[YS Learn] The startup ecosystem is gung-ho about audio social media

Silicon Valley-based startups such as Clubhouse and Discord are disrupting social media with their focus on voice chats. Does this signal a shift in how netizens, businesses and consumers communicate online?

Way back in 1979, The Buggles song, “Video killed the radio star” foreshadowed that the screen (video) would prevail over the speaker (audio) in our lives. It’s 2021, ripe for a reversal of sorts to happen, especially on social media. 

After a historic year of being confined at home and experiencing “screen fatigue” from attending umpteen meetings via videoconferencing, netizens, employees and the who’s who of businesses alike are gravitating towards audio platforms that reinforce the need for human conversation—without having to scroll much or stress about how they look. You could listen or join in while doing the dishes.   


No surprise then that new-age social media startups such as Clubhouse and Discord are making waves. In fact, Discord has pivoted from being a gamers’ platform to one that’s open to all, with many opting for voice interactions. The likes of audio chat app Clubhouse could change the way people express themselves and consume content on social media. Think 2006, Twitter and its 140-character limit as a precursor.

The advent and growing popularity of audio-centric platforms and social media are also changing the way the startup community engages with each other and with its target audience. 

Image credit - Daisy

Inclusivity and personalisation 

Be it health, behaviour, startups or investments, Clubhouse is gradually becoming a melting pot of ideas, discussions and groups. In the last nine months, it has hosted comedy acts, celebrity talk shows, theatre and music performances, DJ nights, speed dating and networking events, seminars and town halls, sociopolitical discussions (Black Lives Matter, among others) and even chats on one-off incidents.

Silicon Valley investor Naval Ravikant and techie-turned-entrepreneur Sahil Lavingia have talked about how Clubhouse is different and yet the same. Their talk revolved around how conversations have evolved and how the trend might continue.

For Aadil Bandukwala, Marketing Director (Asia Pacific) of HackerRank and an early user of Clubhouse, the platform has been a “game-changer” for “building relationships with people in the Indian and US startup tech ecosystems”. “It’s helped me connect with leaders and talk to them about things that matter to them one-on-one,” he says. This has enabled him to glean “insights one wouldn’t get out of traditional meetings”.

“It works as a new and different mode of communication,” an analyst says on condition of anonymity. “For startups, especially, it’s a frugal and great way to get a targeted audience without paying a high fee. You can have topics for discussions, get people to explain an idea or get a sense of what people are looking for.” 

This is significant considering that several social media platforms charge for targeted push and advertising.

Online tech education platform Lambda School’s founder, Austen Allred, is another early user of Clubhouse, who vouches for its benefits. He also tweeted about a Lambda School fellowship conversation that will happen on the platform. 

Direct message

A senior marketing executive with a startup in India, on condition of anonymity, says Clubhouse is a great way to reach influential people and the crème de la crème of India’s startup ecosystem.

“Currently, there is a growing disbelief in the existing social media platforms and how they work,” says the executive. “They seem very massy and there is an inherent trust issue, with growing questions of security, privacy, not to mention many believe anything on brands on these platforms is promotional.”

The executive explained that on Clubhouse one can get a sense of the target audience and what it wants directly from people in the ecosystem. “It is one of the advantages of Clubhouse: people are willing to listen to the voices of the top people in a particular industry or sector. As brands, you can converse on products, solutions, what consumers want, what they are looking for, and what they possibly expect from you.” 

Clubhouse is a podcast network, virtual event space and a live chat room all rolled into one, with the charm of offline conversations. Currently an invite-only platform, it has a “Start a room” button prominently displayed at the bottom of the screen; the page is an infinite scroll listing live chat rooms. You can enter any room as an audience or “leave quietly” too.

Curiously, amid all the buzz around Clubhouse, its founders—serial entrepreneur Paul Davison and former Google engineer Rohan Seth—have been reticent about the app since its launch in April 2020.

Niche appeal, greater control

A Harvard Business Review post published earlier this week alludes to the massy and generic character of older social media platforms and traditional news media sites, saying users have no control over the content they are bombarded with. Algorithms serve content that will likely keep users scrolling. That’s the case because “social media platforms and many traditional media companies are profit-driven—that is only natural, and it isn’t inherently problematic”. The onus is on users to choose the content they want to consume or subscribe to.

For Aadil, the other benefit of Clubhouse is “soaking in all the knowledge from leaders one looks up to”. “Think about it as a new-age BarCamp, if you will: a cross between an informal house party and a swanky conference with the who’s who of the global startup ecosystem. Imagine you having access to listen and interact with all these leaders—for free—and impromptu! That’s Clubhouse,” he adds. 

Due to the pandemic, 2020 has amplified the shift to audio platforms, with an article in The Wired saying that podcast listenership has grown alongside music streaming services such as Apple Music and Spotify gaining a larger listener base. Audio-based social media platforms will try to leverage this trend. Will they deliver on the promise of the online voice or will the trend fade out like a fad? That remains to be seen.

Edited by Lena Saha