No, the future of social media is not audio.
The pandemic created an unsettling quietness in our lives that led to desperation for intimate interaction. Audio-based chat rooms fulfilled this need, providing the illusion of low-stakes company if you squint hard enough. However, this is only temporary and many of the platforms in use are creating hateful spaces rather than welcoming communities.
Take Clubhouse for example. The invitation-only audio chat room application has seen large growth during the pandemic, but it’s unclear whether this expansion can be maintained. Clubhouse was marketed as an exclusive application that allowed users to interact in an intimate manner with famous or “elite” people.
This creates a quality content issue — more users mean more diluted content. Not all of the interactions are going to hit the mark or live up to expectations of being part of the room where it happens. However, as the more famous Clubhouse users begin to leave the app, what will be left for ordinary users?
The lack of exclusivity was made apparent with the decline in users downloading the app compared to the peak seen in February. The need for audio-based interactions will fade as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted and people become able to interact with each other once again.
Cappuccino is a clear example of this. The app allows you to record short audio messages called “beans” concerning life updates, audio stories or just jokes that are then shared with other friends in your group in a podcast format. Unlike Clubhouse, this is a private endeavor marketed to groups with real-life friends. It is not concerned with followers or over-sharing to the general public of the internet. Audio-based applications were ideal during the pandemic as people were hardly able to interact with one another in a thoughtful manner. However, this app itself is just replicating the daily interactions we used to have.
Similar to Clubhouse, Cappuccino will likely see a decline in interaction as these exchanges begin to take part in our daily lives once again. There are also other issues that may contribute to declining usage; besides the fleeting appeal of these apps, the current interactions on Clubhouse have been troubling. There have been instances of hate speech, harassment and misinformation due to the lack of regulations that protect users.
The challenge is being able to moderate these real-time discussions as it is fundamentally different from the techniques used for text-based communication. The lack of recordings for most applications also proves to be a deterrent as it makes it harder to investigate reports of rule violations. Applications have placed controls that would ideally curb problematic content; however, it is reliant on users to flag the problematic audio. Thus, it can easily be subjected to abuse in order to harass or exclude other users.
Live audio is simply harder to monitor for problematic content as rules either become too restrictive or too lax. While this is seen in other social media platforms, those platforms have guidelines and teams in place in order to combat hate speech, harassment and misinformation, while live audio apps usually do not.
Discord is another audio-based platform that provides gamers with voice chat servers as a way to communicate with their friends while in-game. They recently implemented an optional, Clubhouse-style “stage” channel to their servers. Using this stage, administrators and moderators can host talks with people of interest, and listeners can tune in without being able to talk themselves. Stages are moderated in the same way that these servers are already moderating themselves, with administrators and moderators arbitrating discussions and arguments.
While Discord’s approach is to let communities largely govern themselves, the structure of apps like Clubhouse do not allow for this. Still, a lack of free labor is not an excuse to forgo moderating altogether. If Clubhouse truly wants to carve out a permanent place on every American’s phone, it will have to play by the same rules as the big social media sites.
Valeria Valencia is an Opinion Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org