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Can Facebook Break the Sound Barrier?

For tech geeks, life has always been divided into two camps. There’s the Swiss Army Knife camp that thinks that one piece of technology or one platform should be able to do it all.  And then there’s the camp who believe in best of breed… they run around with a tool belt that uses the best tool for each job at hand.

The latest clashing of the camps is playing out in the world of audio. Facebook this week announced plans to continue assembling the Swiss Army Knife of personal expression with a sweeping audio-forward campaign. The company’s efforts to dominate the oh-so-buzzy audio scene include ambitious plans to compete with established podcast networks, offer tools for the creation of both short-form and long-form audio, double down on audio messaging, and build audio-only rooms like Clubhouse.

In a rare interview with a journalist, behind a paywall on Discord with social media expert Casey Newton, Zuckerberg popped in to elaborate on Facebook’s ambitious audio plans. It was essentially an informal product launch, loaded with new announcements. They include Soundbites, an app to help create short-form audio. Think of it as a way to record quick short stories and insights, poems, top of mind thoughts – deposited into a sort of audible TikTok. The company is also building tools to deliver long-form audio like podcasts, pitting them squarely against apps like Apple Podcast or Stitcher. Zuckerberg announced plans for a closer relationship with Spotify.  And finally, he described a move into live audio rooms, taking on Clubhouse, the year-old voice-only social media platform.

Creators in the Cross Hairs

In the past, when Facebook announced its intent to conquer new territories, say video, it would line up an all-star cast of players like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal and pay them to participate as content providers. In contrast, this audio salvo is more grassroots, targeting everyday creators. Never having been one to get to market first, Facebook always claims its raison d’etre is a numbers game. Mass appeal. But we know, and Facebook has proven, that biggest does not always equate to best. (Think about Facebook’s gaming efforts or its Marketplace.)  Offering one platform for all needs can often prove lackluster.

Fidji Simo, head of Facebook Apps, spoke at the Collision Conference this week, where she confirmed Facebook’s focus-on-creator strategy. “We’ve seen the rise of the audio experience, “ she said. “We think that by adding audio formats into Facebook we’ve provided one place for people to express themselves in multiple ways.” (Such a Facebookesque statement…) On her own Facebook page she writes, “We want everyone to have tools that are powerful enough to make you sound like a pro, but be intuitive and fun. And through our advances in AI, we can make audio quality magically great – even if you recorded on a busy street corner.”  In her Collision talk she stressed that groups — already well established on Facebook — would be some of the first to relish their newfound Facebook voice. She also announced the creation of an Audio Creator Fund to support emerging audio creators and get early feedback on these new products.

In the Discord interview, Zuckerberg reinforced the idea that Facebook’s investment in social audio is just another way to enable creators. “We’re thinking about audio as a first class medium. We’re building the product to give you an audio studio or recorder in your pocket,” he said. Sound effects, removing background noise and other semi-pro tools will be part of the feature set, he said

Zuckerberg’s and Simo’s talking points make clear that Facebook is hopping on the creator train. Newton’s recap of the Zuckerberg conversation can be found here.  Most striking is his  “of the moment” bullish stance on creator culture.  A while back I wrote here about the emergence of audio based on the growing popularity of podcasts, Clubhouse, voice assistants and other screenless, hands-free voice technologies. Facebook’s embrace underscores the renaissance of audio as a medium.

Do You Like Swiss Army Knives?

Questions remain. Can Facebook’s imitation-is-the-highest-form-of-flattery approach succeed?  Will it execute well, or just be overlooked in a very crowded audio landscape?  To succeed, Facebook’s audio products will need to go one better. They will need to be fully integrated into the overall Facebook community experience. Creators will want incentives like compensation to give it a go. Advertisers will need to find talent there that they can align themselves with.  Simply tacking on some audio apps, to the already way-too-long list of Facebook’s often extraneous side-channel experiences may not result in this company dominating another market. 

Then there are all those purpose-built tools, in contrast to Facebook’s Swiss Army Knife.  Most creators are pretty adept in choosing the platform where they’re likely to find their best audience. Increasingly savvy creators are tweaking their personae to put their best face forward on different mediums as appropriate. (Think of the difference between a performance on TikTok versus on YouTube.) Putting all creation tools in one basket has some appeal, but it’s kind of like giving someone an oil paint set and telling them to go out and paint the house.

Note:  You can hear Casey Newton’s interview with Mark Zuckerberg on SoundCloud.  It’s a recording from SideChannel, created by Newton and a group of journalists using Discord as their own audio-only platform. Zuckerberg also recently appeared on Clubhouse.  He certainly deserves some credit for showing up and exploring the medium.  For more on the announcement specifics, here’s the Facebook link.  Expect to see these products over the next few months.

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