-to-many media performance context.
  • Monetization tools attached to the Clubhouse competitor, which will start off through an integration with Facebook’s new-ish “Stars” tipping tool — something that I’ve never heard of before prior to this week but seems connected to the platform’s adventures in video streaming — and will eventually branch out to include other forms of monetization, like subscription and one-time purchases.
  • A new social audio format they’re calling “Soundbites,” described as “short-form, creative audio clips.” This seems to be a gambit around some sort of TikTok- or Instagram-like experience for audio. (Shout-out to everybody who’s ever complained about podcasts being too long, and everybody who’s ever asked why audio doesn’t go viral. Also, Paris Hilton, whose upcoming podcast adventures, as detailed in The New York Times, will supposedly feature something she calls “Podposts,” short audio dispatches meant to match the cadence and tone of posts on social media.”) In another move of Clubhouse mimicry, Facebook is also rolling out an Audio Creators’ Fund to help “kickstart” the new format.
  • Finally, Facebook is also apparently planning to more directly integrate podcast consumption into its app experience, meaning that Facebook users can listen to podcasts “directly on the Facebook app.” It’s unclear to me, at this point, whether this means that Facebook will be building an in-app feature to download and play podcasts, or whether it refers to an upcoming media player integration that I’ll talk about in a bit. The company’s blog post also had some language around promoting podcast discovery — “finding new podcasts and episodes based on your interests,” that kind of thing — but at this point, just about every platform newly participating in the podcast space says they want to do that, so, I don’t know. Anyway, there’s additionally some further language around podcast creators now being able to use Facebook to reach and connect with new listeners, though I imagine some already do, using Facebook’s existing advertising options. That is, of course, if they had a dedicated marketing budget to do so.

So that’s the official stuff. However, in Zuckerberg’s interview with Newton, he also talked about a few other things, including an upcoming expansion to Facebook’s relationship with Spotify that will involve the latter’s media player directly integrated into the Facebook feed. (This detail was mentioned in Kafka’s Sunday scoop, though not in the corporate blog post.) The initiative is apparently regarded internally as “Project Boombox,” and I’m told that the rollout of this integration could take place as early as next week.

Here’s one thing about this bit that caught my attention during the interview: Zuckerberg seemed to principally frame the “Project Boombox” partnership around the music side of the player experience. This is curious, because I’m pretty sure podcasts could be easily distributed over the integrated Spotify player in much the same way that any music track could. Which is to say, I wouldn’t necessarily discount the podcast piece from “Project Boombox” — unless, of course, there’s some sort of internal podcast player initiative yet to be announced by Facebook.

In any case, Spotify certainly doesn’t seem to see much distinction between the music and podcast pieces in its expanded relationship with Facebook. At least, that’s what I gather from the official statement by Spotify in response to Zuckerberg’s interview yesterday: “Facebook’s interest in audio is further validation of the category and reinforces what we’ve known all along — the power and potential for audio is limitless. Our ambition has always been to make Spotify ubiquitous across platforms and devices — bringing music and podcasts to more people — and our new integration with Facebook is another step in these efforts. We look forward to a continued partnership with Facebook, fueling audio discovery around the world.”

However things shake out, here’s the one big thing I’ll be watching for when the player integration rolls out: How will the data flows work between the two sides? Will Facebook get any of that data? And how will all this fit into the larger context of Apple’s upcoming data privacy update that has gotten Facebook a little riled up?

Three more things I want to hit before we move on:

Firstly, here’s my read on the Facebook side of the equation: This is very clearly Facebook feeling like it needs to respond to (or at least have a play in) the rising buzz and money sloshing around the modern digital audio category. And so I think we’re looking at the company now doing the thing it’s really good at, which is leaning on its core advantages — scale, gigantism, monopolistic power, and so on — and toss a bunch of in-category clones and incentives at the wall to see what sticks.

