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Are social audio apps just hype?

April 1, 2021, 1:00 PM UTC

Clubhouse is giving bigger tech companies some FOMO. Yesterday, I explored seven companies that are trying to get a piece of the audio social interaction hype, including Facebook, Twitter, Slack, and Spotify.

It’s clear the tech industry sees a big opportunity in audio-based social media. With their deep pockets, these companies aren’t bearing much financial burden to invest in the trend, even if it fades over time.

But the excitement about audio apps might be more than just hype: It may the start of a new form of social media that is here to stay.

Colin Sebastian, analyst at investment banking firm Baird, calls audio a “perfectly elegant” way to communicate. “It’s a less formal way for groups to get together and discuss topics,” he said. 

Tom Forte, analyst at D.A. Davidson, said he believes the audio social trend “has legs.” After all, podcasts are turning out to be quite lucrative and an effective way for advertisers to reach consumers, he said.

Despite being challenged by larger rivals, Clubhouse may be able to retain its leading position. “There are times where the incumbent can withstand the new entrant,” Forte said. “Services that are able to withstand knockoffs … have something that’s distinct.”

Clubhouse seems to have found a sweet spot with users, regularly attracting thousands of people who pack virtual rooms to hear from the likes of Telsa CEO Elon Musk, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. And given the regulatory scrutiny facing big companies like Twitter and Facebook, tech giants are unlikely to make a play to acquire Clubhouse any time soon, Forte said.

 Clubhouse has become known for its wide-ranging array of conversations—from music to tech investing to whatever pops up in someone’s mind. But it’s also left opportunity for other social media companies to take the best of the app—its audio interaction—and rejigger the feature to their own audiences. For example, Slack is aiming to recreate the spontaneous conversations that may occur between employees in the hallway. Whereas Facebook’s audio feature might be more tailored to a person’s network of friends and family. 

“It seems like it could be relevant for any broadcast or messaging platform as opposed to a winner take all dynamic,” Sebastian said. 

But if Forte had to guess, the biggest threat to Clubhouse would come from a company that’s already an expert in audio: Spotify. “Audio is native to Spotify,” he said. And, “Spotify has the coolness factor.”

I was initially a skeptic of the numerous audio-based features inspired by Clubhouse. But after more than a year of Zoom meetings and events, I welcome the idea of turning off the camera and turning to the mic.

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

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COVID-19 has pushed small businesses to the brink. A survey from the Federal Reserve Bank shows three out of every 10 small businesses in the U.S. say they won’t survive 2021 without additional government assistance. For the ones lucky—or savvy—enough to stick around, a digital presence is key. On today’s Brainstorm podcast, hosts Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe trace the path small businesses must take to digitize. Listen to the podcast here.

NEWSWORTHY

Google union scores another win. Google says it won’t prohibit workers from discussing their pay as part of a settlement with the Alphabet Workers Union. The agreement stems from a complaint the union filed with the National Labor Relations Board in February alleging that Google had muzzled workers at a data center in South Carolina. The union also complained that a data center worker named Shannon Wait had been unfairly suspended after posting about working conditions on Facebook. Following the union’s complaint, Wait was reinstated. Alphabet’s union has been ramping up since its debut in January, and its relatively small wins are starting to add up.

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work we go. Google is expecting some workers to head back to the office in April, though it won’t require anyone to return until September at the earliest. The company sent an email to employees on Wednesday detailing the plans. Employees who return to the office will be encouraged but not required to get a COVID-19 vaccine. They’ll also be expected to work in the office three days a week, unlike Facebook, Twitter, and Salesforce, which are allowing employees to work remotely indefinitely. 

Remixing Reels. Instagram has debuted another TikTok-like feature for its TikTok clone Reels. The service on Wednesday announced “Remix,” which allows users to create videos that will appear alongside another user’s video. The combination of side-by-side videos allows users to react and interact with videos from other creators—a feature similar to TikTok’s Duets.

Peacocking the portfolio. The streaming wars continue to heat up as companies increasingly choose to make their content exclusive to their own streaming platforms. The latest company considering taking this route? NBCUniversal, which owns the streaming service Peacock. NBCUniversal is reportedly considering pulling its movies from Netflix and HBO Max and debuting its new releases solely on Peacock, according to Bloomberg. If that happens, Netflix and HBO can say bye-bye to the Fast & Furious and Jurassic World franchises.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Critics are blasting Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, for a blog post he published on Wednesday that suggests the company is not incentivized to feed users polarizing content. They claim that the executive is out of touch and gaslighting the public on a problem that is creating real-life consequences. Others say that Facebook continues to deflect and deny responsibility while raking in billions of dollars based on the number of eyeballs it keeps glued to its service. But Clegg, formerly the U.K. deputy prime minister, pushes back on those critiques. Defending Facebook, Clegg not only says that extreme content is bad for the company, but also that there is little evidence that social media has increased polarization.

“But even if you agree that Facebook’s incentives do not support the deliberate promotion of extreme content, there is nonetheless a widespread perception that political and social polarization, especially in the United States, has grown because of the influence of social media. This has been the subject of swathes of serious academic research in recent years — the results of which are in truth mixed, with many studies suggesting that social media is not the primary driver of polarization after all, and that evidence of the ‘filter bubble’ effect is thin at best,” Clegg wrote in the blog post.

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

It looks like the coronavirus protocol of blocking the middle seat on airlines is now over. Delta recently announced that it will begin booking full flights beginning May 1. As a germaphobe before the pandemic began, I’m a little sad that airlines are doing away with the protocols. The idea of sitting just inches away from a stranger creeps me out just a little. But I won’t deny that I am itching to start traveling again. How long will you wait before you board your next full flight?