Speech Gets Social, But Do Users Want to Talk?

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Though Facebook began as a bare-bones social networking site, it has spawned thousands of applications, millions of member profiles, ad revenue, and a cultural sea change.

In October, U.K.-based speech-to-text (STT) provider SpinVox launched a free service that allows Facebook users to make changes over the phone to their accounts or profiles. But even with Facebook’s 15 billion page views per year, would the site’s mobile user base want to update their profiles, interact with friends, or change status messages using voice?

SpinVox—which boasts an 80 percent retention rate for its voicemail-to-text service and nearly 90 percent for its STT blogging service—hopes its success in those areas will carry over to social networking. "[With SpinVox], you are no longer disconnected when you’re away from your PC," says Daniel Doulton, the company’s chief strategy officer and cofounder. "The majority of mobile phones today are good at allowing you to browse things on the Web, but the problem is the connection back to data entry. Even if you have a nice big keyboard, it’s much easier to speak a message."

But it’s a gamble. Though mobile devices keep users constantly connected to the Web, STT software has yet to venture further than basic applications like SMS, voicemail, and email. Brian Haven, a senior analyst at Forrester Research who specializes in online content and trends, says speech has potential in the mobile telephony space, but must still find its niche within Web 2.0.

"I would be dumbfounded to find more than 3 percent of any company that has voice as part of Web 2.0, or has any research to see if their technology is needed or desired," Haven says. "What you end up with [are] companies with technology searching for a need. Right now social media is the newest, hottest channel, and Facebook seems to be on the insurgence at the moment. They’re going there whether or not it’s a solution people actually need. Six months from now, [if] the whole thing’s a flop, they’ll be wondering what happened."

So far, speech apps via the Internet haven’t caught the Web 2.0 generation’s interest. And with SpinVox planning to offer a paid-subscription option in the near future, some wonder not only if the demand is there, but also whether younger users will pay. Doulton remains optimistic, noting Google’s recent purchase of Grand Central, and Microsoft’s acquisition of TellMe.

"I think what you’re going to see in the next few years is a huge amount of focus on this area—voice and Web converging," he explains. "That’s the first step, but the next step is doing full message conversion between the two domains."

And though opinions from Facebook’s primary user base (ages 18 to  35) tend toward hesitancy in using SpinVox’s program (see The Weigh In at right), Haven notes that the STT application may simply be facing the same reactions older generations had about social networking sites when they first launched. Once thought by some as a silly, time-consuming, and passing fad, today even members of the baby boomer generation have caught on.

"There’s a lot of blurring between 13-year-olds [and the 18-plus demographic], but there’s still some significant differences between the two generations and how they behave," Haven states. "The way they’re going to engage with each other is very different. It’s possible that all this type of interaction, looking forward for that group, is going to be very different. They may use these things—though we think they’re pathetic—but for them, it’s just a different way to interact."

The Weigh In
Would you use SpinVox’s STT service for your Facebook account?
>> "A voice element that reads [Facebook] messages to me out loud would be more valuable than the input option." — Rob Smith, 23, marketing associate.

>> "No, I have an Internet-connected phone. Plus, it’s not gratifying if you can’t see your status update." — Jesse Suchmann, 25, art director.

>> "I think a lot of college kids would use this when they have time to kill, like waiting for the bus when their iPod batteries are dead; things like that. I can’t see myself using a voice element. Ever. It’s creepy when people use it that much." — Dan Thalkar, 21, undergraduate.

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