Clubhouse: Everything You Need to Know
How does it work, is it any good, and how quickly will Facebook and Twitter copy its best features?
Clubhouse is a voice-based social network that feels part corporate conference, part conference call, part corporate podcast. You’ve probably heard of it.
I wanted to take a look at how this new approach to social media might affect:
- How we network
- How we communicate
- How we learn
- How we build status (Or social capital, if you will)
Here we go.
I don’t know if you’ve been on social media lately, but let me let you in on a secret. Often, it’s an unpleasant place to be.
Social media can be noisy, combative, and anxiety-inducing.
You might say that’s because social media involves people and people are all of those things.
I would then agree. But as we know, people can be other things too. It’s the reason I follow BBC Earth on Twitter and very little else. Sometimes, people share pleasant content.
There is little of what we could call “social connection” on social media, though. The philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote that totalitarianism feeds off loneliness. This is because in a lonely state we are cut off from human connection.
Worse, today we have social media to fill the void. Worse, because it supplants human connection with a distorted simulacrum that offers very little in the way of actual social activity. We remain atomised, even when supposedly connecting with others.
Part of this problem lies in how the social networks are designed. They are visual platforms, built to promote posts that attract attention. Over time, the social hierarchy on these platforms has solidified, making it harder for new voices to be heard. People fall into line with their existing opinions and “conversations” descend into groupthink.
These days, people are painfully aware that they miss having actual conversations. It has never been clearer that social media does not address that need.
So, does Clubhouse fare any better?
👔 The Facts
- Clubhouse was founded by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth.
- Launched in beta in March 2020.
- iOS-only, for now.
- Invite-only, for now.
- Installed over 2 million times in first week of Feb 2021.
- Free to join, with no ads. Clubhouse is introducing features like tipping and paid rooms, however.
- Backed by Andreessen Horowitz and valued at over $1 billion already (because why not, eh? That’s how valuations work these days. We will “unicorns” into existence).
- “Celebrities” including Drake (musician) and Elon Musk have popped in for a chat.
- It was popular in China, briefly, before it got banned.
- There have already been reports of sexism, racism, and antisemitism. Moderation of live audio is proving tricky.
- The conversations are deleted once the event ends.
👀 Some good overviews of Clubhouse:
Clubhouse FAQ — Washington Post
What is Clubhouse and how can you score an invite? Guardian
📱 The Experience
Clubhouse opens with a short set of options, similar to the opening sequence on TikTok.
You will note the ‘🔥 Hustle’ category at the top. Admittedly, you don’t get that on TikTok.
You pick a few interests and then Clubhouse recommends people to follow. It can look at your Twitter connections and phone contacts, should you wish.
Next, Clubhouse will create an automated list of conversations for you to attend. You can add these to your in-app schedule, or to your Apple/Google calendar.
As you can see here, there are already groups that set up events and invite speakers along for a chat:
The moderators of these conversations are volunteers and they can decide which audience members get to ask questions. They call this “getting on stage”. More on that later.
You can also browse all upcoming events, if you really want to explore the varied meats of our cultural stew.
It’s a mixed bag, is what I’m saying. The gardening one actually sounds pretty good.
Or you can start your own event and invite people:
Once a session starts, you can pop in and listen. It works a lot like a panel session you’d see at any conference, but with the added bonus that you can “leave quietly” at any time. I hopped into this room to hear some advanced matchmaking tips:
I thought it was going to be about matching supply with demand in a platform-based business, but no. It was about how to find your perfect romantic partner.
Apparently one of them was on The Bachelor, which… Well, does that qualify one to give dating advice?
I hit the ‘Leave quietly’ button so loudly, they may have heard me. But that’s the point: you can just move on to other ‘rooms’ until you find something you do want to hear.
For people that spend their days with AirPods in anyway, I can see the appeal. You can have this as background noise, with the odd comment or story cutting through. The sense that the conversation is ‘live’ — and that you can participate at any time — makes it more immediate than listening to a podcast.
Participants are, in theory at least, free to chat informally in a way they never would on Twitter or Facebook. Anyone with a sizeable following on those platforms will carefully plan and consider each post these days, but on Clubhouse they can kick back and chat.
It is also possible to build a community around niche interests here. Facebook has been saying for years that it wants to encourage this kind of organic mini-network, to little avail.
The drop-in nature of Clubhouse removes some of the pressure on event curators too, as they can trial new topics quickly to canvas opinion. If no-one is interested, the conversation disappears at its conclusion and they can move on. It beats setting up a Zoom conference just to gain this knowledge, at least.
