Facebook’s Ticking Time Bomb: Live Audio Rooms

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Yinchen Niu/Variety Intelligence Platform

The Clubhouse-ification of the U.S. tech landscape has been unmistakable. 

Last week, Spotify rolled out Greenroom, the music streamer’s live audio platform, in over 135 markets globally. In May, Twitter started letting accounts with 600 followers or more host Spaces. These moves followed companies including Discord, LinkedIn and Slack either announcing or launching their Clubhouse-like offerings.  

And Facebook yesterday announced it was rolling out its Clubhouse answer (Live Audio Rooms) to certain U.S. users as part of its larger audio push, which includes integrating podcasts into News Feed.  

The logic behind Facebook’s Live Audio Rooms push is clear.  

It further transforms Facebook into the do-it-all platform that offers experiences like shopping, long-form video, dating and, now, social audio. And that helps Facebook minimize the reasons users would want to use another app besides its own. 

Additionally, Live Audio Rooms opens up new revenue opportunities for the company. Perhaps the company could eventually charge brands for advertisement of upcoming Live Audio Rooms or advanced analytics to them. 

Also, news consumption is a particularly widespread behavior on Facebook, probably making breaking news-related Live Audio Rooms especially attractive to some publishers or politics influencers. 

But consider how many of the Live Audio Rooms pros seem like double-edged swords.  

While no one would wonder why Facebook would want to make its platform stickier, the company has previously been criticized by regulators for doing so.  

The House Antitrust Subcommittee’s massive report on Big Tech from last October deemed Facebook as having monopoly power and criticized it for being a platform where “users are effectively 'locked in.’ ” 

Users spend significant time building their networks on Facebook, and the inconvenience of having to rebuild that network from scratch discourages users from switching to other platforms, the report argues.  

Couldn’t the antitrust subcommittee argue that Facebook is just making it easier for Facebook users to make connections via Live Audio Rooms that they could have otherwise made on alternative platforms like Clubhouse and are effectively making switching costs higher?  

Given that lawmakers just introduced five bills to rein in Big Tech, fresh ammo for allegations of reducing competition is the last thing Facebook needs. 

Meanwhile, there’s also the concern of content moderation issues with Live Audio Rooms.  

Like any other form of media found on Facebook, live audio could be utilized by bad actors to spread fake news and hate speech.  

And those are two things for which Facebook as well as Big Tech broadly have continually been under fire for not adequately keeping a lid on.  

Data scientists warned Facebook execs that the majority of the platform’s top civic groups were filled with misinformation and calls for violence, the WSJ reported in January. And an internal report showed that activity from Trump loyalist groups on Facebook played a role in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, BuzzFeed reported in April. 

The Capitol Riot was addressed when Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pichai testified at a hearing earlier this year focused on the spread of misinformation on social platforms.  

Surely, Facebook won’t let all Live Audio Rooms go unchecked and can lean on some of the lessons it learned from text/video moderation when it comes to audio. 

But the ephemeral nature of Live Audio Rooms makes things trickier. "Audio is more difficult to moderate because it's ephemeral and real-time," Discord chief legal officer Clint Smith told Mashable in April.  

It likely wouldn’t be a while until Live Audio Rooms were the root of serious regulatory troubles for Facebook, as the company is choosing to roll out the feature in waves.  

But these rooms might sooner be used as something to bolster regulators’ arguments against Facebook. 

And given the mammoth 2.85 billion MAU reach of Facebook and its potential to act as a partisan megaphone, potential heat from the government as a result of getting into the Clubhouse game is something that shouldn’t be discounted.