[DRAFT: Will contribute research to this over time to build on text.]
I’m writing this whilst on an app called Stereo. Stereo (not to be confused with the innumerable other apps with the same name that have come and gone over the years) purports to be for 'Live Talk & Podcasts'... but mostly live talk. A podcast requires more structure than Stereo currently allows.
As with similar 'podcast from your phone' apps such as Anchor, DRM hounds mean there is no pre-recorded music and phone recording quality seems to put off live musicians or DJs.
In many ways Stereo the perfect app for life in lock down. If you are ricocheting around your apartment in dire need of conversation but unable to visit or meet up with other people Stereo lets you jump online (via your phone) and start verbally chatting to friends and potential new friends almost straight way.
As with all data driven community services there is some labour that needs to be traded with Stereo in order to access their services.
Firstly, you need to set up an avatar. Stereo offers some surprisingly specific templated options in order to build an acceptable avatar. No photography or user generated images are used within the Stereo app. The logic seems to be that the use of in-app avatars negates pornographic and other offensive or politically sensitive images from being uploaded and shared.
Secondly, you'll be asked to find your friends in order for Stereo to go fishing around in your address book.
Thirdly, you need to complete your profile for when you feel brave enough to 'Go Live'. You'll also need someone to talk to.
I've recently visited Mieke Bal's discussions on published 'voices' where Bal makes the analogy of voice being perceived as akin to a severed limb… or a prosthetic—“A body part pried loose of its body.”
The voices published within the Stereo app are pried loose—not only from the minds and bodies that produce them—but also from any of the usual accoutrements of identity.
Gone are un-prescribed visual cues, audio stings, incidental sounds and music. There is no indication of age or location (although this comes up often in conversation, usually triggered by an accent and is occasionally referenced in the limited description fields).
How does this then structure the conversations that happen within the Stereo app?
The first thing I noticed was that there seemed to be a very narrow field of topics on offer. Stereo lets you tie discussions into hash-tagged categories. Sifting thought the hashtags on offer there was a limited array but some potentially interesting areas, this narrowed again dramatically when flipping through those used for live conversations.
Comedy, goodvibesonly, realtalk, news, trending, opentalk, chill, sport are the most common hashtags at the moment with Comedy the most common, although rarely does that or any other of these tags describe the actual evolving conversations.
Likewise, caricatures or coerced stereotypes could be discerned (Stereo avatars started as strictly gendered so these appear mostly as male presenting although some creative users have spent time digging through various menus to find 'accessories' that act to subvert this). There are the 'Woke Folk', the 'Stoner Bros', the Rainbow-clad Queer warriors, the innercity gangsters, the prayer groups... The edges start to fray when looking outside of Stereo's prescribed framing. As much as Stereo provides a lot of heavy structure and frame works, users can easily slip off the scaffold.
There are slippages. But very little sticks to the teflon-coated walls of the Stereo silos. QAnon conspiracy fans and fanatics have an occasional presence but it's fleeting at best. Haters are usually outweighed by GoodVibesOnly style super spreaders or stoner geeks.
There is also monetary bait. The Stereo site includes a tally with cash prizes allocated to it in order to encourage users to build audiences. It's surprisingly generous for a recent start up with no obvious advertising to support it (I imagine the pitch to investors went along the lines of Instagram but for voices)... and the occasional online celebrity appearance (by well known TikTok-ers, drag show podcasters etc) although blink and you'll miss them.
Most of what is going on is the most mundane of interactions. Or glimmers of connection openly forged through a series of awkward (and often missed) responses
It's meagre sustenance, but sustenance none-the-less, and maybe this is just enough of what many are craving right now.