How an upstart app is helping activists capture the sounds of Iran's social unrest
For sharing text updates, there's Twitter and Facebook. For images, Instagram. For video, there's YouTube and Vine. For audio there's... SoundCloud, right?
But while SoundCloud has a fairly massive number of monthly active listeners (250 million at last count), the masses aren't necessarily using it to upload content -- only 40 million of those are "registered users." Indeed, while SoundCloud has always been an important tool for amateur and professional musicians, it's only continued to cement its place in that field. Snoop Dogg and Beyonce have helped launch the careers of artists they discovered on SoundCloud.
But what about non-musical audio? The aural equivalent of writing "Happy Birthday" on your friend's Facebook Wall or snapping a smartphone photo from amid a violent protest?
That's a market Instaradio wants to fill. Instaradio, which today is announcing photo integration into its app, thrives on simplicity, with its founder and CEO Kevin Kliman preferring to call it a "microphone app" as opposed to SoundCloud which is more of an audio distribution platform. What makes Instaradio most unique is that the broadcasts can be consumed live, lending them the exciting, unpredictable feel of radio shows.
"[SoundCloud gets] a ton of really highly produced studio stuff from highly trained musicians so a lot of people feel uncomfortable," Kliman says. "We think if we can put everyone on the same level so it's live air and there's no editing and it's a more authentic thing."
That sense of authenticity, intimacy, and ease-of-use has led to a spike in a place the CEO hadn't expected: Iran.
An Iranian rapper and social activist named Najafi has been using the app to document his experience of fleeing the country to avoid prosecution. In four days, his broadcasts were played over 150,000 times and usage from Farsi-speaking users has jumped over 500 percent over the last few weeks. Kliman says about a quarter of its user base is located in the Middle East.
Having such a large number of your users based in an area where Internet freedom is hardly guaranteed is certainly a risk. In addition to blocking entire sites, particularly social networks, the Iranian government will often slow or "throttle" the Internet down to glacial speeds, particularly ahead of national elections. This can act as a form of de facto censorship.
But according to Collin Andersen, a researcher who studies Internet freedom in Iran, 28 to 30 percent of the population access blocked sites through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and proxies. Kliman isn't too worried either.
"It's pretty obvious that the people on the app are also on Instagram, are also on Twitter," he says.
It will be interesting to see if Instaradio can find its footing for more casual use cases other than political advocacy. After all, a social network never really blows up until your mom and dad start using it. That's true in the West as well as in Iran, says Andersen.
“Iranians are a technologically savvy population. They’re connected, not necessarily for political purposes, but because they want to talk to their family and friends.”
Ironically, that's the same audience SoundCloud had been gunning for before really focusing its attention on musicians. Back in 2012, I profiled the company's VP of Platform Manolo Espinosa for Fast Company, and he told me, "I see it as something my daughter could use, all the way up to my mom."
That raises the question: Is there a hunger for a "Twitter for audio"? Or a "YouTube for audio"? If SoundCloud struggled to achieve this goal, what makes Instaradio think it will be an easier? Certainly the live-feel, ease-of-use, and less professional community make the app unique. But Instaradio, though new, only has 90,000 downloads. The broadcasts have been consumed by four or five times that number on Twitter and Facebook, says Kliman, and the audience has grown 30 percent every week for the past month, but it's still a comparatively tiny player in the user-generated content space.
But Kliman is undeterred in thinking that live audio, whether used to document social unrest or to tell stupid jokes, is a huge untapped opportunity.
"[Users] don't have to put their face on camera or position the camera, it takes a lot of the stress away and they can be more candid."
If that means more intimate stories are shared out of areas stricken by social unrest, then more power to him.