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Twitter & the Cool Kids Club

When I was in middle school, there was a student lounge off the main hall where we spent break time.

The door was almost always open for anyone to peek in on your way past — and peek 12 year old Rhys did — and yet for years, this promised land was completely out of bounds to me.

It was reserved, by the strict laws of the Collège Pierre Robert middle school in Le Dorat, France, exclusively to last year students.

In retrospect, it was nothing too special. A bare room with a couple of old sofas, an old-school TV that I’m not sure I ever once saw working, and a work surface with a dirty kitchen sink.

To my middle school mind, though, the room might as well have been the garden of Eden itself.

Every now and then, by some act of God (read: a benevolent older brother), a non-last year student would be welcomed into the exclusive club, then later return to us mere mortals to recount the tales of how the other half lived and the juicy last year rumors he discovered.

Upon hearing new stories from the room and the last year students that occupied it, there was nothing we wanted more than to be a fly on the wall of that grimy utopia.

I believe Twitter has recently been making large steps toward creating their own version of that intriguing private lounge.

Before that, though, some news.

In a release on Wednesday, Twitter rolled out (to some) the ability to create audio tweets. Basically, short audio clips limited to 2:20 mins, which can be opened as either video clips, or passive audio clips you can listen to as you scroll your Twitter feed.

There’s a chance this tweet format could help to add some sort of nuance, a bit more of an intimate tone to messages, helping humanize the creator behind them.

Of course, this could already be done with video tweets, but the lower friction to creating an audio clip compared to a video clip is definitely not negligible, which gives me high hopes for the feature as it rolls out in a more widespread fashion.

Right now, audio tweets are limited to top-level posts (no replies), are limited in length (mostly the same as videos), and can’t be created on desktop or Android.

We aren’t going to talk much about audio tweets today. Rather, we’ll expand on what this release, and another recent feature, can tell us about the vision Twitter has for its future.

In most of the discussion and reactions I’ve seen about this release these last days, the general consensus seems to be that this is the groundwork for Twitter to get in the podcasts game.

Sure, it would make sense.

Many users likely consume Twitter content while listening to external audio, in the form of music or podcasts. As such, Twitter would benefit from bringing that extra media consumption onto the platform natively to profit from additional interest data, in-stream advertising space, and higher session duration, as users passively consume a Twitter podcast while actively reading the Twitter feed.

Today, though, I want to explore an alternative hypothesis for Twitter’s recent feature releases, beyond podcasting:

Twitter is racing to build Clubhouse before Clubhouse.

Icebergs

For those that don’t know, Clubhouse is a new invite-only social app that works near exclusively by audio. Users can join in or just listen to people chat across unlabeled chatrooms.

Right now, the app is very VC / tech nerd heavy, by virtue of it being invite-only, and looking for attention in this exact audience. Now fresh off a Series A by Andreessen Horowitz at a valuation of a cool $100 million, I’d say that strategy worked.

Clubhouse has proven to the world that there’s unearthed opportunity in enabling high-quality discussion groups, and reducing friction in starting a live conversation open to others to listen in on, or even jump into.

It’s that last part that’s most interesting about Clubhouse, and the potential land grab Twitter could look to make in the coming weeks/months.

Those 1 on 1, or small group conversations are already happening between interesting, high-profile people on Twitter. The large majority of meaningful interactions on the platform take the form of DMs. While conversations are often started in public tweets and replies, discussions tend to only get deeper when continued outside of the open discussion thread, where anyone can interact with the participants.

As David Perell often puts, standard tweets are the visible part of the Twitter universe, the part we see as we explore our feed. DMs, on the other hand, are the dark matter of Twitter: we know they’re there, but we’re clueless to the secrets they hold.

In other words, DMs and DM groups are the underwater section of the Twitter iceberg: invisible from above, but sprawling once you get a glimpse beneath the water. Clubhouse served as a brilliant way to bring these conversations to the surface.

Drawing of an iceberg representing Twitter public view vs Direct Messages

Live content, breaking down barriers between the creator and the audience isn’t entirely new to Twitter of course.

The platform has had livestream features since late 2016, shortly after it acquired Periscope. Now, the two platforms are intertwined as part of the Twitter Broadcast services.

Twitter Live, though, has never really taken off as a go-to streaming service. To try to kickstart Twitter’s live platform ambitions, and to justify the Periscope purchase, they’ve gone as far as to license exclusive content with the NFL on Twitter Live, but while Periscope has had some semblance of continued interest over time, Twitter Live’s integration with it has struggled.

