Skip to main content

Silicon Valley is racing to build an audio-only internet, and I hope it succeeds

girl using phone with headphones
Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

On a recent Friday evening, I found myself listening to a dozen founders chat about what it takes to build a startup from scratch. The conversation felt natural and spontaneous, as if I had stumbled into some exclusive Silicon Valley party. Thing is, it was anything but exclusive. The fireside chat at one point had 2,000 attendees, and it swiftly turned into a public AMA (Ask Me Anything) forum. The founders kept switching between fielding questions from the crowd and discussing their startup journeys.

That town hall-esque discussion was real — except I was sitting in my reading nook’s lounge chair at home. And when the founders drifted into topics I wasn’t particularly keen on, I was able to slip into a different room that was hosting a quiz night. An hour later, I was gabbing on about the previous night’s football match with a bunch of people I’ve never met.

I did all this on an app called Clubhouse, an audio-only social network that has sent Silicon Valley into a frenzy.

The social media battleground: Chat rooms

With people scrambling for new (screenless) avenues to connect in a pandemic, Clubhouse’s freewheeling and algorithm-free conversations have emerged as a breath of fresh air. The buzzy app allows you to host and join chat rooms where you can talk about anything from the latest controversies in media to Elon Musk’s Bitcoin strategy.

Clubhouse has accelerated a shift among social media giants to audio products.

To sign up for Clubhouse, you need an invite and an iPhone — a set of traits that offer a sense of exclusivity amid an information-hungry industry vying for your attention. The numbers speak for themselves. In a matter of weeks, Clubhouse downloads soared from 2 million to over 10 million (and counting). Invites are selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay. More than 2 million users are actively visiting it every week, and the app has even managed to attract high-profile voices such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Oprah Winfrey.

clubhouse app
Image used with permission by copyright holder

More importantly, Clubhouse has accelerated a shift among social media giants to audio products. Soon after Clubhouse exploded in popularity, Twitter rolled out its chat room service called Spaces. Others, including Facebook and Discord, are expected to launch similar apps in the next few weeks.

The rise of audio-based social apps also plugs well into a quiet podcast battle happening between entertainment conglomerates like Amazon, Apple, and Spotify. These companies have spent much of the last two years ramping up their podcast offerings, roping in celebrities for exclusive content and acquiring smaller startups to get a head start.

Is audio the future of web content?

It’s no longer a niche, either: In a world where overall media and entertainment growth stands at a measly 4 percent, reports estimate the audiobook and podcast market to grow by 25 percent and 30 percent, respectively, this year.

As someone who’s constantly surrounded by screens, the pivot to audio seemed out of place to me. But I’m also constantly looking for new ways to cut down my screen time. So I set out to find what the buzz is all about and tried to primarily consume online content through audio-first apps for a week. Here’s what I learned.

The process to set up this experiment proved surprisingly simple for me. Turns out, most of my apps (including Netflix) already have a feature that lets users listen instead of read or watch.

clubhouse app screenshot
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces replaced the core of my social activity, and I was spending at least two hours engaging in rooms that interested me. What delighted me most was that I played the audio in the background while doing something else on my phone like responding to texts. It even helped me with my terrible texting habits since I had more time on my hands to check and reply to messages. Before, I used to end up in rabbit holes on social apps and lose track of time.

That’s not to say it was perfect, though.

In my downtime, I turned to audiobooks and podcasts, which, thanks to aggressive investments by Amazon and Spotify, are available in abundance. Choosing one from the vast catalogs was a nightmare and, in the end, I simply picked an audio version of the book I was reading on a Kindle.

The audiobook’s illustrious narration was an experience of its own that left me wanting more. Compared to my usual reading sessions, listening to an audiobook was more immersive and the narrator’s rich emotions made me feel almost like I was living through the story’s plot.

That’s not to say it was perfect, though. Looking up words is cumbersome, and I couldn’t whip up a quick browser tab to further research a fact or an intriguing concept an author may have mentioned.

The presence of a smart speaker in nearly every corner of my house also made streaming audiobooks and podcasts even easier. I was able to instantly resume what I was listening to while cooking or working out at home.

In a few days, I was hooked and reached a point where I was listening to even webpages thanks to Google’s read-it-aloud tool in the Google Assistant, as well as the read-it-later app, Pocket’s dictation option.

Can audio-only apps save you from screen addiction?

What I found especially refreshing is how much more I was aware of what I was listening to and for how long. Years of passively scrolling through social feeds have hacked our minds into consuming as much as we can without quite processing anything. When I tune into a podcast or a Clubhouse room, I am more focused and invested. On top of that, switching to audio has been the most effective outlet for me to tackle screen fatigue and it gave my eyes the long-overdue break they needed.

But why would tech companies spend resources on a product that takes the attention away from screens?

