Inspired by Clubhouse, Facebook is turning up the volume
Facebook is embarking on a trial of live audio rooms and will release audio editing tools and a podcast platform as it joins its rivals in pursuing audio-only services.
The podcast boom of the last five years and the steady rise in popularity of audiobooks are evidence of the fact that we increasingly like to put on our headphones and just listen.
Malcolm Gladwell's fantastic new book The Bomber Mafia, which tells the story of the US military strategists who devised the bombing campaign against Germany during World War II, was released a few weeks ago as an audiobook first, with the print version to follow.
Away from podcasts and audiobooks, the start-up Clubhouse has forged a new segment with its live audio chat groups, currently available via invite and only to users on Apple devices. Facebook told an Asia-Pacific group of journalists this week that it would begin testing its own live audio rooms in its app in Taiwan, leveraging the country's diversity of social media creators, TV hosts, comedians and musicians passionate about audio.
Paresh Rajwat, Facebook's Head of Product - Audio, Video and Music, said the intimacy and immersive aspects of audio made it a particularly special format.
"They make you feel you're right there in the room with your friends and families, you're sitting around the dining table, even if you're miles apart," he says.
"Audio is also a very convenient format. You don't have to worry about getting your camera ready, you don't have to worry about what background you have, you don't have to worry about whether you have makeup on, you don't have to worry about any of those things," he adds.
Facebook's live audio rooms are being tested in Taiwan ahead of a general release.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to a surge in audio calls and messaging on Facebook Messenger and Facebook-owned Whatsapp, says Rajwat. With audio a hot category, Facebook is developing audio tools, what Rajwat describes as a "sound studio in your pocket", that will allow users to mix audio tracks and add sound effects and background music.
"Through advances in AI, we're investing heavily in making audio quality magically great. So even if you recorded on a corner of a busy street, we will be able to fade the background noise. So your recording sounds really clear," says Rajwat.
Facebook hopes the tools will spur the rise of a new audio format it dubs "soundbites" - short stories, anecdotes, jokes, moments of inspiration and poems, creatively made with the audio tools that will be available in its smartphone app.
Facebook will also make podcasts playable from within the Facebook news feed and allow background play so the podcast can still play while the app is minimised or the screen turned off - a feature Youtube allows for premium users.
Rewarding the stars
Rajwat says that 170 million Facebook users follow pages devoted to podcasts on Facebook, with 35 million members participating in groups that discuss specific podcast.
"For all of these, until now, you have to leave the Facebook app to listen to these episodes and these podcasts. So in the next few months, you'll be able to listen to podcasts on Facebook, both while using the app, or even if your app is in the background and nd we'll make it very easy for you to discover new podcasts that are related to your interests, so that you can share them with your friends."
For live audio, Facebook will add an audio feature to the existing "rooms tray" at the top of the newsfeed in the app. A user will be able to start a live audio gathering with their followers receiving a notification that the event is underway.
The live audio feature will initially be available to "public figures" - think those with the blue tick beside their profile name, but will eventually expand to groups too. Facebook will offer tools for public figures to make money from hosting live audio rooms.
"We'll be offering an ability for fans to send stars, which are digital currency, to creators and public figures who are hosts, and will allow creators and public figures to also use our fundraising products alongside live audio to raise money," says Rajwat.
While audio is a logical extension of Facebook's live video and video editing features, its looming debut does raise the question of how Facebook will deal with content moderation in the audio format.
Rajwat had nothing specific to announce around efforts to moderate content and prevent the spread of extremist or violent audio content, but said the existing moderation tools created by Facebook would apply to the audio services too.
"If there are very audio-specific community standards, we will announce them when we launch the product," Rajwat told Tech blog.
"But for now, I would say you know, the investments that we have done in integrity and safety are going to be great little building blocks for us to build on top of."
A question remains over how advertising will be integrated into audio products. Rawat didn't offer any details, but the intention appears to be offering tools to keep people in the newsfeed for longer and therefore being exposed to adverts.
Facebook is still to see the full impact of Apple's new iOS 14.5 update that prompts people to opt out of ad tracking. By analysing audio content, it may be able to personalise adverts lessening the impact of millions of users ending its ability to track them beyond the Facebook app.
Twitter earlier this month launched its own live audio product called Spaces. It is available to Twitter users with 600 or more followers, who can start audio chat rooms that followers can join in on. Twitter hopes the new feature will support its goal of having 315 million daily active users by the end of 2023.
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