Multi-line graph plotting the relative search interest for Twitter Live, Periscope and Instagram Live

Twitter doesn’t publish its livestream usage numbers, so the data isn’t as granular as I’d like, but using a proxy for user interest, search trends, the graph above is telling of the relative interest of Twitter Live and Periscope relative to Instagram Live, a leading competitor.

Audio streams or live discussion rooms, on the other hand, could see significantly different numbers.

Birdboxes

Audio discussion streams offer much lower friction to start than video streams.

Physically appearing on video online is a huge hurdle for most people to cross. The hurdle is only bigger when that video is streamed to the world in real-time, without any ability to edit and cut parts before being shared. I’d argue that for the majority of Twitter users, that hurdle is high enough to not be worth crossing.

Adding to that mental hurdle, the recent work from home wave has shown us the limits of video calling: being on camera for long periods of time is exhausting.

Audio streams are very different. Audio talks tend to require much less planning, they feel much more spontaneous. In your car on the way home from work? Hopping on a (hands-free) voice call seems perfectly reasonable. Getting on a FaceTime call, on the other hand, feels much more mentally taxing.

Graph plotting the downward curve of retained privacy relative to the effort required, by different means of communication

Audio streams, in the Clubhouse-style format, when brought to Twitter, would help expand the platform’s Live ambitions, while working towards their mission to help create human connections.

Audio streams take the polished, filtered, asynchronous format of tweet conversations, and make them more direct, more human.

These audio streams / voice rooms act as a weaker proposition than video streams for solo streams, ie. just a single creator talking to their audience of followers. That is the typical live stream format.

As such, these audio rooms would be designed to used to foster discussion, a live, audio version of the day to day discussions between personalities already happening on Twitter. Some of these happen in the open, on our feeds, but the large majority happen in the dark matter of DMs.

There’s nothing particularly secret or private about the large majority of these conversations, but they’re taken to DMs because the Twitter feed is just not optimized for lengthy discussion — largely by design.

Audio solves this.

The resurgence of podcasts in the last couple of years shows that the audience is absolutely there for longer-form discussion. This is only more true when the conversation is between personalities we already follow.

This is largely what has sparked the wave of guesses that Twitter is bringing a fully-fledged podcasting feature to the app. That said, it’s unlikely that Twitter wants to open that can of worms.

The podcasting space is hotter and more highly contested than ever before. In the last 18 months, Spotify has shown that they are not messing around when it comes to long-form and podcast content.

In early 2019 they announced a deal to purchase podcast network Gimlet Media, and Anchor, a podcast creation platform. This reportedly ran them over $340M.

Under a year later, they made waves again by acquiring the huge podcast network “The Ringer” for almost $200M.

A just couple of months after that, the Twitter tech world near-on imploded when news broke of Spotify signing a deal with Joe Rogan, bringing all future and past podcasts exclusively to the platform for a rumored $100M. If you’re curious to learn more on this deal, Packy McCormick over at Not Boring has a brilliant write up on this, which you can read here.

More recently still, Spotify has announced new deals with Kim Kardashian and Warner Bros, to create exclusive new content for the platform.

All of that to say: the podcast space is a difficult one to compete in right now.

Into the Light

Rather than focusing on polished, long-form podcasts, Twitter is uniquely positioned to do what it does best: simplify the medium entirely.

Twitter is in a perfect spot to bring these high-quality, thought-provoking interactions away from external apps like Clubhouse, and onto the platform natively.

Instead of competing in hosting and creating fully-fledged podcasts, why not just be home to the discussions happening in those podcasts?

Creators on Twitter already have a low-friction, highly engaged communities that now don’t need to be lured out of the walled garden of Twitter.

Standard live streams never took off on Twitter because they offered a mediocre way of doing something you could do better, and with a bigger audience, somewhere else.

Instagram Live has strong appeal because the platform itself is so highly visuals-oriented. As such, a video-based stream is a value proposition in line with the main goal of the platform.

Twitter, though is thought-focused. You follow someone on Twitter to hear what they have to say, not to peek into what their life looks like. Audio, then, fits the bill perfectly, and this week’s release of audio tweets was step 2 in bringing these backroom discussions into the light.

Wait. Step 2?

Yes. In fact, Twitter has been moving quickly these last weeks to begin building out the Clubhouse of the blue bird world — the bird box if you will. Just me? Huh..

