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The next big social network trend? Shortform audio

Forget long Clubhouse convos, these founders see voice notes as the future

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

“So I’ve identified a few metrics and KPIs that I’m going to start tracking in order to better my overall life experience,” Farbod Nowzad says, seemingly seriously, into his phone microphone.

He lists his KPIs, or key performance indicators: the number of smoothies he drinks per week, the amount of time he spends listening to live techno music, and the number of rooftop bars he visits. I tap through to hear more. Someone named Nikolai recommends people maximize the “number of water fixtures that come into your line of sight on a daily basis” and the “number of times that you can say, ‘I’ll have the usual’ and have someone else understand it.” More people chime in, all in audio clips under 90 seconds. 

This, to multiple founders and investors, is the future of audio: shortform recordings that are social, shareable, and thought-provoking, or, at a bare minimum, make you want to listen and say something. 

Multiple startups, including Beams, Quest, and Nowzad’s app Pludo are betting their efforts, and investors’ cash, that there’s business to be had in this user-generated audio. Even the world’s largest social platform sees this as a possibility; Facebook announced Soundbites earlier this year, a forthcoming product also built around shareable, short audio clips. They all see what’s happening on TikTok — masses of people creating viral video clips — and want to repeat that success with just sound. It could be the next viral frontier, and a medium that mints new stars and makes everyone lots of cash, should any of these apps actually take off.

Can solely audio go viral?

The best way to think of these efforts is as apps for voice notes, except your voice notes have a time limit and people can respond to them with more voice notes that also have a time limit. Oh, and the voice notes aren’t edited, either. It’s like taking the social aspect of Clubhouse but limiting it with a time constraint, although the analogy that keeps coming up when I talk to the founders is Twitter, and blogs.

“[Once we had blogs] we then had tools like Twitter and Tumblr that removed all of the complexity and just said, ‘You don’t need to think of yourself as bloggers, just type words into the box and press publish,’ and that led to this unlock of so much creativity,” says Austin Petersmith, the founder and CEO of Racket, another shortform audio platform that’s currently in beta and has raised an initial seed round of funding, although Petersmith wouldn’t disclose the amount.

Giving people an online microphone and a time constraint, he says, makes podcasting easier to approach.

“Hundreds of millions of people are making TikToks actively, hundreds of millions of people are blogging actively, and there are less than a million people podcasting actively,” he says. “I think it makes no sense.”

A screenshot of the Racket interface.
A screenshot of the Racket interface.

Racket limits people to nine minutes of recording, which right now, they can only do on the web. An app is in development, though, as are plans to make the platform open to everyone. Petersmith says 18,000 minutes of audio have been published since the company’s launch this year; 70,000 people have listened to a Racket, which is what they call the audio snippets; and 17,000 people have signed up.

But why the audio mania now? Alan Sternberg, co-founder of Beams, which he and his co-founder say has raised $3 million, says the apps’ arrivals come from a confluence of factors: the improvement of phones’ microphones, Clubhouse popularizing the idea of social audio, and rapid speech-to-text transcription.

Notably, none of these apps offer RSS feeds to distribute content to other apps, essentially setting them up as proprietary vehicles through which people can consume and create content. They very much are not podcasts. Sternberg says RSS is a problem, even, because it doesn’t allow for a social network to grow in one app. 

“I think the problem with RSS, when you look at podcasting, it’s like a decentralized technology that wasn’t made to be a social network,” he says, suggesting that’s why apps like Beams need to exist.

Meanwhile, for investors, the shortform audio trend makes sense as a way to build on the success of live social audio apps and improve on them, at least in one investor’s mind. Jake Chapman, an investor in Racket, points out multiple issues he sees with live audio. Namely, conversations veer off track from the promised room topic, as is the nature of conversation, and because they’re live and not recorded, at least in Clubhouse’s case, the app can’t optimize for discovery. 

“I think the short snippet audio companies have a much better chance of success [than apps like Clubhouse],” he says. “I think they can scratch the same kind of itch. So Racket, for instance, because rackets are prerecorded, so they’re asynchronous, and because they’re short, the signal-to-noise ratio is completely flipped.”

He also says apps that specialize in longform audio will have higher costs when transcribing hours-long conversations and optimizing discovery around them, versus shortform.

Screenshots of Quest, a shortform audio app focused on career advice.
Screenshots of Quest, a shortform audio app focused on career advice.

Of course, podcasting has already existed for years and is having its Big Tech moment now, too. Amazon recently purchased a podcasting hosting company, in addition to the podcast network Wondery, and Spotify has spent upward of a billion dollars on exclusive content deals and acquiring companies across the space. No one really thought podcasting was broken, but Big Tech saw an opportunity to cash in on it, mostly through serving and targeting ads against shows, and seized it.

Spotify notably bought Anchor in 2019, arguably the app that pioneered the idea of mobile audio recording. It didn’t focus on shortform audio, however, and was more designed to democratize podcast creation, as it still tries to do today. Anchor attempted to make its app a place to listen, as well as create, but failed to ever make it a destination. 

That’s the real hurdle for these startups. Podcasts thrive when they’re available across platforms — some shows do well on YouTube, others find an audience on Apple Podcasts, and still others do well on Pocket Casts. But these new apps and their founders see locked-down content as the way forward.

These startups face two main hurdles, though: Facebook, which is going to enter the space soon and plans to pay out $1 billion to creators across its platform over the next year, and the outstanding question that exists, of whether people want to hear this audio format. Will anyone actually listen to a stranger give them ideas of KPIs to optimize their life? Or would they just prefer a tweet?