Your Voice Is My Favorite Sound

Social audio takes us back to an exciting future.

By Tim Leberecht

“I can’t wait to hear from you” is the ultimate compliment.

That’s why I was intrigued when Casper ter Kuile, author of The Power of Rituals, recently reached out to me. Seeking some feedback on a new initiative of his, he sent me a voice memo, and asked me to share my response as a voice memo as well. I recorded it, without much prep, just blurting out my thoughts, and sent it to him. He responded with another voice memo, and I was surprised by how easily and yet thoughtfully our asynchronous exchange transpired. While we never saw each other or spoke in real time, our connection over those few days felt real, and it conveyed more texture than we had expected.

This inspired us, in our House of Beautiful Business Beauty Shot newsletter, to experiment with voice memos as well. Last week, we invited members of our community to share with us their desires (“what is it you really want?”), and we launched a Telegram group to that end. Among others, my colleague Monika Jiang posted a memo, and it was fascinating to hear how she started somewhat lightly, but how her account turned more and more vulnerable until her voice cracked a bit and you could hear her breathing more heavily. It was as if her heart took control of the script.

Such is the beauty of audio. It opens different doors to your soul.

“The human voice is one of the most powerful sounds on the planet. It’s the only sound that can say ‘I love you’ or even start a war,” writes Julian Treasure, the founder of the Sound Agency and author of the books Sound Business and How to Be Heard.

Anne Karpf, in The Human Voice: How This Extraordinary Instrument Reveals Essential Clues About Who We Are, observes that “Human empathy develops early, and it’s expressed vocally.” She refers to newborns’ ability to discriminate between their own babies’ cries: “They get upset when they hear other babies cry, which is probably why, when one baby cries in a maternity ward, the others inevitably follow. It’s always assumed that they’re simply copying each other, but they’re probably also pained by the sounds of distress.”

Making social media beautiful (again)

All this may explain why we’ve been witnessing a renaissance of audio during the pandemic. The minimalist allure of voice-only seems to have given us a sense of control amidst all the doom and Zoom. And audio can convey and create more intimacy than other forms of digital presence.

“From phone calls to messaging and back to audio — the way we use our phones may be coming full circle,” Tanya Basu writes in the MIT Technology Review. And tech analyst Jeremiah Owyang considers social audio the “Goldilocks Medium”: “Text social networks are not enough, video conferencing is too much, social audio is just right.” (Check his list of “20 ways businesses will engage social audio”).

He has written a comprehensive outlook on the future of social audio, in which he proposes a feature roadmap, proposes more than 14 possible business models, and six new product categories. He predicts that a post-lockdown mass rush to travel and taking vacations will result in a slight temporary reduction in social audio adoption (he puts it at 30 percent), but that social audio is ultimately here to stay. The market, however, will be consolidated, and only a few dominant players will remain, with social audio increasingly integrated into every other digital interaction.

Owyang’s assessment is proven by the explosive growth of Clubhouse in the past 12 months (helping its valuation soar swiftly to $1 billion). More social audio businesses are emerging, from Twitter Spaces to podcasting with friends on Cappuccino, sharing multi-modal audio messages via Swell, embracing nostalgic call-in radio shows with Capiche, and talking sports with Locker Room. Or Quilt, a social audio platform with a focus on wellness, that recently closed a $3.5 million seed round led by Mayfield Fund.

“More personal, real, and revealing than a tweet or post, and less obtrusive and image-conscious than photo or video, audio’s atomic unit is the intimate conversation. Which is of course the perfect antidote to social media’s worst vices. In the hands of the right founder, audio (and perhaps only audio) can be harnessed to create a new kind of social media experience: authentic, supportive, informative, hilarious, and essential,” Mayfield’s Rishi Garg wrote in a blog post about his decision to invest in Quilt.

It’s a vision one would like to believe in: social audio making social media beautiful (again).

Is eavesdropping the future of work?

Perhaps in the future social collaboration will be synonymous with eavesdropping: listening in on other organizations’ and people’s conversations, even those outside of your own organization, while also inviting others into your own.

Think of Esther Perel’s couple therapy sessions — Where Should We Begin? — that take us into the “antechamber of intimate moments” she published (anonymously), and how a similar practice might emerge in business. Imagine a platform that offers an audio live-stream featuring team workshops, town halls, 1:1 meetings, lunch conversations, and yes, even job interviews — for the purposes of reciprocal access to the kind of knowledge that is widely considered the most valuable: tacit knowledge. Not the one captured in textbooks and case studies, but the immediate, live, raw, and honest knowledge that is best shared live and informally.

What if an open audio room were the most consequential form of open innovation, the most radical version of radical transparency, and the most direct performance review, rendering institutional boundaries obsolete, making business truly social, and finally fully realizing The Cluetrain Manifesto’s vision: markets are conversations, and thus business is a conversation?

To read more about the renaissance of audio and what it means for business, subscribe to the weekly Beauty Shot newsletter (this week’s issue provides a deeper dive into this topic).


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