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Airchat & The Dawn of Better Social Media
The Async Audio Revolution
Airchat is not your regular social media app.
It doesn't pretend to be, either. Instead, it describes itself as a place for "Better Conversations", which defines it almost perfectly.
In this essay, I'll tell you why it’s the greatest social app that very few know about. Hopefully, by the end of this essay, I'll convince you to give Airchat a try.
But first, let's talk about the options we currently have & why better conversations matter.
Like every full stack programmer who's (often delusionally) ambitious, I've always wanted to build a social media platform of my own.
It's not that hard- just build a platform and everyone will entertain everyone else, the network effects will kick in, celebrities will join bringing more people, while you laugh your way to the bank. Dig deeper & explore this idea maze long enough, and you'll find out that it's incredibly hard to get new users & to keep new users.
But these reflections have often led to the place where I ask some interesting questions -
If we had followed an alternate tech tree - would we still have social media?
If there exists an alien planet with aliens who are roughly the same as us - would their Facebook & Twitter be the same as ours? Or would they approach it from a highly different angle?
While most of these questions are fun thought experiments, I’ve realized two things which are slightly counter intuitive -
1) Social Media is still too early.
2) Current social media is no longer “social”.
(1) is fairly easy to understand. Social media has just existed in various forms for less than two decades. Good arguments can be made that we’ve barely scratched the surface and in the 2030s - the most popular social media platforms might be entirely different from what we have.
(2) is what needs a deeper dive →
In our collective cyberspace, social media is dominated by a few large incumbents (TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, X) - all roughly trying to optimise for two metrics - Number of Users & Time Spent on the App.
Facebook, despite having 40% of the world on their platform, is having trouble getting new years. In 2022, it lost two million users in Europe & gained only a million in US & Canada.
Instagram, however, is having no problem getting new users - adding hundreds of millions of users every year.
Snapchat used to be big, and is still big in some areas of the world - but one can reasonably say that Instagram copying the stories feature took a lot away from them.
TikTok is the fastest growing app of them all- in a different league altogether - with a billion people spending hours watching minute-length videos everyday.
Short form videos are so popular that Meta did what they're best at doing- copied it on both Instagram & Facebook, and now billions of people from around the world spend 2-4 hours watching Instagram & Facebook Reels everyday just like the billions on TikTok do. Snapchat, probably having learnt the lesson that copying features is nothing to be ashamed of, also followed the same playbook, and they too now have endless streams of short form video.
X(formerly Twitter), is trying to be the everything app. The only popular text-based platform on this list (despite Meta’s attempt to copy it with Threads), X has seen rapid changes over the past few months since Elon took over.
I respect what X is trying to do, and among Meta, TikTok & X, I respect X's business model & principles far more. Musk has publicly said that he wants to optimise for "Unregretted User Minutes" which means he's deeply aware of the fact that the time you spend on other applications is time you end up regretting but the time you spend on X shouldn't be.
I think that's a more profound goal that people realize.
It has been found via experiments that pigeons who were rewarded intermittently (i.e., not every time they pressed a lever) were more likely to keep pressing the lever even after the reward was discontinued than pigeons who were rewarded continuously.
Does this sound familiar?
Instead of showing people what they want - if you keep them guessing & only give them what they want once in a while and deliberately show them something different all the other times, they tend to end up scrolling more than if they were given the right content at all times.
The algorithms in Reels & TikToks are definitely optimising for that, while it sounds like X is not.
Either way, if X does stick to its mission of Unregretted User Minutes as their guiding star - I think that’s a net positive.
But even X - a platform that’s now trying to optimise for unregretted user minutes, a platform that proudly claims to be the town hall of the world, is infamous for rewarding conflict.
Conflict, in its less intellectual form consisting of name-calling, insults or blind hate, are things that no one likes - but also things that no one can look away from - and those engaged in it can't easily pull away. Humans have a negativity bias - which helped our ancestors survive in the olden age, but which is now used against us by every social media platform that exists.
Every algorithm rewards engagement (as it keeps more users entertained & on the app) - but in X, this effect is more pronounced as you can clearly see the tribal conflicts playing out.
Consider the Quote Tweet feature. If you don't agree with someone, and you know that your tribe will back you up - you Quote Tweet a reply, often a dunk, for all your followers to then re-affirm your dunk.
If you did choose to reply, maybe the tribe of the guy you're trying to dunk will choose to defend him and dunk on you instead. Obviously, you'll choose the option that gets you more dopamine, and thus, you'll choose to Quote Tweet instead.
Now, not everybody is like that.
Many receive their reward chemicals from conflict, arguments and debate - and often, if they have the best ideas, that's the right way to engage. Usually though, just like you wouldn’t hang around a person who picks fights a lot - you wouldn’t want to see an endless stream of conflict on your feed (if you were actually given the choice), but being shown conflict passively - one needs a lot of mental fortitude to close their eyes and scroll away.
A sea of lurkers try to even the odds in every conflict- by liking and retweeting such comments, but in all this drama - a drama that's maximally fulfilling and why many spend hours on these platforms, one has to ask- Is this humanity at their best behaviour? Is this truly social media, the battleground of ideas, the town hall that was promised?
If the goal of social media was supposed to be to bring people together - it is certainly not doing that anymore. It has morphed into an engine for addiction - with Reels & TikToks that’s difficult to pull away from & conflict & arguments - with X & Meta taking full advantage of everyone’s negativity bias.
When was the last time you met someone new & formed a deep friendship through these platforms?
When was the last time you had a real conversation with a stranger online?
If you’re on Airchat, it was probably today.
Airchat is simple. In two words, it is async audio.
