Here's how audio-based social networking is taking the world by storm

It turns out the future is just ‘ears’ away  
Here's how audio-based social networking is taking the world by storm

Social audio is having its moment in the sun. This is ironic, because apps like Clubhouse which launched last year, are hopping at 3 am. Cryptocurrency mentorship to Pride campaigns to antakshari circles — the ‘hallways’ so to speak — are buzzing. But here’s the kicker, you could dip in and out without the pressure of saying a word and if you’re lucky, listen in on real-time conversations with anyone from Karan Johar to Elon Musk! Welcome to the newest realm of social media — audio-based social networking where like-minded folks around the world are gathering in ‘virtual rooms’ to just talk. No frills, no dress-up, no last-minute fretting about adjusting your phone to a flattering angle so your double chin isn’t visible. Here, all you need to participate is: your voice.

And this new-age means to connect to people is clearly no flash in the pan. Clubhouse, which leveraged an aspirational by invite-only means of joining the club, crossed 20 lakh downloads in two weeks when it launched for Android in India in May. Meanwhile, Twitter Spaces joined the party in the same month and Facebook has announced that apart from virtual chat rooms, it is leaning into a series of new audio-focused products including one called ‘soundbites’ where users can post short audio snippets to their feed, much like a photo or video. Several Indian startups like Fireside and Headfone, have rolled out audio-only chat apps as well. 

But why is this trend blowing up now? We have two words for you: screen fatigue. After over a year of social distancing with the likes of Zoom meetings, Google Duo calls and late night WhatsApp video with BFFs, psychologist Reshma Raju says, “This could be a welcome break for those who experience fatigue as video forums can increase cognitive load along with many other negative effects like trying to maintain eye contact which can cause anxiety. And also, finding ourselves fidgety and restless if sitting still for long periods of time.” This way, we can connect and converse without finding ourselves overstimulated or anxious. She also adds, “I think audio platforms release people from the pressure of having to present themselves or look a certain way and engage with others from their own level of space or comfort.”

How does Clubhouse work?

■ You need to be invited to join
■ Virtual rooms with audio conversations
■ Each room has an 8,000 person limit

Our goal was to build a social media experience that felt more human, where instead of posting, you could gather with other people and talk — Paul Davison & 
 Rohan Seth, founders of Clubhouse

Can we just talk?
For co-founders of Clubhouse, San Francisco-based Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, this we discover is exactly what they had in mind. A Twitter post outlining the journey behind the app stated, “Our goal was to build a social media experience that felt more human — where instead of posting, you could gather with other people and talk. Our north star was to create something where you could close the app at the end of the session feeling better than you did when you opened it, because you had deepened friendships, met new people and learned.” Deeper bonds are likely forged where expression of thought is unrestricted by a character limit and emotions in all of their nuance can be felt by tone of voice, instead of watered down to an emoji. The voice medium also has other perks like diversity of language. In India, where the varied scale of languages is perhaps only matched by the long list of biryanis to be explored — this is a massive plus. A Twitter spokesperson told us, “We are seeing a huge uptick in #TamilSpaces. An audience of 17K+ listeners attended a Spaces audio launch event for the film Jagame Thandhiram where they were serenaded by Anthony Daasan, Santhosh Narayan, Arivu and Dhee, while Dhanush shared his experience working with the cast.” On the regional music front, he added, “AR Rahman took to Spaces to talk about his debut as producer and writer for the film 99 Songs, while Chinmayi Sripada recently held a six-hour Spaces concert, packed with listener requests.”

<em>Niladri Bose, radio professional</em>
Niladri Bose, radio professional

These platforms are not just a one-way street, they are very inclusive and dynamic with numerous chat forums giving users a voice — Niladri Bose, Radio professional

Talk about a whole different ball game from existing but non-interactive audio platforms like Spotify, YouTube Music and podcasts. Radio veteran and currently host of The Drive on Bengaluru’s popular station Indigo, Niladri Bose lauds social audio for a few reasons. “These platforms are not just a one-way street, they are very inclusive and dynamic with numerous chat forums giving users a voice.” In terms of conversations to tune into, he also elaborates on how varied conversations cater to different palates. “You get a wide buffet to choose from,” Niladri says. 

