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Facebook exploring audio-chat products to rival Clubhouse

The social media company’s plans coincide with the success of Clubhouse, which lets people create digital discussion groups while other users tune in to listen.

 Clubhouse, an invitation-only audio chat app launched less than a year ago, has caught the attention of tech industry bigshots like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not to mention the Chinese government, which has already blocked it in the country. 
 Clubhouse, an invitation-only audio chat app launched less than a year ago, has caught the attention of tech industry bigshots like Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, not to mention the Chinese government, which has already blocked it in the country.  (AP)

Facebook Inc. has multiple internal teams researching audio-related chat products that could eventually rival the upstart Clubhouse service, according to people familiar with the efforts.

One possible product involves Messenger Rooms, the video chat feature Facebook introduced last year to compete with the service from Zoom Video Communications Inc. It’s possible users could one day use Rooms to broadcast conversations in a more public way, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the discussions are private. While it’s possible to turn off video during a Rooms call, the feature currently has a 50-person limit. Clubhouse discussions can be broadcast to thousands of people.

Another team looking into interactive audio resides within Facebook’s New Product Experimentation group, which builds new standalone apps and services for the company. The audio efforts are very early, and it’s possible the company’s plans will change, the people said.

“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,” said a spokeswoman for the Menlo Park, California-based company. The New York Times previously reported on Facebook’s potential chat products.

The social media company’s plans coincide with the success of Clubhouse, which lets people create digital discussion groups while other users tune in to listen. Clubhouse recently raised $100 million at a reported $1 billion valuation, and some of the most notable technology executives, including Tesla Inc.’s Elon Musk, have joined the service.

Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg appeared live during a Clubhouse discussion last week to talk about his company’s augmented- and virtual-reality products. Other top Facebook executives participated in the conversation.

Facebook has a history of copying products and features from competitors that show early promise in the industry. The company is being sued by federal and state regulators who argue Facebook’s strategy of buying or copying rivals is anti-competitive.

Audio chats have taken off as a form of entertainment and community in the midst of the global pandemic, which is making in-person gatherings difficult and hurting industry-sponsored conferences. Twitter Inc. is also interested in audio, and is testing a product similar to Clubhouse called Spaces. That feature is only available to a subset of users, but CEO Jack Dorsey has spoken publicly about Spaces as a foundation of public discussion.

These types of audio conversations “present a new model for how we think about instantaneous and potentially ephemeral communities in public conversation,” Dorsey told analysts Tuesday on a conference call.

Facebook tested a separate standalone product called CatchUp last summer to encourage more voice calls between users, and previously said voice calls on its WhatsApp and Messenger services increased dramatically during the early days of the pandemic.

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