Recently I was the first person in New Zealand to use a new Facebook product called Hotline.
Coming from the social media company's New Product Experimentation (NPE) team, it's somewhat of a hybrid between Clubhouse and Twitch, but is also something that feels very new.
Designed as a q&a app, Hotline sessions consist of a host who schedules it ahead of time and shares a link with their followers. Once it starts, the host presents with audio and optional video, and can 'invite to stage' any of the other participants, which turns their mic on.
Viewers can indicate they have a question at any point by pushing a button and then type a text preview of it, which can be upvoted or downvoted by others before the host decides to invite them to the stage.
The host can also remove inappropriate questions from the queue, kick people out, or make another participant a co-host.
It's interesting to think about how Hotline will actually be used. One thing that leapt to mind was a virtual post-film q&a, seeing as film festivals are looking to remain at least somewhat online in a post COVID-19 world.
But it could also be an amazing way for a musician to interact with fans after debuting a new track.
Cooking or make-up experts could also use it as an interactive teaching tool - the controlled way the questions get to the host could be more convenient than the unruly flood of comments in an Instagram Live or Twitch stream.
"With Hotline, what we're hoping to understand is how live, interactive multimedia q&a sessions can help people learn from experts in areas like professional skills, just as it helps those experts build their businesses," Emilie Haskell, Facebook's NPE communications leader told me via Hotline.
"The goal here is really helping creators grow their businesses and helping people have the type of access to them that they've been asking for."
The session I was in only had five people involved and was a product briefing on Hotline itself, the sort of which I've received dozens in the last year over Zoom, Teams, Webex etc. But the way Hotline works gives the q&a part that follows the presentation a very different feel I'm eager to try in a different context.
Hotline is geared toward 'knowledge experts' who don't yet have enormous followings, but I think it would be most fun when used with people who already have them. There's real potential greatness in this thing if it was picked up by the right people.
I'd love to be in one with a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, a musician like Trent Reznor, or a game director like Neil Druckmann. This format would be so much more satisfying than something like a Reddit AMA and with the way questions can be previewed, it'd actually be better than a live post-film q&a, which often get cringeworthy due to the bizarre questions.
One problem with Hotline compared to other video-driven platforms is how small the video actually is. While conversation is the focus, watching the host clearly isn't, given what a tiny portion of the screen their video takes up - the screenshots in this article give you an idea.
But Facebook already offers Instagram Live and live Facebook video products which have live comment sections, so it makes sense for Hotline not to compete in that space, not to mention how strong a hold Twitch has on the livestream market.
The Clubhouse model has shown huge potential and we're clearly going to be seeing a lot of rival apps out soon. Hotline isn't even Facebook's competitor to Clubhouse, by the way, they have another entirely separate product in development that is very much that.
Hotline is different - it's hard to say from the test session I experienced, but it does seem unique. It has other features like automatically transcribed closed captions which users can toggle on or off. The accuracy of these is hit and miss, like most auto-transcription tools, but it's a nice little bonus.
A text file of that auto-transcription is sent to the host following a Hotline session, in addition to an MP3 audio file and MP4 video. All for free. That content wouldn't be copyrighted, either, so the creator could re-edit it and repost it anywhere else they wanted.
In terms of monetisation, currently Facebook isn't planning to offer any within Hotline itself, but will allow hosts to restrict sessions to paid subscribers from a third-party service. But if a host only shares the session's unique link with their Patreon or Substack customers, for example, any of those people could share it publicly and that'd let anyone in.
Interestingly, you use Twitter to login to this Facebook product. That's said to be because the 'knowledge experts' it's targeting mostly use Twitter to communicate with their followers.
For now at least, the Hotline team will be listening in to every session, making sure no participant breaks its or Facebook's rules. That's on top of the moderation the host does themself. But it's important to note that hate speech and anything criminal won't be allowed on the platform - go back to 4chan if that's what you're into.
Facebook's NPE department is making apps that are for use on their own, outside of Facebook entirely. By the looks of things Hotline won't even require people to have a Facebook account to use it, so even if you hate Facebook that may not be a reason not to try Hotline.
But who would want to try Hotline anyway? That'll all come down to who hosts sessions on it. If you're a fan or want to learn from someone and they announce they're holding a Hotline, getting into it could be really rewarding.
If nobody you're interested in gets on Hotline, well, there's not much point in it for you.
Will Hotline blow up like TikTok, or will it flop like Google Plus? It could go either way. Most likely it'll fall somewhere in between, becoming a well-loved niche for certain groups while being ignored by the masses.
Whatever the case, it's an interesting product that could be cool and I'm curious to see how it goes.