In a turn away from hectic visual feeds saturated with images, videos and notifications, people are embracing a new type of digital community space—where voice is the primary mode of engagement. A swathe of new audio-led social apps is hitting the market, and existing social platforms are keeping pace by expanding their offerings to include audio features.

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At the start of February, the audio social networking app Clubhouse sparked headlines when Elon Musk appeared on the platform. He hosted a topical discussion with Vlad Tenev, CEO of Robinhood, which maxed out Clubhouse’s 5,000-person room limit—leading to a leak of the stream on YouTube for more to view—and has since invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the app for a chat.

Launched in May 2020, the invite-only app gives users access to conversation rooms, intimate interviews and discussions held by or between influential people like Musk across the world. Users can themselves be part of the conversation if they wish, muting and unmuting as they please. It’s rapidly becoming the virtual meeting spot for tech entrepreneurs, journalists, activists and celebrities. The app topped 8 million global downloads as of February 18, 2021, according to mobile data and analytics firm App Annie, with nearly four million times in the last month alone, according to Apptopia. Its air of exclusivity is driving excitement and paving the way for a surge in audio-communication social spaces.

On February 2, Justin Sun, founder of the cryptocurrency platform TRON, took to Twitter to announce the launch of a Chinese Clubhouse equivalent called Two. Unlike Clubhouse, Two works on both Android and iOS devices, and has versions in both Chinese and English. More new entrants into this space are expected; audio based social platform Fireside is rumored to be launching this year. Described as an interactive podcast app, it will reportedly allow users to enter into live recordings, listen in on sessions with hosts and chime in with their own comments.

Big tech firms—the old guard of social media—are also branching into audio. Twitter is currently testing a new audio-chat room called Spaces which will sit alongside the Twitter platform and allow users to set up their own audio-only chat rooms. And the New York Times reported this week that Facebook is said to be working on an audio chat product to rival Clubhouse.

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The push to these new spaces may be a result of consumers’ desire for more purposeful online interaction. Discord is the perfect example of this; originally created to help gamers chat to one another while they played, during the pandemic it has evolved into a place for non-gamers to socialize. Users can chat amongst themselves in their own community groups (also known as servers) via audio, video or text chat. CEO Jason Citron thinks of it as a “digital third space,” he told The Telegraph. “Your first place is your home, your second place is your work and your third place is somewhere you go with community,.”

The adoption of these voice-based platforms does not come without challenges, though. Concerns are already arising over their moderation processes for standard online issues like harassment and abuse. Given that many of these platforms are center around live audio communication, policing content is harder. Brands considering entering the space may be required to consider new policies and strategies to protect users.

With responsible policies and adequate user protection, these audio social spaces may point the way forward for digital social engagement. “This is a major change in how the social internet works,” Dave Morin, founder of the social network Path and an investor in Clubhouse, told the New York Times. “I believe it’s a new chapter.”

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