"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Technology
March 11, 2021

The Problem With Social Audio

Social Audio is the big trend right now. It can be fun. But also very time-consuming. It’s time to talk about the problem with Social Audio.

I’ve been experimenting with Clubhouse for a month now. I’ve also been given access to the Twitter Spaces beta. Meanwhile, Instagram has added a new feature – live rooms – which allows up to four users to talk together. The Social Audio trend of live conversation is gaining momentum.

All of these platforms are cool. There are reasons to be excited about them. I love all the innovation. But there’s a problem as well. Time. More specifically, time as a limited resource.

Social Audio Versus The Temporal Wall

Most articles on this blog are about a thousand words. I’m asking you for 3–4 minutes. But if I read those words to you, it would take more than 10 minutes. And if I tried to cover off in an interview or conversation all the ideas that have been carefully condensed into a tightly edited article, then it would take half an hour, at least.

The wonderful thing about Social Audio is the intimacy and warmth of the human voice. But the problem with Social Audio is how inefficient the human voice is for relaying information.

Of course, we don’t always maximise efficiency when consuming entertainment or ideas. We read books instead of watching films. We listen to interviews instead of reading transcriptions.

But Social Audio takes something that takes seconds and minutes – reading a tweet, looking at an image, following a topic – and expands it into a thing that can consume hours.

Invest Your Time Wisely

I’ve always advocated for investing time in social media wisely. It’s a good way to meet interesting people and attract attention to your work. But when I check in on people about their social media habits, I’m alarmed to learn how much time they invest in these platforms.

If you’re reading this blog for the first or the hundredth time, please, let me be clear: I don’t want you to spend hours every day on social media.

In fact, I don’t want you to be on social media every day, either. The time you spend on social media, for any of the ideas I suggest, should be measured in seconds and minutes per day, never hours. And the breaks you take should last for days and even weeks.

For example, I compose all my tweets and Instagram captions in Bear. Typically, when I log into Twitter, I’m only looking at replies to my tweets, or tweets from a small, private list of people. I seldom look at my main feed or trending items. I open Instagram only if I have something to share, and then I post and spend maybe a minute or two looking at people’s images.

And, typically, I take a break during advent and Christmas, sometimes going on an extended break or into a “post-only” mode. That I didn’t do that in 2020 probably explains in part why I was feeling so burnt out recently.

The most productive people I know have pretty clear rules around how they use email. We should have similar rules around using social media. And if our rules feel too cumbersome, then it might be time to quit some platforms or stop using social media altogether.

The Notifications Trap

Clubhouse turns on notifications by default on your device. It tries to ping you every time someone you follow opens a room, joins a room, or is speaking. Twitter Spaces requires you to have the Twitter app installed. Spaces appear at the top of the main window (in the Fleets section).

It’s understandable that both apps use attention-grabbing strangles to get you participating in audio chats. But it’s something we have to manage, and there aren’t easy solutions.

Moreover, Twitter hasn’t yet given us details of how they will manage the notifications we do need – about the presence of unsafe accounts. At present, there’s no way of knowing whether a room you join or speak in has people you’ve blocked or muted.

Twitter is building this beta in public, with staff joining spaces and hearing feedback. I feel there will be solutions for this. But we don’t have them yet (I’m going to say more on this in my next Amplifier newsletter).

Of course, Social Audio is new. But given how many people struggle already with social media, from limiting the time they spend on it to coping with the effects of toxic behaviour, this new dimension needs us to be willing to impose some personal boundaries.

The Social Audio Vortex

What does this all mean for Social Audio? It could be the introduction to your next best friend or business partner. Or it could derail you mindset and productivity. It feels like the paradox of social media amplified.

The best Social Audio experiences are like attending a conference or a book launch or public interview. But a lot are nowhere near as interesting or insightful. Which, of course, makes sense if you’re listening to live and unedited content.

And many default to an hour and often go longer, which is a big investment of time.

Maybe you can trade time from somewhere else. Clubhouse instead of radio. Twitter Spaces instead of podcasts. That could work. Challenging the default and creating shorter format rooms and spaces could also help.

Where’s The Fun In That?

It’s no coincidence that Social Audio grew in popularity during this pandemic. I’ve heard over and over again on these platforms that people welcomed hearing human voices, away from the pressure of Zoom and online meetings.

Social Audio is a reaction to isolation and loneliness.

For me, it’s been the first opportunity in over a year to casually discuss art, film, music, or travel with anyone outside my immediate family and closest friends, replicating a little of the cafe or lounge room experience.

We think of time differently when it comes to hanging out with friends compared to doing email. This can blur our thinking about something like Social Audio or any kind of social media. Especially now, when real-world, in-person interactions are rare or simply unavailable.

During my discovery phase, exploring Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces, I invested around 10 hours a week trying to understand Social Audio.

That was fun.

It gave me a good insight into how people use the platforms.

But it’s totally unsustainable.

Now, I’m down to about 3 hours per week. It’s a nice change from playing with the Nintendo switch, watching so much TV, listening to so many podcasts, and the limited suite of entertainments I’ve enjoyed in the past year.

But, once Covidtime ends, when cinemas, gigs, galleries, restaurants, and travel – sweet, sweet travel – all start asking for time in my schedule, I won’t be sacrificing any of them to open a room or join a space.

This means the clock is ticking for Social Audio to prove it has something to offer beyond being a cure for loneliness.

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