Opinion

How Facebook’s ‘Fireside’ audio project can rival Clubhouse

Reports have surfaced that Facebook is now looking to enter the world of audio too, joining Twitter’s Spaces and Clubhouse – here’s what it needs to do to stand out.

Facebook’s early experiments in the world of live audio has apparently been given the codename Fireside. If it can recognise the key successes and pitfalls of Clubhouse and Spaces, then the tool could set the platform ablaze. Failing or ignoring these lessons, however, would see it cosigned to the same fate as Facebook Stories or Reels – a mounting dumspter fire of social media’s short-lived features.

In my limited experience with Clubhouse so far (‘limited’ because it’s horrifically inaccessible, not because I haven’t bothered to explore it in detail), the app appears more commercial and brand-heavy. I mean this not only in the sense that company representatives are using the platform to market products, but also individuals like journalists and musicians are utilising it to strengthen their own personal branding. Clubhouse’s current exclusivity (with invites appearing to surface more on Twitter than on Facebook) has solidified its formal tone. With rooms lacking value unless you have a significant following, the app still offers more of a listening experience for most account holders.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Clubhouse is the only audio function to appeal to brands. Twitter is an established social media giant favoured by content creators for being instantaneous, with easy engagement. Spaces lend themselves well to that, allowing individuals to share their tweets and content to a session. The added benefit, of course, is that the Twitter account using the feature already comes with a following, as opposed to Clubhouse, where starting afresh is much trickier.

So where – and how – does Facebook slide in? If the other two services cater towards a more professional audience, then one would assume Zuckerberg’s app, home of the friend request, would – for the most part – focus on audio tools to be used between friends. The question is, with Messenger, WhatsApp Audio and more already going some way to cater towards this specific form of communication, there isn’t much of a gap in the market for Facebook’s potential feature to fill.

Let’s take all of Facebook’s products in turn, starting with the eponymous. Its Rooms tool, launched in the time of Zoom’s booming popularity, appears to be rarely used – according to my echo chamber of friends. Why start a Room when you can go on Zoom, FaceTime or WhatsApp? Why partake in a live audio space when you can take a phone call?

I discussed Facebook’s plans in a Twitter Space with Matt Navarra and others on Thursday. One speaker, Misty McCready, regularly talked about the ‘authenticity’ which comes with voice features and how it could be used to enhance conversation. We discussed this after the live chat, too, especially around how it could be used in the context of mental health. Might it be beneficial for those sort of conversations with groups of friends? Maybe. I remain unconvinced, however, how this will differ from Facebook’s established audio apps. As a quick aside, I don’t think the visual-heavy app Instagram could get much benefit out of it, either.

Where Facebook can really stand to rival Clubhouse is with brands, as the live experience tends to benefit media giants on the former platform such as LAD Bible and JOE.

Back in 2016, the platform announced Facebook Live Audio – a sound-based alternative to their video livestream tool – for Android. If Facebook chooses to build upon this initial software, it could easily catch up with Clubhouse here, and in other areas, too.

Twitter Spaces, for example, has made quite the dent by simply adding the feature to an already well-established app – there is no need for people to put in the work to build up a following. Facebook, I believe, could do the same.

Granted, some of the larger corporate companies and their representatives had no issue amassing a following nice and quick on Clubhouse (see Tesla’s Elon Musk, who reportedly broke the room limit when he made an appearance on the app), but smaller firms may struggle when the product rolls out further. If Facebook is quick, it can use the same strategy which benefitted Twitter, and scoop up some of Clubhouse’s commercial users with a pre-existing followers. Add to that the possibility of audio-based workshops on LinkedIn, and Facebook could sure make an impact.

Such an impact would also be far greater if they can make their offering accessible. While Clubhouse has recently confirmed improvements to its VoiceOver functionality, the start-up is still without some form of captioning at this stage of its development. Facebook as a platform isn’t much better, with atrocious, hard to use interfaces for alt text and captioning. In this case, the latter is more important and the site’s auto-captioning, where used, is fairly accurate.

With Fireside, if Facebook strikes while the iron’s hot – without sacrificing access – its offering could very well be a strong Clubhouse competitor.

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