After months of testing, Facebook’s version of audio-only Clubhouse is finally going live for U.S. iOS users, the company said in a launch announcement on Monday.
Live Audio Rooms may be officially debuting, but this offering, as well as the arrival of Facebook’s podcast service on the platform, is not open for all creators just yet.
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The roll-out appears to be moving in stages: Only celebrities, politicians and other public figures, as well as a elect group of a dozen Facebook Groups, can host live conversations to begin with, and podcasts will launch with a starter set of podcasts.
The company plans to broaden host eligibility, so other parties can hold Live Audio Rooms as well. But they’ll need to be in the U.S., have verified accounts in good standing and use Facebook’s public profiles or Pages on iOS. Eventually, that too will loosen, allowing anyone to host a room.
While hosts must wait, audiences won’t. Joining or listening to a public room or podcast is open to all Facebook users starting this week. Rooms run by private groups will also be open to members.
According to Facebook’s blog, the Live Audio Rooms debuts with a line-up that includes the following:
• Grammy-nominated electronic music artist TOKiMONSTA
• Football quarterback Russell Wilson
• Organizer, producer and journalist Rosa Clemente
• Esports streamer and internet personality Omareloff
• Social entrepreneur Amanda Nguyen
“And that’s just the beginning. You can expect to see Live Audio Rooms from other public figures, too, from D Smoke, Kehlani, Reggie Watts and Lisa Morales Duke, to Dr. Jess, Bobby Berk, Tina Knowles-Lawson, Joe Budden and DeRay Mckesson,” the company added.
The environment inside the room will seem somewhat familiar to existing Clubhouse users. In both cases, the hosts’ profile photos populate the upper portion of the screen with the audience below it, and there’s an interface that allows people to “raise their hand.”
But there are also differences, ranging from subtle — the ring around the person currently speaking, for instance, glows in a shade of Facebook-friendly blue — to more obvious. On Facebook, host icons are larger than listeners and verified checkmarks are visible. There’s also a middle section set off to designate speakers, up to 50.
The way rooms are shared and attended to take on more of Facebook’s style as well. Similar to the platform’s other events, users can see Live Audio Rooms in news feeds or posts in Groups. Users can see friends who’ve joined or are planning to join particular conversations, which can be a powerful way to drive discovery across a platform with some 2.85 billion monthly active users. Live Audio Rooms notifications and reminders for conversations that people showed interest in will work like other Facebook alerts.
And just like other content on the platform, users can “like,” “thumbs up” or add another Facebook emoji. Beyond that, the company is also offering a paid “star” animation that not only bursts onto the screen, just like Facebook Live, but places the paying user into a special area called “the front row,” so hosts can recognize them and give them a shout-out.
Facebook’s push to enable fundraising for causes also extends to Live Audio Rooms, which can work like a telethon with features like direct donation and a progress bar.
Despite these nuances, the new service mimics Clubhouse in some key ways, at least in core function. But spiritually, there’s a distinction between the two efforts.
One of the appealing aspects of Clubhouse is that the accounts of famous people are the same as others, and they jump in and out of chats, just like anyone else. It adds to a sense of perceived intimacy, as though there’s less of a wall dividing famous folk from their fans.
Facebook’s choices appear to keep the digital velvet ropes intact — though, notably, the reasons may be understandable. Infamous for the bad actors and misinformation that have been allowed to run amuck on the platform, the company has to take things like verification seriously and carefully consider how it structures the conversations. But there’s no telling how followers will react to that.
Neither is it clear how the company plans to moderate this type of content, which may be critical to stem the spread of misinformation and disinformation. The announcement offered no clues, but Facebook moderators must surely be girding their loins.
After all, audio and video content tends to resonate beyond the mere written word, and unlike Clubhouse — which caps conversations to 5,000 listeners — there’s no limit on Facebook’s room size. Meanwhile, it looks like the mechanisms designed to keep people tuned into the platform and drive virality and amplification will apply to Live Audio Rooms as well.
Regardless, the social media giant is moving full steam ahead on this and its other “plans to bring social audio experiences to Facebook,” it said.
The effort includes the new podcast service, as well as upcoming podcast features, like capturing and sharing short clips, turning on captions and eventually making podcasts more social.
Facebook called both of these efforts “just the beginning of our audio journey,” and indeed, later this year, the company plans to launch a short-form audio clip service called Soundbites. It will also soon start testing other initiatives, like a central listening destination and background audio listening for videos.
The work suggests that the tech company is ramping up across a growing list of media and multimedia priorities, with audio joining its other focus on video — across both its main platform and Instagram, which has multiple video services and features now — while other branches of the company pursue augmented reality and virtual reality.
Facebook looks determined to own as many conversations as it can on as many platforms as possible, until everything the public reads, hears, sees, talks about and experiences bears the Facebook imprimatur. That may seem like a dystopian view, but for a technology empire whose revenue soared 48 percent to nab $26.2 billion in revenue for the first three months of 2021 alone, the company has the resources to try — and apparently, when it comes to mimicking other platforms, also the will.