The Waveform Number 27—The Community Issue

18 October 2022


Forming genuine communities online is a challenge. These communities have to be healthy, have real people in the community, not bots, and they have to sustain themselves by recruiting new members.

But know what’s even harder? Starting out with a real-world community, then transitioning it to an online one, and then taking it back again into the world.

You may have heard of Daybreaker, a wellness community and sober morning dance party. Radha Agrawal is its co-founder, CEO and Chief Community Architect. She started with just a few people meeting in the early morning, and has grown the community to become a global movement in 28 cities and five continents. Almost half a million people participate.

Radha did all this before and through the pandemic, taking Daybreaker online for a while, as a Zoom meetup, and then transitioning back to real world meetups. To make that work, I’ll bet you’re thinking, you need a pretty compelling message. Radha’s mission is to bring the body into states of complete ecstasy in unison, and create collective joy.

Listen to Seeking Collective Joy through Dance with Radha Agrawal on The Glo Podcast.

Red Cup Agency produces The Glo Podcast.

The Emotions Are Real, but the Voices Are Fake

Synthetic voices have advanced enough to fool you for a half a minute. You’ve probably encountered them on hold on the phone, or while navigating chatbot apps.

The good news/bad news is that voice bots are getting better. This could be bad news for real, human actors, or (the good news), it might make their craft even more valuable.

A company called https://play.ht has released a podcast featuring Joe Rogan interviewing Steve Jobs. There are no real people in the podcast because one of them is dead, and the other is a monster. Although some people think Steve Jobs was a monster in his own right, it’s pretty clear, if you listen to the show, that these are synthetic voice actors. Joe Rogan isn’t really smart enough to ask those questions, and if Steve Jobs were alive, and came on that show, I would have to sell all my Apple equipment, and I wouldn’t want to do that.

As a thought exercise, though, it’s compelling. It might even make you worry about the future. Will you be able to trust that any podcast is real? Will fake voices take over? If you’re an actor, will your employment opportunities diminish?

The future sneaks up on you fast. You’re going along, minding your own business, when suddenly an airline you fly regularly wants to identify you using a scan of your face. Or your bank wants to identify you by capturing a recording of your voice. Or chef Anthony Bourdain reads his diary out loud for a documentary, only he was already dead when the documentary was made and would never read an entry like that in public. A clone of his voice can certainly read it, with his estate’s permission.

The novelist William Gibson said something like, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” He was right.

I wanted to test synth voices in audio dramas. I first tried it in Mission of the Lunar Sparrow, a two-character play in which only one actor was human. Earlier this year, I launched a more ambitious project called Your Performance Review. The show premieres this week, on Thursday, with a mixed cast of humans and bots.

Most of the voices in Your Performance Review are actors, fabulous actors, a new actor in each episode. But the lead character is a bot. The supporting cast is also. These voices have been built from readily accessible online platforms. Usually, the platforms advertise their voice bots as good for narrating explainer videos, short presentations, documentary voiceovers, and yes, phone messages. They don’t sound all that real, by the way. They sound like bots. But the future has a way of sneaking up on you.

I love working with actors. They always surprise me with their voiceover reads. The best among them always have a story arc in mind when they read, and they execute it so gracefully that I don’t know what’s happening until I listen later and realize the skill they’ve deployed. They bring an emotional arc to the part. They also help me see the weaknesses in my writing. If a line doesn’t work, it’s my fault, and they’ll show me how to fix it by the way they read it.

Bots always read the line the same way. It’s an advantage, when the bot is playing a bot, as in Your Performance Review.

I think we’re a long way out from bots replacing” actors, or taking over a significant piece of the acting work pie. Still, the future can sneak up on you fast. I can imagine a future soon arriving in which live events with podcasts performed like plays will have more value. You’ll know the actors are real because they’ll be there in front of you. VR worlds, like the one that Meta is trying to get us to like, will take a long time to get traction. We spend more time on screens, but the real world is still better.

As Jeff Horwitz, Salvador Rodriguez, and Meghan Bobrowsky, wrote in The Wall Street Journal, Mark Zuckerberg’s collection of virtual worlds called Horizon Worlds is not finding users:

Horizon is designed to be a sprawling collection of interactive virtual spaces, or worlds, in which users appearing as avatars can shop, party and work. Yet there are rarely any girls in the Hot Girl Summer Rooftop Pool Party, and in Murder Village there is often no one to kill.

As John Gruber, writing in his blog Daring Fireball wrote (and my source for the above quote):

No girls at the Hot Girl Summer Rooftop Pool Party, and no one to murder in Murder Village — that really says it all.

It does. It also shows that Zuckerberg has learned nothing since he started The Facebook as an online platform to look at, and evaluate, girls. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a virtual Hot Girls Summer Rooftop Pool Party would be a bro fantasy, and also would be dead in the water.

Thanks for reading,

Lee


(c) Lee Schneider 2022. Take care of each other. Subscribe.