If you’re an internet entrepreneur and you have a good business idea, you’ll eventually hear from Facebook. In the past, it was because the company wanted to buy you out and take your idea. That’s still sometimes true today. Recently, though, it’s more likely that Facebook will learn everything it can from what you’ve done and how you’ve done it, and then attempt to clone or copy your service. Mark Zuckerberg’s social media network has been criticised numerous times in the past few years for releasing carbon copies of other people’s apps and services, and it isn’t done yet.
The prime target for Facebook’s copycat escapades in recent years has been TikTok. The company’s first attempt to replicate TikTok was a standalone app called Lasso, which went nowhere because people who already had TikTok didn’t see a good reason to download another app that did the same thing. When that failed, they tried to clone some of TikTok’s key features within Instagram with a new feature called Reels. That’s been marginally more successful but hasn’t done anything to lessen TikTok’s popularity. They’re probably not done with TikTok yet either, as the latest word from those in the know is that Instagram will soon undertake a full makeover of its various video platforms with a focus on filters and short-form content.
When Facebook isn’t busy trying to replicate what makes TikTok popular, it’s attempting to draw customers from elsewhere. In 2020 they released an app called Hobbi, which was an attempt to clone Pinterest. Pinterest is too big and has been around for too long to be beaten by cloning at this stage, so Hobbi fell on deaf ears. A few years before that, the company even tried to ride the lucrative wave of popularity being experienced by online slots websites. Facebook worked with a big-name American online slots company to provide a Facebook-integrated slots casino in the hope that they’d be able to go toe to toe with professional online slots platforms. Irish Rose Slots and other sites like it weren’t affected. Again, the mission wasn’t a total failure, but nor has it been a resounding success.
The latest recipient of Facebook’s attention is Clubhouse, which you may or may not have heard of depending on whether you’re an iPhone user and whether or not you stay on top of the latest digital trends. For the uninitiated, Clubhouse is a voice-only chat app. Instead of sending your friends text messages and emojis, you send them short voice clips instead. It sounds like a basic idea – and it is – but the allure of Clubhouse is that it’s currently accessible by invitation only. Being part of Clubhouse feels like being part of an exclusive club, and that makes it desirable. Incredibly, the company was valued at $100m barely a month after it launched in April 2020. It’s now worth far more than that and has apparently been the target of a takeover attempt by Twitter. Twitter allegedly offered four billion dollars for the app at the start of 2021. It’s thought that Clubhouse’s owners rejected the offer, and Twitter has since launched Twitter Spaces instead.
It’s probably noteworthy that Twitter – a platform that doesn’t tend to copy ideas from elsewhere – feels the need to try to counter Clubhouse, but it’s Facebook that (theoretically, at least) stands the greater chance of success. The tech giant is believed to have been working on its app for the past several months and finally launched public testing of the proposed service on April 7th. The app is called “Hotline” and is aimed at creators rather than the general public. It’s presented as a Q&A app, with everyone invited to ask questions and the host of the session free to selectively answer any or all questions as they see fit. In this respect, it appears to be pitched at a different audience than Clubhouse. However, there are features inside the app that will sound familiar to anybody who’s used Clubhouse. The app blends text and audio and a host of additional audio features, including the ability to connect to and host audio chats within the existing Facebook Messenger service. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has used Clubhouse and taken part in chats there in the past, so he’s intimately familiar with the format.
Perhaps it would be better to describe Hotline as a hybrid product – part Clubhouse and part Instagram. Clubhouse does not – as of yet – incorporate any video features. Hotline will allow the host of the “call” to turn their camera on as if they were on Zoom, although attendees won’t be able to share their cameras. There will also be Reddit-style “upvoting” and “downvoting” of questions, so the host of the call can see which questions the audience would like them to answer and behave accordingly. They can even identify individual attendees and bring them into live audio chat if they wish to do so. Emojis can be used as reactions whenever questions are asked or answered – albeit only positive ones. Facebook clearly doesn’t want Hotline to become a space for negativity. All Hotline sessions will automatically be recorded and forwarded to the host after the call comes to an end. This doesn’t happen with Clubhouse unless the host wishes to record the conversation, in which case all participants are notified.
Between this and a second project aimed at enhancing the audio experience within Messenger, Facebook appears to be launching a two-pronged attack on Clubhouse. The reasons why the company decided to go against the app rather than attempting to buy it are unknown, but the increasing regulatory scrutiny of the company’s size and activities in the United States of America might have something to do with it, as might the rebuffed Twitter bid (if that even happened at all). Will this new app find a space in the market, or will the audience decide that Clubhouse already does everything that they want and need it to do? We’ll find out in the fullness of time, but if you want to get involved with the Facebook project at this early stage, you’re now free to do so. There’s no charge for downloading or using the app at this time.