By John P. Mello Jr.
Mar 17, 2021 4:00 AM PT
A new social media platform based on voice messaging launched Monday.
Called Swell, free apps for the platform can be found in Apple’s App Store and in Google Play.
According to the developers of Swell, it’s the first social platform to focus exclusively on asynchronous audio conversations, where audio clips up to five minutes in length can be posted to the site.
Any Swell member can host a conversation and has control over who may participate in it, as well as make posts.
Pictures and links can also be posted to conversations, but they must be accompanied with a voice message.
Swell also provides its members a free swellcast.com Web page for sharing on social platforms and an HTML widget for embedding conversations on websites.
TikTok for Adults
“You might call Swell ‘TikTok for adults,’ since the imagery on the company’s website focuses largely on professional situations and older individuals,” observed Charles King, the principal analyst at Pund-IT, a technology advisory firm in Hayward, Calif.
“The subtext seems to be about sharing ideas and news — a far cry from the chatter that drives many social network exchanges,” he told the E-Commerce Times.
“In fact,” he continued, “the company’s statement that ‘memes and mindless forwards have no place on Swell’ suggests that the company’s concept of itself diverges from conventional social sites.”
“Swell is betting that a substantial audience is thirsting for such exchanges,” he added.
Ross Rubin, the principal analyst at Reticle Research, a consumer technology advisory firm in New York City, noted that a number of products are being launched and features being added to existing social networks to capitalize on the popularity of Clubhouse, an audio chat app that received $12 million from investors after being in business for about a month.
Swell, though, has a number of advantages off the starting line. At present, Clubhouse is iOS only, while Swell supports both Apple and Android devices. Clubhouse is also “invite only,” so its growth is choked at the moment.
“Swell is getting the kind of momentum that spurs adoption and generating a network effect,” Rubin told the E-Commerce Times.
“It’s going to grow,” he continued. “The question is whether it’s a distinct class of social network or is it something that existing social networks can capitalize on.”
Uncool Becomes Cool
Karen Kovacs North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California explained that people are discovering that there’s a huge audience looking for conversations on specific topics with experts or like-minded friends.
“Things are cyclical,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “Voice was uncool. Now voice is cool again. But what makes voice cool now is that it’s a group experience. Social is being used to make voice back in vogue.”
“I think Swell has potential,” added Catherine Zhu, a commercial and privacy attorney at the Foley & Lardner law firm in Palo Alto, Calif.
“What we’re seeing with a lot of social media platforms is disillusionment by users because what’s being transmitted is a lot of disinformation and divisiveness, and in many cases, not a lot of real engagement,” she told the E-Commerce Times.
“If an audio platform like Swell can tap into that disillusionment and cultivate real engagement among its users, that’s going to be pretty powerful,” she said.
Swell has another benefit that Clubhouse doesn’t have.
“The advantage of Swell is you don’t have to be there at the time the chat is taking place. That means people can pursue things on their own schedule,” Rubin explained.
Requiring conversations take place in real time encourages inauthentic behavior, maintained Swell CEO and Co-founder Sudha Varadarajan.
“Real time requires you to be a stage performer,” she told the E-Commerce Times. “There’s a lot of pressure to say things without any of thought to them. Asynchronous time gives you the time to listen, think and respond, so the quality of the conversation and the engagement is exceedingly high.”
“Friends, relatives and co-workers all know how to pick up a phone and contact you in real time,” she said. “The issue is coordinating timing and scheduling.”
“At work, getting everyone together at a particular time can be challenging,” she continued. “For family, it can be difficult to find the right time to call somebody because you might be in a different time zones and on different work schedules.”
String of Monologues
King, however, challenged calling Swell’s asynchronous postings conversations.
“In essence, the company is encouraging individuals to record audio monologues and enabling others to post recorded audio monologues in reply,” he maintained.
“That’s similar to the static dialogs enabled by most every other platform,” he continued. “I’m not sure whether enabling audio exchanges is enough to differentiate Swell from larger, more popular social sites.”
What audio-based social media can do, however is reduce the screen time that’s demanded by sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
“A Clubhouse chat can happen at any time and provide some rest for eyes weary from video meetings and can allow a degree of multitasking,” Rubin explained.
“You’re not looking at the phone,” Varadarajan added. “Most of our users, when they’re listening to Swell, will be engaged in something else. You don’t need to be glued to your screen to listen to a good conversation.”
Humans want to be connected by voice, Varadarajan maintained. “As a species, we have an exponentially better sense of speech than any other species,” she said. “We naturally connect to one another by what we say and how we say it.”
“That was an Aha moment for us,” she continued. “We realized that if you truly want to build a network to connect people, then authentic connections can’t be found through pretty pictures and one-liners. It has to be found through voice.”
A big question for these voice social media platforms will be can they avoid the pitfalls of their traditional brethren?
“Like all digital media, there’s always an opportunity for hecklers, trolls and disrupters to cause trouble,” North observed.
“When you look at digital media, the anonymity of it always invites bad behavior,” she said. “There’s always the opportunity for people to cause trouble because they’re not physically present and the consequences are so low.”
“Every platform can be abused in one way or another,” King added. “More important is what the company does when abusive content or misinformation appears.”
“The terms of service define 16 instances, behaviors or classes of information that are prohibited,” he continued. “How and how well Swell will police itself remains to be seen.”