Facebook’s internal R&D group, NPE Team, has today launched its latest experiment, Hotline, in public beta testing. The online application can be described as a mashup of Instagram Live and Clubhouse, as it allows creators to speak to an audience who can then ask questions through text or audio. However, unlike the clubhouse, the creators may choose to turn on their cameras for the event, instead of just being sound.
Real estate investor Nick Huber is the first to try out the product with a livestream today that began at 10.00 PT (13.00 ET). Huber represents the kind of creator Facebook wants to work with for Hotline, Facebook told us, which is someone who helps people expand their professional skills or finances. In Huber̵
On Facebook, Hotline is led by Eric Hazzard, who joined Facebook when it bought its app tbh, a positivity-focused Q&A app that grew to 2.5 million daily active users in nine weeks and saw over 1 billion polls before it went out . With Hotline, Hazzard once again develops a product in questions and answers.
But this time, the new app draws inspiration from an upcoming social network, Clubhouse. In fact, Hotline’s user interface will look familiar to anyone who’s already used Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, or any of the other audio-only social networks, when viewed on mobile. At the top of the mobile (or to the left of the desktop) there is a speaker section where the event host is featured in a round profile icon or live video stream. Below (or to the side of the desk) are the event’s listeners.
But there are also several differences between Hotline and existing apps, such as Clubhouse.
First, the app today has users who log in with Twitter, and then confirm their identity via SMS.
For example, the listener’s section is divided between those who only watch the event, as represented by their profile icons, and those who ask questions. At the top of this section are lists of questions that users have asked, which others can vote on or vote down accordingly. The creator can then look at this section to find out what questions to answer next time, and can draw listeners on stage for a conversation.
Currently, users can enter their questions and then join the host “on stage” when it’s their turn. At the moment, guests are represented with their profile icon and are only sound when they are on stage. But in the settings, there is an option for the listener to turn on video that is not yet functional for today’s test.
When asked, users can respond with emoji, including clapping hands, fire, heart, laughter, surprise and thumbs up.
Another notable difference between Hotline and Clubhouse is that Hotline events are recorded.
Today, the clubhouse favors more informal chats where people understand that there is no transcription or recording going on (unless stated by the host in the room title). Clubhouse believes that participants can speak more freely and with less fear. But Hotline automatically produces recordings. After the event, the host will receive two recordings of the session – one as an mp3 and another as an mp4. The creator can then upload these to other networks, such as YouTube or Facebook, edit them into short-form content for apps like TikTok or turn the audio recording into a podcast, or something else.
At launch, anyone can join a Hotline for free, and there is no limit to the size of the audience, although this may change as the experiment progresses.
Despite the similarities with the clubhouse, the Hotline has a different vibe due to the use of video, text-based questions, tuning and because it is recorded. This makes it feel less like an informal hangout and more like a professional event where an expert leads a session and invites the audience to ask questions.
Hotline is now one of several apps that Facebook’s NPE team has launched in the creator to experiment with different ideas around audio and video. The group continues to test a creator app called Super, similar to Cameo, which is online and entirely video. It was also previously tested a sound app app only, CatchUp, which closed last year, as well another question and answer, known as the Venue, which is more of a Twitter-like companion for live events. More recently, it has launched TikTok-esque video apps Collab and BARER, which focused on collaborative music and rap, respectively.
Over time, the goal of NPE projects is not necessarily to stand up on their own as individual apps – although it can happen if they got enough traction. More broadly, the learnings from the tests and experiments can help inform future Facebook product development, as it expands new features for existing products, such as Messenger Rooms or Facebook Live.
Facebook did not make an official announcement about Hotline’s launch, but gave a statement about today’s test.
“With Hotline, we hope to understand how interactive, live multimedia questions and queries can help people learn from experts in areas such as professional skills, just as it helps experts build their businesses,” said a spokesman. “New product experimentation has tested multimedia products such as CatchUp, Venue, Collab and BARS, and we are encouraged to see that the formats continue to help people connect and build communities,” they added.
Hotline is not Facebook’s only attempt to challenge Clubhouse. The company is also in the process of developing a clubhouse rival within the Messenger Rooms product experience, Facebook recently confirmed.