The battle for your ear

Video and the allure of visuals are not going anywhere. Even if you find apps like Clubhouse compelling, you’ll most likely still continue to binge-watch Netflix shows and check your Instagram feed every now and then.

But at the same time, there’s only so much more visual content tech giants can fit in your day. There are moments in your life where it’s not possible for you to stare at a screen. It can be when you are driving or going out for a run. This is what companies are targeting with audio-first platforms and, from what I can tell from my weeklong test, they’re on the right path.

Although I don’t see myself experiencing the internet exclusively through a pair of headphones, audio-based social apps have managed to carve out a place for themselves in my phone. Their personal and conversational touch is just what you and I need to escape the algorithms dictating what we read and watch in our feeds.

Shubham Agarwal
Shubham Agarwal is a freelance technology journalist from Ahmedabad, India. His work has previously appeared in Firstpost…
JPEG vs. PNG: When and why to use one format over the other
A person using Adobe Lightroom CC on an iMac.

In digital imaging, two image formats prevail above all else: JPEG (or JPG) and PNG.

At first glance, a single image shown in both formats might seem identical, but if you look closely enough and dig into the data, there is quite a difference between them. One format isn't always better than the other, as each is designed to be used in specific circumstances based on your needs for image quality, file size, and more. Here's what you need to know about both formats to make the most of their strengths and weaknesses.
What is the JPEG format?
Short for Joint Photographic Experts Group -- the team that developed the format -- JPEG has become the standard compressed format in digital photography and online image sharing due to its careful balance of file size and image quality.

Read more
Is there a Walmart Plus free trial? Get a month of free delivery
Walmart logo.

Take a moment and think about how often you shop at your local Walmart. Is it weekly? Daily? If either of those is the case, it might be time to upgrade your shopping experience. The Walmart Plus free trial is your chance to check out what the retail giant has to offer. Walmart Plus is basically Amazon Prime for Walmart. You get free shipping on most orders, early access to deals and new product drops (like PS5 restocks), the best grocery delivery, and more. If Walmart is your go-to option for the best smart home devices or the best tech products in general, you should get a membership. If you want to test out the service, you can sign up for a free trial. We have all the information you need right here.
Is there a Walmart Plus free trial?
There is a Walmart Plus free trial available, and it’s one of the best free trials we’ve seen in terms of how many great features and conveniences you’re able to access. This is really a reflection of how great the Walmart Plus service is, as the Walmart Plus free trial is essentially a 30-day experience of what it would be like to be a paid Walmart Plus subscriber. A Walmart Plus membership can help you save over $1,300 per year, so taking advantage of the 30-day free trial is a great way to get in there and see what those savings will look like. And if grocery delivery is what you're really after, an alternative you might consider is the Instacart free trial -- they have more than one program to try!

As part of a Walmart Plus free trial, you’ll get free shipping with no minimum order, so even small orders will qualify for free shipping. You’ll get fresh groceries and more with no delivery fees, and all at the same low in-store prices Walmart shoppers are used to. Walmart Plus members, and Walmart Plus free trial members, get exclusive access to special promotions and events, as well as a savings of up to 10 cents per gallon on fuel. A new addition to the perks of being a Walmart Plus member is free access to Paramount Plus, a top-notch streaming service with more than 40,000 TV episodes and movies. All of this is accessible for 30 days through a Walmart Plus free trial, and once those 30 days are up, Walmart Plus is just $12.95 per month or $98 annually.

Read more
The 13 best early Black Friday deals you can shop this weekend
Digital Trends Best Black Friday Deals

Even though Black Friday is still a couple of weeks away, we're already starting to see a lot of great deals on several different types of products. So, if you can't wait for the upcoming Black Friday and need to grab a few things now, we've collected some of our favorite deals across products and budget ranges to make your life a little bit easier. Below, you'll find deals on cordless vacuums, laptops, TVs, headphones, and phones, so it's a great collection of stuff that we think you'll find useful and want to grab. That said, if you can't find what you want, be sure to check our main Black Friday deals page for even more great offers.
Wyze Cordless Stick Vacuum -- $98, was $150

While budget cordless vacuum cleaners can sometimes not be that great, we found the Wyze Cordless Stick Vacuum to be surprisingly good for its price point. At just 2.8 pounds of weight, it's light enough that you won't feel like you're doing a workout every time you use it, and it is great for those who might have issues with arm weakness. Just because it's light doesn't mean it's not powerful, though, with two motors providing 24,000 pascals of suction, which is quite a lot at this price. It also has a HEPA filter to keep the air you breathe clean while vacuuming, which is impressive, but sadly, it does have a big downside in that it only lasts for about 50 minutes of vacuuming. That's not necessarily a dealbreaker, and you can buy a backup battery, but it's an important thing to note.

Read more