Chennai: Recently, people across the world got to spend an evening with a TN election candidate who discussed his career, his experiences and his ambitions as a politician. The hangout took place in the most happening invite-only audio chat app, Clubhouse, which drew global attention when Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk made an appearance. Other members of the app include Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.
“It was a great experience interacting with people who had a real desire to get to know me,” says the candidate who feels physical campaigning must stop as going digital saves cost, levels the playing field and also helps reach out to more people.
With the rise of audio-based social networking apps, life seems to have come full circle. While humans have always used talking to communicate, texts, chats and videos took over. And now, in a pandemic-afflicted world where people are craving time away from screens, audio has made a comeback. It’s helping people unwind, find like-minded people, have casual conversations and also network.
The lack of video is one of the pluses of this kind of social networking, says Vijay Menon, storyteller and founder of The, a creative collective, who began using Clubhouse recently.
“Not having to be on video makes me comfortable. Also, speaking to people brings about a personal connect. It’s not as impersonal as texting,” says Menon. “I have joined The Malayalee Club, where I can speak in my mother tongue and discuss everything from politics and literature to food and movies. In a way it’s like a journey, where I can enter anybody’s house, and leave quietly if I don’t like the conversation,” he says.
These spaces are also a great place to network. “I have connected with a few writers and musicians. Sitting in Chennai, I was able to speak to a scriptwriter in Los Angeles. And since you can add your Twitter and Instagram handle to your profile, people can connect with you there,” says Menon.
Audio-based social networks appeal to people as you can speak about what you want without fear of it being recorded, says techie, musician and author of ‘Masala Lab: The Science of Indian Cooking’, Krish Ashok. “For the better part of history, talking was the only way we communicated. It’s the oldest form of communication. Then came writing, radio, and TV, which added visual images. But all these things had access control issues as not everyone could get on radio or TV. The internet is a more democratised space,” says Ashok.
The evolution of the internet also started with text — blogs, Orkut — as it needed fewer bytes. “We jumped from text to video, Insta Live, Periscope, Twitter Live, etc but video is not for everyone as there is the pressure to look a certain way as well as stage fright to deal with. For a podcast or a video on YouTube, it’s out there and you can be judged for it for years to come,” says Ashok. “That’s why these audio spaces are comfortable. It digitally replicates having an evening conversation with your friend, and you can talk without the fear of being recorded,” says Ashok, who has been a Clubhouse member for two months and now hosts two regular programmes on Twitter Spaces. ‘Salem Junction’, which he co-hosts with author Sidin Vadukut every Friday, is a set of interconnected stories on a wider range of topics, while ‘Masala Trail’ which he co-hosts with food blogger Nandita Iyer, every Saturday, is about food.
“In both, we speak for 30 minutes and then open it up to the audience,” says Ashok, who began by hosting a food room on Clubhouse. “Then Twitter reached out to me with Spaces. You have to build followers on Clubhouse but since I already have followers on Twitter, I shifted to it for wider reach.”
The pandemic has made these platforms more appealing, he feels. “As opportunities to hang out with friends have reduced, these platforms replicate it. Also, creativity rises not in isolation but when you converse with people. Talking to others helps fine-tune ideas,” he says.
The platforms do have some safety rules in place. Spaces and Clubhouse also temporarily record the live sessions. For instance, a recording of the Space is saved for a limited time in case you want to report it. “The host can also grant and revoke speaking permissions to participants,” says Ashok. Clubhouse also temporarily records audio in a room while it is live to investigate any claims of abuse. But some users are apprehensive about these recordings and of other security issues as an incident was reported in early February about a user streaming audio feeds and metadata from multiple rooms in Clubhouse to another website.
Vikas Chawla, co-founder of Social Beat, an integrated digital marketing agency, says the popularity of any platform depends on what is convenient for users. “People are looking at screen-free time, so you can tune into these audio platforms without having to actively read or watch. These are passive interactions, where only a small set is hosting, and others are listening.”
The pandemic and screen fatigue have also underscored the need to have alternatives to video chats and interactions, he says. “But these are still niche when compared to YouTube, Twitter and Instagram. It takes a long time to build that kind of traction and momentum to surpass it. So, it is in a nascent stage,” says Chawla.
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