Unlike the radio format, where channels are your menu of choice — virtual rooms for conversation are opening by the second. The best part? You can tune in to it all, while folding the laundry or brushing your teeth. 

What are people talking about? 

■ Spirituality
■ Tinder nights
■ Ghost stories
■ Pride campaigns

<em>Anita Ratnam, artiste</em>
Anita Ratnam, artiste

Everything under the sun 
Popular Chennai-based danseuse Anita Ratnam who spends about an hour on social audio in the evening was introduced to Clubhouse by her son. And recently created her own club Chutney Mami — inspired by ‘life’s delicious mash-ups’. So far, Ratnam has hosted sessions on subjects that range from saris, yoga and wedding planning during the pandemic, with more serious discussions like depression and anxiety for dancers in the pipeline. Ratnam shares that her love for audio goes all the way back to All India Radio and an antique gramophone player restored from her grandfather’s home. “There is something mysterious, open-ended and democratic about the voice,” she in true artistic style. “We don’t know from which throat it emanates, how the person looks, actually even if we knew, it wouldn’t matter,” we’re told.

At over 60, this performer and artpreneur tells us that she has become an active advocate to get all of her friends on board as well. So, there is something to be said for simple, easy-to-use tech that doesn’t induce the anxiety of say an Instagram Live (which also garnered popularity last year due to the lockdown). Ratnam says, “I had to push my friends in design, retail and the arts to join. Once they did, they loved it.” With no pressure, no judgements, no worry about lighting or someone photobombing the session, Ratnam says the platform has been a pleasure for her generation to tune into. 

<em>Geoffrey Thomas, radio professional</em>
Geoffrey Thomas, radio professional

Of course, tuning in is just the beginning. Former COO of Chennai Live FM, Geoffrey Thomas points out that audio platforms also have a ‘staying power’ that video content does not. The founder of Amaranta Entertainment which manages creative music talent, attributes this to connectivity and space constraints not being a factor. And we see this with meditation rooms going on for hours at a stretch and the aforementioned six-hour concert by singer Chinmayi. Although, this can prove a disadvantage for speakers on a panel. Doctor and theatre aficionado, Rohini Rau tells us, “It can get quite taxing when spending hours waiting for your turn to speak.” For non-speakers in the room (audience), on the other hand, it’s engaging every step of the way. For instance, one group even organized a live theatrical production of The Lion King with a 40-member cast, changing their DPs to match their characters! 

<em>Behram Singanporia, singer</em>
Behram Singanporia, singer

That apart, the no-video aspect also means “more bandwidth to ensure superior audio quality,” points out Behram Singanporia, frontman of Best Kept Secret. “I’ve seen some musicians run the Clubhouse app through a music interface that gives a studio-like experience to their listeners,” he tells us. And this will likely be better leveraged when creators can monetize their performances with ‘ticketed spaces’ (already available in the US), tip jars and subscriptions — new features that are in the pipeline for social audio app creators. 

There is a great audio rising coming. Gear up, speak up and plug in. The future is in your ears.

<em>Roshan Cariappa</em>
Roshan Cariappa

Celebrities in conversation

Roshan Cariappa who hosts the podcast Bharatvaarta (politics, policy and culture) and The Startup Operator (investing, startups and sales) tells us that informal, longform conversations without the constraints of mainstream media creates opportunities for rich insightful content. So much so, he says, that bestselling authors like Amish Tripathi and Union Ministers like Smriti Irani are now prioritising audio platforms for their media outreach. So, it’s little wonder that everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Mark Zuckerburg to Drake have joined discussions on social audio forums. 
—Input by Ayesha Tabassum

Illustration credits: Amit Bandre and Soumyadip Sinha

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