On Monday I had the chance to talk about it with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg the company’s plans to build new audio products in the coming monthsThe reason for our interview was the opening of Sidechannel, a Discord server that I launched last weekend with some independent journalists. We didn’t know what to expect when we opened the doors, but the first day more than 2,500 people came in, and many of them joined us for a lively conversation about Facebook’s rapidly evolving attitude towards creators.
If you missed the call, you can find the audio here on Soundcloud. (Go to 1:10 to go over my welcome message to Sidechannel members.) There is also a very crude automated transcription on Otter, if you like that your conversations have been moderately affected by errors in machine learning.
There are at least three big audio bets Facebook will be capturing in the next three to six months, Zuckerberg said:
- “Soundbites” are a new format for creative short audio that will appear across the company’s product line. Think of TikTok, but for audio; Soundbites allow you to change your sound through filters and other effects.
- Facebook is also becoming a home for long audio, recommending shows and episodes based on your interests and allowing you to consume them in the app. An expanded partnership with Spotify will also bring the company’s audio player to the Facebook app, allowing users to listen to music as well as podcasts.
- Facebook will add live clubhouse-style audio rooms, which are expected to be popular with groups. Entrants can tip creators using Facebook’s digital currency, Stars.
That’s an unusually detailed roadmap of future products for Facebook – Vox reported on some from yesterday – and it’s probably best rated when these features actually ship. But in the meantime, here are five big things that caught my eye in my conversation with Zuckerberg.
Facebook is betting on small businesses over large companies
The idea of a “pivot to audio” refers to the pivot to video, a mid-2010s phenomenon where Facebook paid major publishers to create short videos for the news feed. Within a few years, however, Facebook began to reduce the distribution of publisher videos in its feed, leading to hundreds of layoffs in the media industry. (The company also announced that it had inadvertently increased its ratings during this time.)
At the same time, video was succeeding all over Facebook – it was mostly just user-generated video, creating context for lucrative video ads to be placed next to it. Facebook’s pivot point to video worked fine for Facebook; it was the publishers who suffered.
And the company’s audio investments could follow a similar path. The blinking red light I’d look for: news that Facebook is making prepayments to CNN, The New York Times, or other common suspects to create short or long audio for the platform.
But to hear Zuckerberg tell it Monday, the audio game is a lot more about helping the little guy. Here’s what he said when I asked if Facebook audio probably benefited individual creators more than major publishers:
“A big part of the creative economy is that it enables individuals and shifts power from some traditional institutions to individuals to exercise their own creativity. And I think that’s a positive trend in the world. It gives many people more possibilities and ensures that many new things can be made. Based on that, I think your prediction that this will likely work better for individual creators or small groups, I think that will definitely come true. “
How to moderate live audio is still an open question
Facebook is getting better at moderating text and video content, especially in the United States. But as a recent series in The Guardian has illustrated, policy enforcement tends to weaken as content is further removed from Menlo Park.
I asked Zuckerberg how he planned to roll out audio products with good, fair moderation. He told me the company could learn many lessons from what it has learned about checking text and video posts for bad behavior.
But he also acknowledged that there is still a debate about the extent to which audio – especially live audio – should be moderated. If I walk past your picnic table in the park and hear that you’re sharing misinformation with your friends, I’m not going to call the police. If the same conversation happened on Facebook audio rooms, should moderators shut it down? Hide from recommendations? Or leave it alone?
The jury is still out, Zuckerberg said.
“There is also the question against which to enforce. That will be an open debate. If we go back five years, I think a lot more people were more on the side of free speech. Today there are still a lot of people, but there is also a rising wave of more people who are, in fact, calling for more things to be blocked or restricted in some way.
“That series of debates will, I think, go on forever, in terms of where to find the right line. … I don’t take it for granted that just because you have the ability to do different types of enforcement, you should always do everything. I think you often want to be on the side of free speech and get people to have more conversations. “
Facebook believes creators should take more ownership of their audience
When I wrote about Facebook’s interest in newsletters last month, I noticed that was an open question whether writers could keep their email lists if they decided to leave the platformOn Monday, Zuckerberg confirmed they can.
“I think one of the powerful things Substack has done is to make sure that … when someone signs up with them, [and] decide to pick up and move to another place, your subscriber list is yours. And I think that’s also a really powerful part of the creative economy. “
He continued: “When it comes to giving favorable terms [to creators], it’s not really just the economy. I think it’s also the portability so the creators know that if they start building a business here, they won’t just be locked up and be able to take it to different places. “
This is a pretty big deal! You cannot export the subscribers of your Facebook page or your Instagram followers. You also cannot easily transfer your subscribers to TikTok or YouTube. If Facebook starts from the idea that creators should own the relationship with their subscribers, it could be the start of a healthy shift in mindset between platforms.
Substack’s margin is Facebook’s chance
One reason some people are bearish about Substack is that the company receives 10 percent of writers’ revenue, which is higher than what it would cost writers to build their own sites on WordPress or elsewhere. (See my ethical revelation about SubstackFor many, if not most of the writers on the platform, that 10 percent may not hurt too much, even when combined with a payment processing fee, which is usually around 3 percent. But once you earn more than $ 100,000 on the platform, the costs can sting.
Zuckerberg wouldn’t tell me what Facebook plans to charge newsletter writers for using the platform. But it sounds like it will be much less than 10 percent:
“Most of our business isn’t going to take a small portion of the stuff from creator tools, so that gives us the opportunity to build tools on potentially more favorable terms, and to let more of the economy go to creators.
“When you think about what our interests are in space, we want this kind of creativity to flourish. We want that content to come out and be made. We think that helps to socialize, build community, give people things to talk about and share. And that is ultimately the bread and butter of what we do. “
There is a shift in power from institutions to individuals
Zuckerberg argues that some of the negative views on Facebook are explained by the same forces that drive creator success. It’s a story most powerfully told so far by people on the losing side of that equation, he told me:
“I think when you look at the big arc here, what is really happening is that individuals are given more power and more opportunities. To create the life and jobs they want, to connect with the people they want to connect with, the ideas they want, to share the ideas they want.
“And I just think that will make the world a better place. It will be different from the world we had before – I think it will be more diverse. I think there will be more different ideas and models. And I think it inevitably means that some people who were in control of that world in the past will lose control [control]
“I understand why those people will complain about the direction it is going. But my concern is that too often we talk about the negative sides of it, from the perspective of the institutions that may not be on the winning side of these changes. that the people on the winning side of these changes are individuals.
‘I’ve learned over the years not to be too Pollyanna-ish about this. There are real issues that need to be addressed. But my own feeling is that the story is a bit too biased, or maybe one a lot of too biased to tell the negative side of the problems, instead of all the value and opportunities that are created. And that’s what I care about. “
A lot to think about, for me and for all of us.
This column is in conjunction with Platform game, a daily newsletter about Big Tech and Democracy.