Clubhouse is hot? Let’s do that. Podcasting is hot? Let’s plug that in here. Spotify is hot? We’re doing them already, but let’s do more. The organizing principle for Facebook — as always, and as is the case for any attention-economy business — is to keep users on its apps and platforms as much as possible, and catching the modern digital audio wave in this manner falls from that imperative. Will any of these things stick? TBD, my dude. However, despite the fact that I’m not a particularly close observer of Facebook, even I know that the company has a… let’s say, mixed track record when it comes to new product innovations in recent years. I wouldn’t bet the farm on this.

This is probably the appropriate point to bring up Facebook’s last major audio push: a 2016 product called “Facebook Live Audio,” which let select publishers like the BBC World Service and HarperCollins stream live audio broadcasts to Facebook users. This attempt was connected to another media fad at the time — livestreaming — which has since faded for the most part. (RIP Periscope and Meerkat.)

Secondly, let’s go over the Clubhouse side of the equation. In a matter of weeks, Clubhouse’s competitive field has gone from mildly tentative to very, very crowded all of a sudden. Facebook has its upcoming “Live Audio Rooms,” Spotify acquired Locker Room, and rival products can be found from the likes of Twitter, Slack, LinkedIn, and Discord, among others. Yesterday, Reddit unveiled its cover of this pop song. I’m almost certain I’m missing somebody, and I’m almost certain more are on the way.

Which is presumably why, barely four months after its last fundraise, Clubhouse announced over the weekend that it has raised yet another funding round, once again led by Andreessen Horowitz with participation from DST Global, Tiger Global, and Elad Gil. The social audio startup didn’t disclose the actual dollar amount of new money raised, but Reuters reports that it’s now valued at $4 billion, confirming an earlier report by Bloomberg. The previous round had valued it at $1 billion.

A beefed-up war chest always comes in handy to keep up with and stave off competitors — I mean, obviously — but as I sketched out in my February column on the company, Clubhouse’s principal challenge is of a more fundamental kind. Three months ago, the startup’s identity was chiefly defined by the vast universe of possible things it could be: a place to hang out with your friends, a place to meet strangers, a place to cosplay the most tedious of work conferences, a place to have a communal sports- or events-watching experience, a place to create brand new experiences native to the app, and so on. It was pure potential and, as a result, a vessel onto which investors can project their wildest dreams.

But with the introduction of each new competitor, most of which typically come attached to preexisting use cases, communities, and business engines, those possible identities are being progressively taken away from Clubhouse — or at least are having their viabilities substantially challenged. And so it’s my belief, then, that the startup’s primary challenge at this point is to figure out just what it’s supposed to be and consequently what core constituencies it’s supposed to serve, then to proactively organize around that moving forward.

Thirdly, here’s my read on the podcast ecosystem side of the equation. The thing that perhaps most intrigued me about Zuckerberg’s interview with Newton yesterday was an emphasis in his language around “creators.” The term is all the rage right now, and in Zuckerberg’s responses, there was some talk about how Facebook could help creators like newsletter writers and podcasters, and how the platform could help people like that better monetize their work and products. Maybe they could even provide better margins in doing so. Maybe they’ll even do this stuff for free.

It’s not hard to grasp the theoretical value of this appeal. After all, Facebook is one of the biggest internet platforms on the planet, and one can reasonably be tempted to think that even a little platform-sanctioned boost in the face of all those possible users could yield delicious returns.

However, as anybody who’s lived through the Pivot to Video can tell you, Facebook is best kept at arm’s length, maybe even farther. Whether by malice or neglect, there’s very little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything related to creators and media businesses. (And certainly, as many people who’ve closely watched Facebook’s impact on civil society over the years can tell you, there’s little historical reason to even remotely trust Facebook on anything at all.)

This isn’t to say there’s no possible upside to Facebook doing this song and dance around audio. This slew of new product announcements is almost certainly going to increase the visibility, accessibility, and excitement around audio formats of all shapes and sizes, podcasting included, at least for a while. Maybe it’ll even convert more listeners into the medium.

But however those creator tools shake out, I wouldn’t build a media business that’s mortally dependent on Facebook’s infrastructure under any circumstances. I would go just about anywhere else. Play on, Reznor.