Courtesy of Reesha Howard
During the pandemic, Reesha Howard became addicted to live audio chats from her smartphone. She first used Clubhouse, the invitation-only animated app that gained popularity last year with freewheeling conversations, game shows, and celebrity appearances.
Then Twitter invited her to become one of the first testers of its new audio rooms, called Spaces. Like on Clubhouse, these conversations are live and fleeting – when over, they disappear. (Unless a host registers them, as NPR recently did with a conversation between host Audie Cornish and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.)
“They said they wanted it to look like dinner, they wanted you to feel like you were welcoming people to your living room,” Howard said. “Well that’s my thing. I love having people in my living room. I love that we are sitting on the couch with a glass of wine in hand and we go there for hours together, having a good time. “
Howard now regularly hosts Spaces on Twitter, including one called Viral Talk, where she interviews someone whose social media post has gone viral. She chatted with rapper Soulja Boy – whom Howard says she wasn’t even following when she first direct-messaged him.
“Little old me, I slipped into Soulja Boy’s DMs, like ‘Hey, come on Twitter Spaces with me’,” she laughs. “And he said to me, ‘That looks good.’ And I’m like ‘What !?’ “
In a matter of months, Howard went from less than 100 followers on Twitter to more than 5,000. In her Twitter biography, she is called the “Queen of Spaces”.
Howard is one of a slew of people making their name in social audio. Now tech companies from Facebook to Reddit to LinkedIn are scrambling to launch audio features, hoping to turn a pandemic-era fad into a permanent boom.
From tips to tickets: creating a business “from the start”
But there is another important piece of the puzzle for Facebook and other social networks: to create tools that allow people like Howard to make big money with audio.
“We believe that this is something that should be able to turn into a business for [creators] right from the start, ”said Fiji Simo, Facebook application manager. In April, Facebook announced that it was working on a number of features, including short audio messages, sound effects and “voice morphing” and live chat rooms, similar to the Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces.
Social media companies have a lot to gain from retaining creators. Audio chats could keep people on their apps longer. And companies could eventually take a share of the revenue generated by their audio stars.
They are therefore rushing to deploy means so that the hosts are paid. It’s a big change, says Esther Crawford, senior product manager at Twitter who works on Spaces and other features.
“For a long time, creators carried the burden of making money,” she said. “They had to go through a lot of legwork to get sponsors and advertisers.”
Clubhouse and Facebook pay some creators to launch shows. They and other companies are also letting listeners tip their favorite hosts and explore selling tickets to exclusive events.
Twitter, for example, rolled out a “tip jar“for power users, including top audio hosts, and plans to launch paid spaces soon.
“It’s a way for creators to be rewarded for the time and energy they put into hosting these public conversations on Twitter,” Crawford said.
Courtesy of Dawn Martin
This is good news for Jazerai Allen-Lord, a brand strategist who hosts a weekly sneaker culture Twitter Spaces called The Kickback.
She says she would be interested in charging people $ 5 for the Twitter versions of the workshops and office hours she runs on “how to put together your pitch deck or how to get a sneaker deal.”
Howard, the host of Viral Talk, says marketing matters too. It can be difficult for people to find Spaces on Twitter, she says. But the company just introduced a new tab on its dedicated audio app, and it’s optimistic.
“What will make the difference is how they promote us there,” she said. “So as long as they can figure out that some of the best voices on Twitter are unknown voices, then we’re going to be A-OK.”
Will the call of social audio survive the pandemic?
Still, the timing of all of these audio chat features seems a bit late. Pandemic restrictions have relaxed in many places and people are starting to socialize more in real life.
The risk, as Jason Citron, CEO of the messaging app Discord, says: “People are obviously going to spend less time on these services, right?
Still, Citron says he’s convinced people have “formed new habits” during the pandemic, and some of them will stay.
“At the end of a day of school or work, people are still going to come home and their friends are still going to be on their Discord,” he said.
Discord has had audio chat for years. Now it doubles the audio with live events and paid tickets – areas where there will be a lot of competition.
Editor’s Note: Facebook and LinkedIn are among the financial backers of NPR.