During a year without coffee dates, live concerts and water-cooler chats, some of the most popular new tools in tech have been apps that try to recreate those spontaneous and fleeting interactions.
A slew of startups have cropped up to provide live and ephemeral content that aims to replace the informal conversations and connections lost to the pandemic. Users tune in to real-time entertainment, gossip and companionship delivered via smartphone apps while confined to their homes and small social bubbles.
Yet the coming months—as vaccinations become widespread and in-person gatherings resume—will be a test of whether the newly forged habits of these apps’ users can stick.
“The pandemic really broke our habits,” said Jeremy Liew, a venture-capitalist investor with
Venture Partners and the first outside investor in
“In a world where you can’t really go out or you are afraid to go out, anything that offers a spontaneous experience really gets a boost.”
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Clubhouse has more than 14 million downloads, according to app research firm Sensor Tower Inc. Locker Room and Stereo each saw app downloads jump more than 400% from this past December to March, Sensor Tower said. The research firm also said Spoon Radio Inc., a five-year-old South Korean audio chat and music-streaming app, received nearly half its total 26 million downloads in 2020.
The tech giants have developed their own in-the-moment features.
is in the early stages of experimenting with social-audio features after it added last year disappearing messages to its Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp products. In November,
rolled out ephemeral tweets and is aiming to publicly launch next month a live-audio feature seen as a competitor to Clubhouse.
Live and ephemeral social networks tend to feel more informal and intimate, a juxtaposition to staged Instagram photos and scheduled Tweets. Snap popularized ephemerality in social networks with its disappearing-photo-sharing app Snapchat in 2011, which young people used to share goofy selfies with friends.
Consumers are often more comfortable participating in those media, believing they can post content that is raw and imperfect and it won’t come back to haunt them, which increases app engagement, Mr. Liew said.
Lightspeed, which is often seen as a bellwether in social-media trends given its prescient investment in Snap, also has invested in Locker Room.
Watercooler, an audio-only app for casual conversations among colleagues, launched in May and in a week amassed a wait list of 1,000 companies that wanted to use it, according to founder and Chief Executive Russ d’Sa.
A Clubhouse talk following Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and
this month lasted more than 11 hours and had 46,000 listeners, according to a third-party website that tracks Clubhouse engagement. Listeners stayed an average of 13 minutes, showing how users often bounce from one virtual dialogue to another, tempted by the dozens of other conversations happening simultaneously.
“When you are watching a
series, you know you are going to stop it and come back to it. When you are reading a book, you put it down and come back to it,” said Fatima Shab, a graduate student in the U.K. who said she logged more than 21 hours in her first three days on the app. “But when it’s a Clubhouse room in real-time, you cannot go back to something that no longer exists,” she added.
But there’s a business quandary: It’s hard to make money from ads on ephemeral content in apps designed to feel intimate or personal, and to scale when the only thing you offer disappears by its very nature.
Snap, for instance, has been successful but moved away from its ephemeral roots, introducing a series of features over the years to let users save content, make posts permanent and share with a broader audience. The moves were necessary to expand beyond its core users of tweens and teens and capture more advertising dollars, said Luben Pampoulov, co-founder at GSV Asset Management and an early Snap investor.
Some of the new social apps are considering subscriptions or paid access to exclusive content, but those can be challenging because the quality of live and spontaneous content is difficult to control. Locker Room tapped into sports fans’ desire to share in real time the glory of a late-game goal or outrage over a ref’s call at a time when stadiums and sports bars were closed.
“We can’t bottle that energy, we can’t bottle that analysis, we can’t bottle those reactions for later,” said Howard Akumiah, founder and chief executive of Betty Labs, the maker of Locker Room. The app also has built-in features for users to record more polished sports analysis and publish it later.
Fireside, an audio-social app from entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban set to launch this year, will offer both live and recorded content. Some users are recording Clubhouse conversations using their own tools (and often without others’ permission) and posting them on YouTube.
Clubhouse didn’t respond to a request for comment.
For Clubhouse, which relies on unvetted users to produce live content across a seemingly infinite number of topics, the challenge will be ensuring what happens on the app is compelling enough to keep listeners coming back. A year in, the app is losing steam, with the number of weekly active users falling 21% during a three-week period from the end of February to early March, according to mobile data provider App Annie. Ms. Shab, 21, is among many formerly compulsive Clubhouse users who have dialed back, citing a dwindling return on investment. Plus, Ms. Shab said, some of her friends have already deleted the app.
Robert Garibay, a director at a tech company in San Francisco, said his initial Clubhouse fervor has waned. Once logging around eight hours a day on Clubhouse, keeping an AirPod in one ear while eating dinner with his family, Mr. Garibay, 35, said he has cut his use back to about two hours a day—and no longer listens at the dinner table.
“I am kind of falling out of love with it,” he said.
Write to Heather Somerville at Heather.Somerville@wsj.com
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