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In-depth | From social audio to podcasts, tech companies rush to stay ahead of competition

In-depth | From social audio to podcasts, tech companies rush to stay ahead of competition

Competition has become fierce in the audio space, with major tech companies working hard to capitalise on this trend, and many have either launched or are working on launching live audio apps or features.

While people stay indoors during the pandemic, live audio apps and podcasts are becoming extremely popular.

Competition has become fierce in the audio space, with major tech companies working hard to capitalise on this trend, and many have either launched or are working on launching live audio apps or features. Spotify recently launched Greenroom, an app similar to Clubhouse. Early access to the Android and iOS versions of Greenroom are available in India.

Facebook, too, said it has launched Live Audio Rooms in the United States on iOS. Slack, which was acquired by Salesforce last year, and Microsoft’s LinkedIn are also testing live audio features, though the timeline of the launches is not known.

Akash Agrawal, a 26-year-old tax consultant from Lucknow, is on Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, and spends 15-20 minutes a day on the former.

“I usually follow pages related to politics, tech news, and current affairs. There are some good rooms about movie recommendations, etc, which are fun,” he said.


The scenario in India

People in India and abroad, particularly artists, journalists, social media influencers and celebrities, are using live audio chats to build or boost their brand and authority. Like other social platforms, such apps can also be used to create a public image.

The wide range of conversations ensures that people spend a significant amount of time on the apps. From discussions on politics to jamming sessions, there is something for everyone.

Clubhouse has become a hit in India, particularly after the launch of its Android version. Clubhouse founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth told CNBC-TV18 that the app has over two million active users in India.

The company is also likely to build a team in India, which has become its largest market.

"In the long term, we will absolutely. We recently brought in Aarthi Ramamurthy (a former Facebook executive) who heads International for Clubhouse, and she is looking at India as one of our highest priority markets,” Seth told the news channel.

One article published in The Week aptly called Clubhouse a “midnight drug” in India, since many of the most interesting and deep conversations take place at night.

Twitter Spaces, too, is gaining momentum in India, but it remains to be seen whether it can catch up with Clubhouse.

Given that Facebook has more users than Twitter in India, it will be interesting to see how the scenario changes once the former’s Live Audio Rooms are rolled out in the country.

Facebook has 320 million users in India as of January 2021, compared with Twitter’s 17.5 million, according to Statista.

For Spotify, too, India is a crucial market. In the last quarter of 2020, Spotify added 11 million monthly active users (MAUs), driven by “meaningful contributions” from the US, Mexico, Russia, and India.

In December 2020, the company even launched the Premium Mini Plan in India, which starts at Rs 7 per day and Rs 25 per week.


The growth of podcasts

The pandemic has given birth to thousands of podcasts covering a gamut of topics - news, business, technology, sports, history. Over the past two to three years, people have begun tuning into podcasts while they drive or do their household chores.

While Spotify has the dominant position in the podcasts space, the Apple Podcasts app could weaken its position.

In Q12021, Spotify said its number of Premium subscribers grew 21 percent year-on-year to 158 million. Spotify recently acquired Podz, a podcast discovery platform, to help improve its user experience.

Facebook, too, is making efforts to join the podcast space. On June 22, it launched its podcast feature.

Agrawal says he prefers podcasts, since he thinks they are driven by facts, rather than opinion. But Riya (name changed), a Clubhouse user from Bengaluru, says she prefers social audio since it gives her an opportunity to interact.

“My expectation from social audio was zero. But from a podcast I expect to get something out of it. So when you enter a space with no expectations even the slightest of things delights you,” she said.


Monetisation the way forward?

Tech companies are working out different ways of helping content creators monetise social audio and podcasts.

Through Ticketed Spaces, Twitter on June 21 said users can price tickets between $1 and $999. It also rolled out a feature to help hosts promote their Space.

“You can now remind your attendees that your Space is happening with push and in-app notifications sent directly to their devices and share your Space details directly to your Home Timeline,” Twitter said.

Clubhouse lets users make payments to creators directly through its recently announced Payments feature. Clubhouse says 100 percent of the money will go to users, and that it is "the first of many features that allow creators to get paid directly”.

Through Clubhouse Creator First, the company aims to provide financial support to creators and help them produce their shows.

On Facebook Live Audio Room, hosts can also select a nonprofit or fundraiser to support during their conversation, and listeners and speakers can directly donate, Facebook said in a statement.

Apple has already rolled out paid podcast plans, helping creators monetise episodes. Spotify, too, has rolled out a similar subscription plan in the US, and will launch it worldwide in the coming months.

Apple will take a 30 percent cut of the podcast revenue in year one, dropping to 15 percent in year two, Techcrunch reported. Spotify has said it will not take a cut out of creators’ revenue, but will charge a 5 percent fee for access to the tool from spring 2023.

Spotify has also announced a Creators Fund on Greenroom, to help creators monetise their content.

Data Privacy

Privacy concerns

People do seem to enjoy insightful or hilarious conversations with strangers, and are willing to spend a significant amount of time on live audio apps.

However, there are also concerns surrounding privacy and data collection on Clubhouse. The Internet Freedom Foundation recently pointed to media reports which suggested the National Investigative Agency, Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation, are monitoring conversations on the platform.

The IFF also highlighted issues with Clubhouse’ data collection and data sharing practices.

“A deeper dive into the privacy policy and data processing practices is necessary to assess how safe users’ data is with Clubhouse. The platform collects a wide array of information. This includes your name, email address, contact details, phone number, IP address, device name, operating system, the people you interact with and the time, frequency and duration of your use.”

Both Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces temporarily store recordings of live audio sessions, and delete them later. Twitter said it keeps the recordings for 30 days to review them for violation of the platform’s policies.

While Clubhouse’s terms of service explicitly prohibit users from recording the conversations, there is no way of stopping someone from doing so. There have been instances of Clubhouse conversations being leaked on Twitter and other social media platforms.

There is also a fear that weak content moderation policies provide a fertile ground for hate speech and misinformation. The possibility that patterns seen in tweets and Facebook posts could play out in audio conversations cannot be ruled out.

A report by fact-checking website Boom Live mentions that Clubhouse contains groups on cancelling veg biryani, debating aliens' existence, on Ayurveda, and on how to conquer love jihad or become an influencer.

Mishi Choudhary, Legal Director at the Software Freedom Law Center (SLF), told the website that content moderation of audio is more complicated, when compared with text and pictures.

"Clubhouse is an audio-only platform which by definition will be much more complicated to moderate than other platforms that either have text or pictures on which content moderation is automated and uses algorithms to identify objectionable words and hashtags," Choudhary told the website.


Will the momentum last?

It will take a while for Big Tech to make the audio format a viable option. Since the space is still new, rapid changes will take place in terms of monetisation, technology, and users’ interests.

There is little doubt that people are consuming audio and other content formats while they spend time indoors. But will people continue to spend as much time on social audio after the pandemic is over?

Companies will most likely continue working on the audio format, improving and innovating their apps. But monetising the content and sustaining the current momentum will not be an easy task.

Moneycontrol had earlier reported that in May, the iOS version of the app saw about 719,000 installs globally, down 22 percent from 922,000 in April, according to data from Sensor Tower.

Agrawal admitted that when COVID-related restrictions had eased between the first and second waves, he did not have much time to spend on Clubhouse.

Riya, too, was not sure if people will spend the same amount of time on Clubhouse when restrictions ease and face-to-face interactions resume.

“I don’t know if this is going to be a long trend. Given that we can’t meet people right now, it’s interesting. I don’t know if we will go back to Clubhouse once we can meet people in person,” she said.

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