By Kurt Wagner
Facebook Inc. is moving more aggressively into audio products, trying to compete with rivals such as Twitter Inc. and popular upstart Clubhouse.
The social network on Monday is building a series of new audio-focused products, including virtual rooms where users can host live discussions, and a feature called “soundbites” that lets users post short audio snippets to their feed like they would a photo or video, according to head of the Menlo Park, California-based company’s main service, Fidji Simo.
Facebook will also create a podcasting feature so users can download and listen to podcasts directly from the main app, which will give the company a chance to compete with existing players like Apple Inc. Recode reported earlier on Facebook’s plans.
“We have seen a massive rise of audio experiences” during the pandemic, Simo said, including an increase in voice calls and audio messages on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which spurred the company to build the new products.
Audio has become an important format with many people stuck at home due to the pandemic. Clubhouse, which lets users host live audio discussions, has been a big hit in Silicon Valley, and just raised money at a US$4 billion valuation after Twitter tried to buy the startup for around the same price, Bloomberg News reported. “Clubhouse has done something phenomenal,” Simo said. “I’ve been working at Facebook for ten years so I know how hard it is to create a new social format.”
Twitter is also pushing aggressively into audio. It has a Clubhouse competitor, called Twitter Spaces, which exists within its app, and launched an equivalent to Facebook’s soundbites product called voice tweets last summer. Microsoft Corp.’s LinkedIn and Slack Technologies Inc. are also working on audio rooms competitors.
US lawmakers have accused Facebook of copying competitors and the company is under antitrust investigation from state and federal regulators.
Simo said Facebook is trying to put its own spin on these products. On Clubhouse and Twitter, for example, audio rooms are ephemeral and disappear after a room is closed. On Facebook, users can save their room discussions and let people download them as a podcast, she said. Facebook’s artificial intelligence technology will eventually recommend the most popular parts of a live discussion to be shared as soundbites, she added.
Facebook will also enable tipping in audio rooms as a way to help content creators make money from their fans, something the company has done in the past with live videos.
Many of these products are still weeks if not months away. Facebook said it hopes to launch its live rooms product by summer.