Facebook plans to go after Clubhouse — and podcasts — with a suite of new audio products

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely at a congressional hearing in July 2020. | Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Announcements are coming on Monday, but some products won’t show up for a while.

Facebook wants you to start talking, and listening, on Facebook.

Sources say the social network is planning to announce a series of products — some of which won’t appear for some time — under the umbrella of “social audio” on Monday. They include Facebook’s take on Clubhouse, the audio-only social network that grew rapidly last year, as well a push into podcast discovery and distribution, aided by Spotify.

Facebook’s audio plans include:

  • An audio-only version of Rooms, a videoconferencing product it launched a year ago, when the pandemic spurred massive adoption of Zoom.
  • A Clubhouse-like product that will let groups of people listen to and interact with speakers on a virtual “stage.”
  • A product that will let Facebook users record brief voice messages and post them in their newsfeeds, like they currently can do with text, pictures, and videos.
  • A podcast discovery product that will be connected with Spotify, which has invested heavily in podcasting over the last couple years. It’s unclear to me if Facebook intends to do more beyond flagging podcasts for its users and sending them to Spotify. (Worth noting: Spotify and Facebook first linked up 10 years ago, when Facebook was pushing the idea of “frictionless sharing,” which was supposed to mean that your Facebook friends could see what you were reading, or listening to, or watching. That fizzled out pretty fast.)

It’s also unclear to me what the timeline is for the products Facebook will announce tomorrow. My sense is that the Rooms product — which, again, is a version of videoconferencing without video — is the most likely candidate to go live right away. Sources said other products may not show up, even in beta form, until later this spring.

All told, the announcements are meant to signal CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s belief that his users are ready to use voice and audio as a way to connect with each other. He’s not the only Big Tech executive who’s gotten interested in that idea recently: Twitter has already launched Spaces, its own take on Clubhouse. And Apple is preparing a new subscription podcast service it may announce as early as Tuesday, as part of its own product rollout.

Zuckerberg is scheduled to talk to technology journalist (and Vox Media contributor) Casey Newton on Monday at 1 pm Eastern; this weekend Newton wrote that he and Zuckerberg would talk about “this wild transitional moment in tech and media,” noting that Facebook is “increasingly interested in newsletters, live audio, and other technologies.”

Facebook offered this non-comment in response to a query from Recode: “We’ve been connecting people through audio and video technologies for many years and are always exploring new ways to improve that experience for people.” Reps for Spotify and Apple declined to comment.

Zuckerberg has made his interest in Clubhouse, which launched at the beginning of the pandemic and enjoyed rapid growth throughout the last year, quite clear. He’s shown up for multiple chats on the service, including one with Spotify CEO Daniel Ek. Clubhouse, meanwhile, has just announced a new funding round that values the company at $4 billion — just months after announcing a funding round that valued it at $1 billion.

At the same time, observers have speculated that Clubhouse, which features ephemeral, real-time chats in front of audiences as big as 5,000 people, may have a hard time recapturing the buzz it had in 2020 and earlier this year, when much of the world was locked down and looking for distractions. The app’s pace of downloads appears to have slowed along with its novelty, and Clubhouse hasn’t updated its user totals from February, when it said it had 10 million users.

And if you want a thoughtful critique of Clubhouse’s product challenges, I suggest you read this Twitter thread from tech investor Shaan Puri. Tl;dr: It’s hard to consistently create live, audio-only content that will engage current users and bring in new ones.

On the other hand, Clubhouse is still limited to Apple iPhone users, and when it opens up to the world of Android users, its numbers will most definitely shoot up again. It’s certainly too early to assess whether the format Clubhouse pioneered — a mix of live podcasting and virtual conference-schmoozing — is going to stick around.

It’s also, obviously, way too early to figure out if Facebook’s massive scale will help it dethrone Clubhouse. But Zuckerberg hasn’t been shy about copying services or features built by competitors or would-be competitors, with mixed results: It successfully aped the “Stories” feature pioneered by Snapchat, for instance, but Rooms, its would-be Zoom competitor, never caught on. And Reels, its attempt to clone TikTok’s short-form video service, is a work in progress that is stocked in large part with… videos that first appeared on TikTok. Still to come: A Facebook-branded version of Substack’s successful write-your-own-newsletter service.

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