Into Thin Airchat

Will the latest social thing be the next big thing?
Airchat Is Silicon Valley’s Latest Obsession
It’s time for another audio-first social network with a long wait list and vague moderation policies. What could go wrong?

The basics from Lauren Goode:

Airchat marries the feed aspect of Twitter with the audio-first format of Clubhouse, a daunting combo. After launching the app and being prompted to follow some contacts, you’re put into a minimalist feed of text blocks. These text blocks are actually transcriptions of audio bytes. The app automatically jumps from voice note to voice note, unless you think to tap the Play/Pause button wedged in the lower right corner of the app.

To post an audio note yourself, you hold down the Audio/Video button at the bottom of the app, talk, and let go. (From what I’ve seen so far, no one really uses the Video option.) If you’d prefer not to post publicly, there’s also a DM option. Either way, there’s no typing allowed.

While I'm not sure I would categorize it as an "obsession", Airchat has definitely had a moment the past few days – at least amongst Silicon Valley VCs and reporters. It's easy to see why: it's well-made, with a unique, playful UI, created by well-known founders with a good pedigree. This is all early-adopter catnip.

And, of course, everyone is always looking for The Next Big Thing™. In consumer social apps in recent years, such services have proven fleeting. From BeReal to the aforementioned Clubhouse, things blow up and then fade away. There's a desire for something new, but not the will to make it happen.

Will Airchat prove otherwise?

I mean, I doubt it. I'm going to sound too cynical, and I am too cynical, but I also aim to be correct. Airchat is tapping into something fundamental: personal connection and interaction via voice. This, amongst other things, should help garner more civilized conversations – you're undoubtedly less likely to be a total asshole to someone online if you're not hiding behind a textbox. Of course, assholes, uh, find a way – I'm sure we'll get voice masking and the like to ensure trolls can troll. But the high level concept here is compelling.

Of course, it has been compelling before. Again, we had Clubhouse and before that, Anchor (a company where I served on the board before it was acquired by Spotify), started out doing something similar ("Twitter for Audio") before pivoting to podcasting. There have been others. And few people are more into new use cases for audio and voice than me!

Yes, Airchat differs from Clubhouse in a fundamental way: it's asynchronous, so you leave messages and others respond, versus going back and forth in real time. But again, this is what Anchor was doing. And what Clubhouse has pivoted into doing. I personally find it more compelling – one issue I always had with Clubhouse was that I absolutely hate talking on the phone and have since I was a kid, Clubhouse was sort of talking on the phone at scale. My own personal hell.

Still, I'm weird. Clubhouse also had great founders that built a very nice product that ended up being in the right place at the right time. It wasn't enough.

The reality remains that I'm not sure how much simply being compelling matters these days. Early social apps had the advantage that they were battling a great, but easy enemy: boredom. The next generation of apps rode the iPhone wave, which unlocked pockets of time while out and about. But these days, we're all out of time. Clubhouse blew up, in part, because the pandemic forced the world into lockdown and thus unlocked some new moments of the day where we were no longer commuting or in an office. But then that time was over. We're back to being too busy. There's just no time for something new.

Hardware remains one potentially compelling vector of attack because there's a novelty beyond simply being another app. But I'm not even sure that's enough anymore. Because nothing will be the iPhone, certainly in terms of scale, any time soon. Again, this is all depressing and cynical. But also realistic.

It's actually not a slight on Airchat or any other service, it's just the reality of our current age. It's not good enough to be compelling, you need to serve some sort of real utility – and I would put ChatGPT in this bucket, by the way, after the initial novelty of AI wears off – otherwise even huge success out of the gate is fleeting.1

Something will change the above equation. It always does. But it's impossible to know what that will be. And it most likely won't look anything like what the path to success looked like before. That time is over, sadly.

1 Yes, yes, yes TikTok. I'll go ahead and copy & paste my standard response to this:

But, but, but TikTok. Yes, you too can build TikTok, all it takes is algorithms trained over time on millions of users in China, acquiring another company which was already operating in the US market, and then spending billions of dollars to market it on Meta properties to siphon off users to your network. And even then, it won't work unless your product is actually great. Those millions of users will just churn. TikTok worked because Douyin worked. And even if it all that works, you might get banned. Good luck.