Facebook is making a push into audio, launching a suite of new features that will allow users to host audio conferences and podcasts, in a dash to compete with upcoming apps such as Clubhouse.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of the world’s largest social media company by users, said on Monday said that it planned to roll out live audio rooms for its users as well as new tools allowing users to search for, create and earn money from podcasts over the next three to six months.

He also announced the launch of a feature called “Soundbites”, where users can post or listen to short audio clips that will be showcased in a continuous feed, in a similar way to its Reels video feed in Instagram.

“We think that audio is of course also going to be a first class medium,” Zuckerberg said in a live interview with tech journalist Casey Newton on Monday. He added that audio “allows for longer form discussions and exploring ideas” but was also “accessible because you can multitask”.

The move is Facebook’s latest effort to copy popular products from its rivals, after it raced to introduce new videoconferencing features last April following the rise of Zoom and Google Hangouts as ways to host meetings and socialise from home.

Audio products tap into so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ — a frustration with endlessly having to be on camera — but also provide entertainment-starved professionals with new ways to network while the conference circuit remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

In particular, the Facebook launch could hurt the audio start-up Clubhouse, which became the fastest-growing social media app in the world this year by providing a platform to discuss topics such as entrepreneurship, politics and the latest news events.

Clubhouse has topped 14m downloads, according to data from App Annie, but has suffered outages as its servers have struggled under the influx of users.

Over the weekend, Clubhouse announced that it had secured a new round of financing led by Andreessen Horowitz, with new investors DST Global and Tiger Global. The fundraising gives the start-up, which only launched its product a year ago, a valuation of $4bn, according to two people familiar with the situation, up from $1bn this January. 

Facebook is also taking aim at Twitter, which rolled out its Clubhouse clone “Spaces” this month and discussion forum Reddit, which previewed its forthcoming ‘Reddit Talk’ feature on Monday. Twitter previously tried to acquire Clubhouse for $4bn, though the discussions stalled, according to a recent report from Bloomberg. 

The shift towards live audio, such as livestreaming, brings with it content moderation challenges given its real-time nature, at a time when Facebook is already under fire from US regulators over its perceived content policing failures. 

Additional reporting by Miles Kruppa in San Francisco



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