When the social media platform Clubhouse breached the Great Firewall of China earlier this year, a Swiss audio meeting room app was preparing for its own entrance into the increasingly competitive space.This content was published on April 7, 2021 - 09:00
Clubhouse generated global headlines in February when it sneaked past Chinese censors, allowing people to chat freely about any subject they chose – for a few days, before being shut down. Outside China, the drop-in discussion app has reportedly gained millions of users on the back of its Chinese adventure.
The noise was not lost on the creators of a Swiss challenger, AngleExternal link, that was launched on March 30. But co-founder Matthias Strodtkoetter insists he came up with the idea independently before he even knew of Clubhouse.
Researching quantum computing at the University of Tokyo in 2016, Strodtkoetter was frustrated at being unable to locate, with a limited number of fellow scholars in the cutting-edge field, somewhere to share ideas. Online networks that connected specific groups of people were costly and not user-friendly.
“I thought a platform that linked people with similar interests, and which allowed meaningful spoken conversations, would be a game-changer,” he told SWI swissinfo.ch.
The idea went into a drawer for four years until Strodtkoetter – then back in Switzerland – joined forces with two other co-founders to start the Angle project in 2020.
“Social platforms often turn into a time-suck because of the endless scrolling through feeds filled with noise,” says the 31-year-old, who also studied at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich. “The spirit of Angle is comparable to ancient Rome, where people often met in gardens to philosophise about life and society. This is a basic human need, but humanity is losing this type of meaningful contact.”
Robert West, an associate professor at the Data Science Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL), believes the timing of such platforms could hardly be better. The coronavirus pandemic has left people yearning for more traditional forms of social contact and left many with “Zoom fatigue”. Audio-only chatrooms do away with the distraction of video and text feeds and focus exclusively on oral conversation.
“It’s a throwback to the way conversations used to be conducted before people started checking their messages on smartphones in the middle of a chat. These new platforms bring people back to the moment. They have to show up at the right place at the right time and listen,” he told SWI swissinfo.ch.
“There is a strong social component to our lives – if you take that away, it leaves a large hole. Some social media should be called ‘asocial’ because they destroy classical relationships.”
A couple of thousand users who tested the Angle prototype version of the platform have raised discussion groups on such diverse subjects as travel, martial arts, shark-tank style start-up pitches, mental health issues and photography.
Angle needs to attract “low single-digit thousands” in new users in the coming months to make it a success, says Strodtkoetter.
The competition for regular users is already becoming fierce. Besides Clubhouse, Twitter has also announced plans to create a similar offering called Twitter Spaces. Inspired by Clubhouse’s brief but significant popularity in China, several Chinese imitators are set to launch state-compliant platforms. Other entrants rushing into the space include Sonar, School Night, Chalk and Discord.
Robert West says it’s too early to tell which platforms will succeed and which will fail. “It’s mind-blowing to think that WhatsApp was sold to Facebook for $19 billion (CHF17.8 billion) [in 2014] when it really isn’t that special. Chat functions have been around since the 1980s. But they hit the sweet spot with smartphones.”
Moderation vs censorship
Another challenge will be to moderate the discussions without becoming a heavy-handed censor. Group discussions on controversial subjects can become inflamed with strong opinion, insults, abuse and infected with unverified facts or fake news. This is an issue that has bedevilled the likes of Twitter and Facebook in recent months.
“Moderation is a challenge faced by any platform that permits user-generated content. There is no simple solution,” says Strodtkoetter. To start with he is counting on users to self-govern by reporting unsavoury behaviour to admins of groups. “In future, we’ll introduce technological solutions to detect and deal with misbehaviour automatically. But even then, there will always be a fraction of fringe cases that test the fine line between moderation and censorship.”
Angle also needs to make money to survive. The start-up is exploring two ways of monetising the service. The first is similar to Clubhouse: allowing groups to sell tickets to group discussions or sell their services, with Angle taking a cut. The other possibility runs closer to the music app Spotify, which has a separate premium service with enhanced features for those who are prepared to pay for them.
Strodtkoetter is under no illusion that to beat off the competition, Angle must combine the most appealing chatroom atmosphere in which to chat with technology features, such as machine learning, that can recommend the best choice of chat groups.
“Of course, Angle needs to overcome the growth challenges of any consumer internet platform,” he says. “The internet has proven, time and again, that in the end the best products win.”