It's like how Clubhouse was (before they themselves decided to copy Airchat), but instead of live audio rooms, you have rooms of people who talk to each other by leaving voice notes (called "Chits") to each other.
Even comments can be audio, and you can walk into any room and leave a comment, and if your comment is insightful or impactful enough, the hosts will often invite you in to the discussion after "stitching in" your comment to the main discussion.
It's simple. It's slow. It's deliberately asynchronous.
And that, I think, is a powerful winning combination. For thoughtful conversations, I don't think there's anything that comes even close.
Having said all that, I don't use Airchat (or any social media) regularly.
I think reading text is far more efficient, so most of my Airchat experience involves just reading transcripts of everyone else. I don't get the time nor environment to contribute to any discussion meaningfully via my voice. There's always a part of me that stops me - as I know that if someone replies to me, I'll have to go back and talk to them and this will continue.
Thus, on Airchat, I'm proudly a lurker.
This is another reason why I like Airchat, because they have automatic transcripts everywhere. They could easily 3x the time spent on the app by lurkers like me if they disabled transcripts but they haven't. It's little decisions like these that show that the people building the product care about the users and doesn't just want to optimise for numbers.
Such tiny little things are everywhere on the app from automatic AI translations to exporting threads of conversations.
The rooms are diverse as well - from private rooms to public discourse to rap battles, it's all there, and if I had the time & intention to make new friends or just riff on ideas - Airchat is going to be the place I'd go to do that. In a few years, I'll probably have the luxury of time to do so.
What happens if Instagram copies this? The short answer is - they can & will try to do it - but they won't be able to do this effectively.
The magic in Airchat comes from it being "Audio-Only" & specifically from the features it doesn't choose to have rather that the ones they do.
Voice is the oldest communication medium.
Our voices not only convey information, but also our mood & internal state while relaying that information. If I send you a voice note, and you reply with a text that says "Yes." what kind of a Yes is that? Is that an enthusiastic Yes, a reluctant Yes, an instant Yes, a sad Yes, a happy Yes, a confused Yes, a shouting Yes?
With audio, there's no confusion. There lies Airchat's power, and that’s what makes every conversation deeply personal.
Can video offer the same or more benefits? Yes. The more you increase the fidelity of communication, the more personal every interaction would get. Not only is video better, but soon, photorealistic VR/AR will be better than looking at flat video screens.
Airchat has video as well.
Most people don't seem to use that - as (I would guess) audio's just more convenient. Text is the most convenient - you can sneak in a text while at the dinner table while audio's one rung on the fidelity ladder above that. You have to be in an audio-friendly environment to send a voice note, or "Chit" as they're called. For video, you first have to be in an appropriate video-friendly environment, wear clothes, and look presentable.
VR/AR would likely be somewhere in the middle. While AR can project your face directly, VR doesn't have to.
Simply communicating with a photorealistic avatar of yourself that also conveys your subtle body language and facial cues are going to be enough. This means you could probably be able to lie in your bed and give a business presentation with the other side having no idea you're on your bed in a few years.
I like the future we're heading towards.
You might have had an answer for the question I asked a while ago - When was the last time you had a real conversation with a stranger online?
If it wasn’t on Airchat (yet), it was probably on platforms that people have endearingly started calling the “Cozy Web”.
The cozy web consists of spaces which are asynchronous, social but not public or public but not widely known.
These are niche communities scattered across Discord, Group chats started randomly on Twitter, Groups on Facebook, Reddit Subreddits & Patreon communities.
Even public platforms with fewer users fall into this list like Nostr, Farcaster, BlueSky, Urbit etc or even simple forums like IndieHacker, LessWrong, etc.
Cozy webs have the additional advantage where it’s not really 100% public, plus you’re guaranteed to have at least one thing in common with everyone there. If that one thing isn’t a niche / creator that you’re collectively fans of, it’s at least the fact that you’re both on that relatively unknown platform together.
Airchat itself and its less popular & private rooms are a part of the cozy web as well - but here again, the magic of audio makes every interaction more personal than every other platform combined.
If you can speak, have the time & environment to speak, Airchat should be on your list of places to go explore. Building a following there early would consist not only of faceless followers but hopefully, someone that you’ve interacted with.
Instead of parasocial relationships, Airchat compels you to hear the voice of the person that you’re interacting with.
Great ideas flow freely, and just like it’s infinitely easier to call someone a moron through a keyboard than to their faces - Airchat’s uniquely positioned for thoughtful debates where there are few or none offhand insults and more quality comments.
In a world where every social media is copying every popular feature and trying to do everything at once, it’s refreshing to see Airchat treat software like a craft like it had once been.
Deliberately thoughtful product decisions and a strong sense of taste is what you’ll find at every corner of the application, and this is what makes me extremely excited about its future.
How does Airchat make money? I don’t know, but I haven’t seen an ad yet. I’m sure pro users on the app would be more than willing to pay a subscription fee for a superior social app - a phenomenon that’s now not so uncommon.
Finally, I leave you with this thought experiment.
When the Keyboard was invented as a skeumorphic representation of the typewriter that came before it - I’m sure some visionaries had (falsely) predicted that keyboards won’t be a thing in the 21st century. That voice recognition and transcription would get so good that we won’t use keyboards at all.
While just voice as the input medium for everything would make working in environments like offices a nightmare - voice as the medium for communication is historically what the cool kids call “mad lindy”. Inventions that leveraged voice have consistently shown us that it’s possible to feel intimately connected with someone else who are a thousand miles away.
The text-based nature of the early Internet took that away. The holographic AR & the avatar-based VR future promises something more significant.
But if you’re looking to have a meaningful conversation today, a conversation based on your interests, a place to just riff on ideas and bond with people on an intimate level - there’s no better alternative.
Talk to people.
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