On Monday, I had the opportunity to talk to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s plans to build new audio products over the next few months. The reason for our interview was the opening of Sidechannel, a Discord server I launched over the weekend with some independent journalists. We didn’t know what to expect when we opened the door, but more than 2,500 people signed up during the first day, and many of them joined us in a lively conversation about Facebook’s rapidly evolving attitude toward creators.
If you missed the conversation, you can find the sound here on Soundcloud. (Skip to 1:10 to pass my welcome message to Sidechannel members.) There is also a very rough automated transcript of Otter, if you like your conversations to be moderately damaged by machine learning errors.
There are at least three big audio bets that Facebook will place in the next three to six months, Zuckerberg said:
- Soundbites is a new short-form creative sound format that will appear in the company’s product package. Think of TikTok, but for sound; Soundbites will allow you to change the sound through filters and other effects.
- Facebook will become a home of long-format sound, recommending shows and episodes based on your interests and allowing you to consume them in the app. The expanded partnership with Spotify will also bring the company’s audio device into Facebook’s app, allowing users to listen to music and podcasts.
- Facebook will add live Clubhouse-style sound rooms, which it expects to be popular among groups. Participants will be able to tip creators with Facebook’s digital currency Stars.
This is an unusually detailed map of future products for Facebook – Vox reported on some of them yesterday – and it’s probably best to judge when these features actually deliver. In the meantime, here are five great things that stood out to me from talking to Zuckerberg.
Facebook bets on a small business rather than a big deal
The idea of ”pivot-in-audio” refers to pivot-in-video, a phenomenon in mid-2010, when Facebook paid major publishers to create videos in short form for News Feed. Within a few years, Facebook began to reduce the distribution of publisher videos in the feed, leading to hundreds of layoffs in the media industry. (The company also revealed that it accidentally inflated viewership metrics during that period.)
At the same time, the video succeeded all over Facebook – it was simply user-generated video, creating context for the lucrative video ads that were placed next to them. Facebook’s pivot according to the video worked great for Facebook; publishers suffered.
And the company’s audio investment could follow a similar path. The flashing red light I would be looking for: the news that Facebook is making prepayments to CNN, The New York Times, or other common suspects for creating a short or long form of sound for a platform.
But to hear Zuckerberg say that on Monday, audio playback means a lot more helping a little man. Here’s what he said when I asked if the sound from Facebook was more likely to benefit individual creators than large publishers:
“A big part of the creative economy is that it allows individuals and redirects power from some traditional institutions to individuals to realize their own creativity. And I think that’s a positive trend in the world. It really empowers a lot of people and allows you to create a lot of new things. I think based on that, your prediction that this will probably work better maybe for individual creators or small groups – I could certainly see that. “
The question of how to moderate live sound is still open
Facebook is getting better at moderating text and video content, especially in the United States. But as a recent series in The Guardian illustrated, policy enforcement tends to weaken as content is further removed from Menlo Park.
I asked Zuckerberg how he plans to present audio products with good, unbiased moderation. He told me that the company will be able to learn many lessons from what it has learned about following text and video posts due to 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 you sharing misinformation with friends, I won’t call the police. If the same conversation took place in Facebook audio rooms, should moderators turn it off? Hide from testimonials? Or leave alone?
The jury has not yet come out, Zuckerberg said.
“There is also the question of what you should pursue. It will be an open debate. If we go back five years, I think a lot more people were more on the side of free expression. Today, many people still do that, but there is also a growing wave of people who are basically asking for more things to be blocked or restricted in some way.
“I think this series of discussions will last 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 execute different types of execution, you should always do every single thing. I think a lot of times you want to be on the side of free expression and allowing people to have more conversations. ”
Facebook thinks creators should have more ownership over their audience
When I wrote last month about Facebook’s interest in newsletters, I noticed that the open question is whether writers will be able to keep their email addresses if they decide to leave the platform. On Monday, Zuckerberg confirmed he would be able to do so.
“I think one of the powerful things Substack has done is that it has done so that … if someone signs up with them, [and] decide to pick up and go elsewhere, your subscriber list is yours. And I think that’s a really powerful part of the creator’s economy, too. “
He continued: “When we talk about giving favorable conditions [to creators], is not really just economics. I think it’s portability too, so the creators know that if they start building a business here, they won’t just be locked in and will be able to take it to different places. “
This is a pretty big deal! You cannot export subscribers to your Facebook page or your Instagram followers. Nor can you easily transfer subscribers to TikTok or YouTube. If Facebook leans on the idea that creators should own relationships with their subscribers, it could represent the beginning of a healthy change in thinking among platforms.
Margin Substack is an opportunity for Facebook
One of the reasons some people are bears according to Substack is that the company takes 10 percent of writers ’revenue, which is more than what it would cost printers to make their own websites on WordPress or elsewhere. (See my discovery of ethics about Substack.) For many, and even for most writers on the platform, that 10 percent may not hurt too much, even if combined with payment processing fees, which are typically around 3 percent. But when you earn more than $ 100,000 on the platform, the fees could start to burn.
Zuckerberg didn’t tell me what, if anything, Facebook plans to charge newsletter writers for using the platform. But it sounds like it’s going to be a lot less than 10 percent:
“Most of our business will not take a small part of things from the tools for authors. So, it gives us the opportunity to build tools under potentially more favorable conditions and that most of the economy goes to the creators.
“If you think about what our interests are in space, we want this kind of creativity to progress. We want that content to be out there and to be created. We think it helps strengthen social ties, helps build community, helps people give things they can talk about and share. And that is ultimately the bread and butter of what we do. “
There has been a change of power from institutions to individuals
Zuckerberg argues that some negative attitudes about Facebook are explained by the same forces that drive the success of creators. This is the story that has been most strongly told to this day by people on the losing side of that equation, he told me:
“I think if you look at the big bow here, what’s really happening is that individuals are getting more power and more opportunities. To create the lives 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 it will lead to a better world. 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 that inevitably means that some of the people who had control of that world in the past will lose [control].
“I see why these people will regret the direction they are going. But my concern is that too often we say the negative sides, from the perspective of institutions that may not be on the winning side of these changes. I think the people who benefit from these changes are individuals.
“I’ve learned over the last few years that I’m not too pollyanna about it. There are real problems that need to be addressed. But my own feeling is that the narrative is a little too biased, or maybe it is a lot too biased towards saying the negative side of the problem, instead of all the values and opportunities that are created. And I care about that. ”
There is a lot to think about here, both for me and for all of us.
This column was published together Platformer, a daily bulletin on Big Tech and democracy.