Live conversations on Clubhouse and Twitter took off during the pandemic, connecting people online when they couldn't in real life. Now social media companies are scrambling to launch audio features.



During the pandemic, an app called Clubhouse took off. It let people join live audio chats from their smartphones. Soon, there were game shows and celebrity appearances and some people becoming audio stars. Now the big social media companies are jumping in. NPR's Shannon Bond has more on how Silicon Valley is hoping to turn a pandemic-era fad into a permanent boom.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Reesha Howard was an early adopter of live audio. Lately, she's gotten hooked on Twitter's version, called Spaces, where she was among the first users.

REESHA HOWARD: They said they wanted it to feel like a dinner party. They wanted you to feel like you were hosting people in your living room. Well, that's my thing. I love to have people in my living room. I love for us to sit on the couch together with a glass of wine in our hands, and we just go at it for hours together, having a good time.

BOND: Howard now regularly hosts Spaces on Twitter, including one called Viral Talk, where she interviews someone whose social media post has gone viral. The chats are alive and ephemeral. Once they're over, they're gone.


HOWARD: So today, welcome to Twitter Spaces and Viral Talk.

BOND: She's done Spaces with the rapper Soulja Boy, talking about a beef he was in with professional wrestlers.


SOULJA BOY: Where the wrestlers at? Where the WWE at? We could talk - we could settle all this right now over the phone, over the Twitter Space.

BOND: Howard says she wasn't even following Soulja Boy when she first asked him to chat live with her.

HOWARD: So little old me, I slid into Soulja Boy's DMs, like, hey, come on Twitter Spaces with me. And he was like, sounds good. And I'm like, what?

BOND: Had you ever talked to him before?

HOWARD: No, never.

BOND: In just a few months, Howard has gone from fewer than a hundred followers on Twitter to more than 5,000 and calls herself the Queen of Spaces. She's one of a slew of people making names for themselves in live audio, and tech companies are paying attention. Fidji Simo is head of the Facebook app. She says, for the world's biggest social network, audio is today what video was a few years ago.

FIDJI SIMO: Audio is one of these formats that we think is going to become very much a core way in which people interact, the same way video has become one of these ways.

BOND: Facebook, which is among NPR's financial supporters, is getting ready to launch a bunch of products, from short audio posts to sound effects to live chat rooms, similar to Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces. But there's another important piece of the puzzle - building tools for people like Reesha Howard to start making a living from audio.

SIMO: For creators, we think of it as, like, something that needs to be able to turn into a business for them from the get-go.

BOND: Whether it's Facebook, Twitter or Clubhouse, they all have a lot to gain from winning creators' loyalty. There's the time people spend on their apps listening to audio. And the companies could eventually take a cut of the revenue their audio stars generate. So the race to roll out ways for hosts to get paid is heating up.

ESTHER CRAWFORD: I think for a long time, creators bore the burden of making money, and they had to do a lot of legwork in order to go get sponsors and advertisers.

BOND: Esther Crawford at Twitter says that's a big shift. Now some companies are paying creators directly, letting listeners tip them, even looking at selling tickets for exclusive events. Twitter has already launched a tip jar for power users.

CRAWFORD: This is a way for creators to be rewarded for their time and energy that they're putting into hosting these public conversations on Twitter.

BOND: But even as audio becomes a feature on nearly any social network you can think of, there's a big question hanging over all of this as pandemic restrictions ease.

JASON CITRON: People are obviously going to spend less time on these services, right?

BOND: Jason Citron is CEO of messaging app Discord, which has had audio chat for years.

CITRON: But I do think that people have formed new habits, and they've tried new things, and so we believe that at the end of a school day or the end of a workday, people are still going to come home, and their friends are still going to be on their Discord.

BOND: So Discord is doubling down on audio, with live events and paid tickets - areas where it will have plenty of competition.

Shannon Bond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.