Facebook’s Clubhouse rival looks a lot like Clubhouse right now

 In apps, audio, clubhouse, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Messenger, messenger rooms, Social, social audio, social media, social software

Facebook is building a Clubhouse rival, The New York Times reported in February. But what that product will look like or how it will work have been questions that have remained unanswered. However, new screenshots of a Facebook audio product, still under development, show what appears to be a live audio broadcast experience that’s more of an extension of Facebook’s existing Messenger Rooms, rather than a standalone app experience. Facebook confirmed with TechCrunch the images are indeed examples of the company’s “exploratory audio efforts,” but cautioned that they don’t represent a live product at this time.

The company said also that detailing what a product may look like based on these images would be inaccurate. We’ve decided to publish them anyway with the caveat that, of course, in-development features are very different from live products. Anything and everything could still change between now and a public launch.

But the images at least help demonstrate how Facebook is thinking about live audio and where such a social experience could fit within Facebook’s existing app. And that’s worth considering.

The photos themselves have been shared by mobile developer and reverse engineer Alessandro Paluzzi, who came across Facebook’s live audio developments and user interface experiments within the Facebook Android app’s code. Like other reverse engineers, Paluzzi digs around in the code to uncover unreleased products in various stages of development. Some of the products he finds are tested and scrapped, while others eventually make it to market.

In Facebook’s case, the images he shared show a “Live Audio” option for Rooms — Facebook’s social Zoom competitor which first launched last May. At the time, people were hungry for video chat options before our collective Zoom fatigue set in as the pandemic wore on. Now we all want to turn our screens off, and hang out in Clubhouse instead.

Currently, when a Facebook user creates a Messenger Room — which you can do from either Messenger or the Status box on Facebook — it’s a group video chat. Here, friends and family can virtually hang out or even co-watch Facebook videos together. But while Rooms support up to 50 people, they’re not meant to offer a large, public broadcast experience.

The new images show an expansion of Rooms, where you’ll be able to pick from one of three different “types” of Rooms — either a private video room (much like you what’s available today), or either a public or private audio room. The private audio room would be just a place to voice chat with a group of friends, while the “Live Audio” room would instead be an audio-only room where you could broadcast to wider group of listeners.

The latter would be given its own Room Link, which speakers could then promote across Facebook — either in Messenger, through a Facebook post, or within a Facebook Group — or anywhere else on social media and the web.

Meanwhile, the Live Audio Room experience — which Paluzzi mocked up with images of Mark Zuckerberg’s face to represent the users profiles — looks a lot like Clubhouse. The speakers are shown at the top of the room where they’re represented with larger, circular profile pics, while the room listeners appear below. There’s also a “followed by speakers” section that leads the audience section — again, much like Clubhouse.

Paluzzi says the way the live audio rooms product is being developed, it would allow for rooms that anyone on Facebook could join, and those rooms could be accessible from Facebook itself — meaning you would not have to switch to Messenger to join a room. When not expanded to full-screen, the room would display its title, the number of speakers, and total listeners so you could get an idea of the room’s popularity.

Of course, what Paluzzi has come across is not a final product — it’s just a user interface, buried in the code, and none of the backend works. Facebook also stressed that the images were just audio experiments, as noted above.

But the images themselves are real and represent something Facebook has built. They’re worth examining, despite any attempts to downplay their importance.

“We’ve been connecting people through audio and video technologies for many years and are always exploring new ways to improve that experience for people,” a spokesperson said, commenting on the images Paluzzi had published.

It’s no secret that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is bullish on audio, of course. In fact, he’s already appeared on Clubhouse a couple of times, and recently spoke about the potential for social audio in a Clubhouse Room hosted last week by former TechCrunch editor Josh Constine, now an investor at SignalFire. During the chat, Zuckerberg said he believes audio has a number of advantages over other formats.

“You don’t have to prepare. You don’t have to look good before you get on to go to a podcast or Clubhouse or whatever you’re doing,” he noted, of the hosting experience. Plus, he added, “you can walk around a lot more easily. You can consume it without having to look at the screen and kind of do that in the background while doing something else.”

Zuckerberg also praised Clubhouse for what it had pioneered, saying it would end up “being one of the modalities around live audio broadcast.”

Image Credits: Alessandro Paluzzi

In other words, it appears Facebook sees Clubhouse as a feature it can reproduce — similar to how it borrowed the concept of Stories from Snapchat for Instagram, and the way it’s more recently copied the TikTok experience for Instagram Reels. It doesn’t have to launch a new app to counteract the Clubhouse threat, it just has to launch a place for people to use audio on Facebook. (And of course, there’s something to be said about praising Clubhouse on Clubhouse while simultaneously building a copy.)

“Overall, I think that this is going to be a pretty big space,” Zuckerberg said of social audio. “The work that we’re doing in this is trying to basically build out a bunch of the tools across the spectrum of how people would want to use audio. I’m really excited about this,” he added.

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