Has Twitter Spaces won the Social Audio War?
Clubhouse needs something special to come back
At the peak of the pandemic, Clubhouse was the digerati darling. But Jack Dorsey said no, not by the hairs on my chinny chin chin. Now the party has moved to Twitter spaces, and Jack and the team at Twitter have a lot to be proud of. Clubhouse shouldn’t feel too bad though, perhaps Clubhouse was doomed from the start – social audio may prove to be forever a bridesmaid, never a bride. An engaging feature, not a platform.
As soon as Clubhouse started seeing exponential growth they needed to launch on Android immediately. Exclusivity may have been a hook to gain early traction, but iPhone exclusivity crippled Clubhouse when it needed to quickly reach escape velocity. Going from niche to mainstream happened quickly for Clubhouse and they fell victim to a big player building out the same functionality on their already established platform.
In startup literature and lore, incumbents are often painted as the cream of tech: rich and thick. But this isn't accurate anymore. Where it used to be the old tech company would buy the young startup to stay h̶i̶p̶ in business. Twitter proved that it's built different. Twitter dunked on FANG & instead of buying the young company to stay competitive *cough Instagram* *cough Facebook* Twitter competed against the young company and it looks like they won. Twitter didn't just prove it could stay nimble, Twitter proved it can still sprint.
Will Nexflix still be watching when their young competitor shows? Will Facebook still have the golden touch or will *TikTok* Facebook run out of time? You get the point. Twitter may have changed startup history. They didn't just buy another round, they won by technical knockout.
Twitter also had an ace in the hole. Kayvon Beykpour, Twitter’s Head of Consumer Product, was previously the cofounder of Periscope. Remember Periscope? While social video ended up failing, the former Periscope squad at Twitter, including, of course, Kayvon, had some secret knowledge as to which mistakes to avoid this time around. Interestingly, according to Kayvon, the failure of Periscope, and Facebook Live for that matter, is because most people are terrified to be on live video, except in smaller, pointed groups – like on Snapchat. Broadcasting social video on a large established platform like Twitter or Facebook was intimidating, Snapchat provided a discreet platform to selectively narrowcast. With social audio, however, that fear barrier melts away. Where social video needed to be separate and apart from an established platform, social audio does not seem to have that same weakness. This struck me as counterintuitive and I would bet that Snapchat and Clubhouse comparisons can be found in quite a few VC investment memos.
Aside from the Android snafu and Twitter’s Periscope ace in the hole, Twitter also benefits from an established social graph. Social audio always struck me as a huge opportunity for Twitter when folks would Tweet about what was happening on Clubhouse. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter all became the de facto chat backchannel to Clubhouse, exposing a major Clubhouse achilles heel. Twitter saw this and shot its shot. Spaces leverages Twitter's existing community and enhances it with audio rooms. Unlike on Clubhouse, conversations can seamlessly continue on Twitter or in Twitter DMs. Clubhouse doesn’t have an answer to this and worse yet, even promotes Twitter in each of its user profiles.
Twitter Spaces is frictionless. Twitter Spaces allows millions of users to hop into any room they want without an invite. The additional formality seems to leek to interactions on Clubhouse as well. Whereas Clubhouse conversations take on a traditional conference panel vibe, Twitter Spaces takes on a casual fun vibe – sort of like the bar near the conference where the in-crowd is having a less-buttoned down and far more interesting conversation. It’s going to be hard for Clubhouse to compete with the vibe of automatically spinning up a room with close pals you don’t get to hang out with much. Why ever leave an app where you already have community and social audio capabilities?
This all being said, what can Clubhouse do? It ain’t over yet. As of May 9, Android users can now hop on Clubhouse. This is good. Clubhouse needs to concentrate on its Android experience and user base. Ensuring top talent is still on your platform will also be critical for Clubhouse. Clubhouse may want to immediately lock down Vegas residency style deals with as many top content creators they can to ensure regular, high-quality content continues to flow on Clubhouse.
Another idea for Clubhouse would be to relaunch as an exclusive platform, this time across both iPhone and Android, with a capped limited number of users. Realistically however may also be an opportunity for another startup as Clubhouse will likely not be able to adjust on the fly and their founders would likely not want to step back from their ambition of being the social audio platform that rules the universe.
A wacky but interesting idea, somewhat out of the control of the Clubhouse team, is for Microsoft to acquire Clubhouse (in seemingly a time of need) and combine Clubhouse content with Discord content to create something completely new: a podcast-like hybrid platform of edited live audio from top creators.
And now the real question: is social audio forever doomed to be a feature and not a platform? It would appear that creators are now reluctant to add yet another channel and have embraced the move “back” to Twitter. This is a trend I’ll be tracking closely. Once Facebook goes live with a social audio competitor we will get more data as to the feature-versus-platform debate. I’m still on the fence. I don’t think we have enough data points yet to determine whether social audio is doomed to be a feature and not a competitor. One thing I do know for sure is that most people that I haven’t met IRL don’t sound the way I expect them to when streaming social audio, which is fun. If you ever want to hear how I actually sound, you can catch me on Twitter Spaces, not Clubhouse, and now it’s not just because I’m an Android fan.