Just a few weeks ago, Twitter engaged what I believe was step 1 in developing the “private conversations shown to the public” angle. This took the form of “Limited Reply Tweets”.

This feature, not available to all users quite yet, lets you limit who is able to respond to a tweet you publish.

New Twitter tweet privacy options dictating who can reply

In adding additional privacy options on a tweet, creators have more ability to have these once-private discussions ‘out loud’ on the Twitter open forum, without having to sift through replies by other users to continue a one-to-one discussion.

This feature enables more transparency in interactions between personalities and acts as a little window into the discussions that now don’t have to happen behind closed doors.

Audio rooms are a natural evolution of this.

By hosting private group calls out in the open for anyone to listen into, with the ability to ‘raise their hand’ to be invited to jump into the conversation, these interactions become even more human and allow that feeling of truly being a fly on the wall of a room hosting an interesting discussion.

By offering the ability to be invited to join the conversation, in a similar way to how Twitter Live and Instagram Live already offer it, you avoid the impression of being locked out of the discussion on a stream.

To counter that feeling, most streaming sites include a live text chat to talk with other users and the streamer.

In order to avoid creating the impression of just another livestream, just this time without audio, I think this interaction would be better served with a request to speak, without the running chat. This keeps the feeling of being that fly on the wall, listening in, rather than being in the audience of an actual show.

The Same and Nothing Alike

A private, yet public voice room feature positions Twitter somewhere at the crossroads (a relevant topic right now!) of podcasting, streaming, and group calls. Nonetheless, it leans towards neither explicitly.

To differentiate from the podcast world, it wouldn’t offer full recording suite functionalities, keeping the discussions raw, unpolished, natural.

To differentiate from typical live streaming, it’s audio only. It’s not about the show, it’s about the discussions and ideas it’s home to.

It’s impromptu, low-effort.

To differentiate from the group chat apps, it makes the discussions private, yet public, allowing listeners to join to get a peek into the private conversations of the people they follow.

A large benefit of audio-only streams is in reducing the attention needed to consume the content.

When you watch a live stream on mobile, it typically requires your full attention.

When you listen to a podcast on mobile, you’re usually doing something else at the same time. Very often, that something else is scrolling your social media feed.

Being home to live discussions, without falling one way into the podcast world, or the other way into the live stream world, is perfectly in line with Twitter’s core mission:

To give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers.

If you’re not busy, and you get the notification that two interesting people you follow on Twitter are having a live call right this moment, just one tap away, you’re almost always going to end up scrolling your Twitter feed while you listen passively to that discussion, just moments later.

Better yet, unless something comes up, you’re likely going to listen to that conversation right until the end. Maybe they invite another personality you follow into the discussion, maybe they invite someone to add their two cents on what’s being said. Whatever happens, you’re likely there until the end of the chat.

As Twitter’s luck would have it, you’re also now on your Twitter feed, seeing adverts as you scroll, until the end of the chat.

For Twitter, luck indeed!

One Size Fits All

These live rooms carry strong appeal to all different types of Twitter users.

For us strategy geeks, picture this notification:

Twitter notification example

Is there really a scenario in which we don’t click on that?

For the immense audience of sports fans on Twitter, try to imagine a “Stephen A. Smith, LeBron James, and Kevin Love are chatting, tap to listen in!” notification not getting the click of every basketball fan on Twitter.

Or for the absolutely fanatical K-Pop stan audience on Twitter (don’t get me started), the results of a simple push notification of “Jungkook is talking to literally anyone” might legitimately start fires in Twitter datacentres.

Twitter is perfectly positioned to bring these interactions to the platform in a more casual manner than most streaming websites. It would serve as Instagram Live’s more casual, more discussion-oriented (competitor) cousin.

In its mission to facilitate sharing ideas and meaningful discussion, Twitter is well on its way to build its bird box (there it is again) to rival Clubhouse before Clubhouse even launches.

The pieces are all coming into place for Twitter to increase the time users spend on the platform — increasing revenue — and to solidify Twitter as the go-to platform for thoughtful interaction.

In fairness, I’m not sure how much thoughtful interaction really happened in that fabled student lounge at Collège Pierre Robert — I transferred schools right before my last year.

Maybe Twitter could fill that void, and be home to those conversations we were so excited to listen to.

In any case, I’ll forever be intrigued by those tales of that exclusive middle school break room.

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