Airchat is the latest app trying to make 'social audio' cool again

The invite-only network is using a familiar playbook to build hype.


There’s a new invite-only app going semi-viral among VCs, tech execs and other Silicon Valley personalities. It’s called Airchat and it’s trying to revive the concept of an audio-first social media app.

The premise is similar to Clubhouse, the audio app that had a viral moment at the height of the pandemic in 2021 and inspired copycat features in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Reddit before gradually fading into obscurity. But unlike the original version of Clubhouse, Airchat isn’t built around live audio streams that require users to all tune it at once. It’s more like Twitter or Threads, except posts can only be shared as voice notes.

The app uses a timeline format, and automatically plays audio clips as you scroll your feed. You do have the ability to pause the playback and read text instead — each post is accompanied by an AI-generated transcript — but posts and replies can only be shared by recording an audio clip. There don’t seem to be any time constraints on how long individual clips can be, I found at least one post where a user spoke for a full hour just to see if it would work (it did).

It sounds a bit gimmicky (because it is), but the app has all the hallmarks of the kind of social apps that briefly go viral among a certain segment of extremely-online Silicon Valley nerds. It’s led by a pair of well-connected tech founders: AngelList co-founder Naval Ravikant and former Tinder exec Brian Norgard. It’s invitation-only and has drawn a number of well-known tech personalities among its early users: Y Combinator CEO and San Francisco political provocateur Gary Tan, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek, OpenAI founder Sam Altman, VC and Elon Musk confidant Jason Calacanis.

Over on X, Airchat’s high-profile user base is building hype and creating FOMO for those who haven’t been able to score an invite. (The app had to briefly shut off invites over the weekend due to “an influx of new users,” according to Ravikant, Airchat’s CEO.)

It’s not clear exactly how many users Airchat has just yet, but it seems to be in the low tens of thousands. The app has been downloaded close to 50,000 times, research firm Appfigures told Engadget, but it’s likely some of those downloads have come from people who don’t yet have an invite. Ravikant, who seems to be one of the most-followed users, currently has just over 11,000 followers in the app.

Using Airchat is, well, noisy and a bit confusing. Upon joining, the app asks to tap your contacts list to find friends who are already on the app, but finding people to follow beyond that can be challenging. The app doesn’t have the equivalent of a “for you” feed with recommended content so your only options are to manually search for users or lurk in conversations that do appear in your feed and check out other users’ posts and follows.

When I signed up, there were four people from my contacts in the app, only two of whom are actual friends. I followed them and the app’s founders and a couple other familiar names. I then began randomly following other users as conversations began to appear in my feed. This was a terrible strategy as my feed was quickly dominated by the voices of a few especially active (but not terribly interesting) posters. With so many new users all joining at the same time, at one point my feed was just a bunch of people talking about Airchat.

It’s also somewhat jarring to actually hear the voices of people you’ve followed on social media for ages but haven’t interacted with IRL. The app defaults to playing back audio at 2x speed, which tends to make people’s speaking voices sound a bit unnatural, but is also kind of necessary for long-winded posts.

The bigger issue, though, is that it’s not entirely clear what Airchat is for. There are a handful of “channels,” smaller groups dedicated to chatting about specific topics like coffee or astrology or AI or war, but conversations are disjointed and hard to follow. There seem to be some corners with spirited discussion. The “coffee” channel has 755 members and has lots of earnest discussion of pour-over techniques and photos of latte art. The channel is also “moderated heavily,” according to Ravikant (Airchat’s moderation policy is “self moderation,” which means they expect you to make good use of blocking and muting features, though an FAQ states they will remove users for “harassment, impersonation, foul behavior, and illegal content.)

More creative users are also finding ways to play with the audio-centric format. I found an ASMR group that consisted mainly of people speaking in breathy whispers that kind of gave me the ick (one person did post a nice clip of their cat purring). I listened to a few poetry readings in the “poetry” channel, but didn’t have the patience, even at 2x speed. There’s also a lot of talk of in-app karaoke, though I have yet to see it actually happen.

Some might see these kinds of gimmicks as the start of some new paradigm, where people use their voices to unlock new ways of interacting. But all I can think about is how Clubhouse, at its peak, had similar gimmicks: in-app game shows, open mic nights and (very NSFW) “moan rooms.” It was new and interesting at a time when most people were stuck at home with nothing to do, but the novelty wore off quickly.

While Clubhouse’s initial success sparked copycat features from almost every other major social media company, many of those have since shut down due to lack of interest. Even Clubhouse itself is a shell of what it once was. While the app still exists, it’s an entirely different service than the one that briefly captured the attention of bored tech workers. The company laid off half its staff in 2023 and has since pivoted to audio-centric group chats.