Conversations are structured, but they depend on moderators to keep things on track. There are already some jokes about how any Clubhouse meeting can sink to Bitcoin and Tesla chat within five minutes.
For the speakers, Clubhouse is great because there is less concern that an off-the-cuff statement will be turned into a haunting meme. There is a line here, of course: If they go full ‘Michael Richards at the comedy club’, they’re still cooked.
Additionally, speakers can give the air of connecting with their audience, without actually having to do so. On Twitter, for example, anyone can leave a comment under anyone else’s post. Celebrities treat Twitter as a broadcast medium, while wishing to act approachable. How often do they read or comment on their fans’ comments, though?
Clubhouse does not make them play this role. They can talk among themselves and answer the occasional, saccarine question to keep the crowds happy.
👍 The Pros
- You can set up an event to discuss anything on Clubhouse.
Parts of it feel a little like Reddit, where people can discuss niche interests. Some parts feel like LinkedIn, with all the infernal connotations that phrase brings. Others are like Quora, as people discuss little-known facts about the world.
This is where platform design comes in. Can Clubhouse sustain a thriving ecosystem for all of these parts, or will it create a mirror-version of the existing hierarchy on Twitter/Facebook?
- Early adopters can quickly build a following, which has become more difficult on other platforms.
- For some, audio will be the ideal format to connect with new people. Text and images aren’t for everyone.
- It’s perfect for mobile/AirPod listening and it will plug a gap while we continue through lockdown.
- There is more of a thrill to hearing live conversations than listening to podcasts or turning up to a scheduled conference call. Plus voice has an innate intimacy that text (even prose as florid as this) cannot match.
- It is possible to imagine how unexpected interactions could lead to exciting, new conversations. Clubhouse makes it possible to have these spontaneous exchanges, without the same baggage of other online platforms. We could have people with completely different viewpoints engaging in respectful dialogue, like the olden days. We can dream, eh?
👎 The Cons
- Live audio is very difficult to moderate. Livestream video is difficult, but there are improving tools to tackle this. Audio is a continuing challenge and it is left to volunteer moderators here. If Clubhouse doesn’t sort out user safety very soon, it won’t last long.
- Sensationalism tends to win. This format does not reward deep thinking — when people can drop in and drop out so easily, the pressure is on speakers to grab attention. Conspiracy theories have already found a home on Clubhouse.
- The same people hog the mic. You’ll recognise the people, because they’ll be the same people running events on your LinkedIn. I saw little evidence of a new form of social hierarchy developing here and if Clubhouse just becomes a giant corporate networking event, it won’t last long. Most of these people just are not as interesting as they think they are.
- And, of course, the big social networks are already planning to rip off Clubhouse’s best features.
I teach executive education courses where we discuss why big companies don’t see new threats coming. These companies have all the money and all the resources, so why should a start-up cause them trouble?
There are lots of reasons why this happens, some more understandable than others.
When you look at Clubhouse, it’s difficult to have much sympathy for Facebook and Twitter — both of whom are now working on Clubhouse clones. Facebook and Twitter have huge teams of people who are responsible for coming up with new ideas, but they waited for Clubhouse to reach a $1bn+ valuation before announcing similar products.
It has been clear for some time — even to a joker like this newsletter writer — that social media only covers one very small part of what we want from social interactions.
The problem for the incumbents is that audio is risky, which is likely why they have waited for Clubhouse to reach critical mass before asking.
As we have seen above, Clubhouse has its benefits and it is different, but it is still experimental. It’s also small enough to crush.
Mark Zuckerberg popped into a Clubhouse chat, in what many saw as a sign that the app had ‘broken through’. It now seems he was there to pinch the idea. Facebook has announced it is developing a Clubhouse-style product that it hopes will bring some organic interaction back onto the platform. But would you trust Facebook with your audio data?
Twitter, meanwhile, has been working on a new feature called Spaces for a while.
Rémy Bourgoin, a senior software engineer at Twitter, told MIT that the vision is for Spaces to be “as intimate and comfortable as attending a well-hosted dinner party.”
“You don’t need to know everyone there to have a good time, but you should feel comfortable sitting at the table.”
This is imagined as an “additional layer” to the conversations already on Twitter. It seems a more natural milieu for this than Facebook will ever be, even if Twitter remains a fair distance from such a lofty goal itself.
In testing, it looks like this:
It’s very similar to Clubhouse, although it has closed captioning as an added bonus. And of course, Clubhouse’s audience is already on Twitter.
- This is a good article on some new startups that are trying to build audio into the online world. — WIRED
🤔 The Straight Dope
We opened by discussing the human traits that are exhibited on social media today. It is up to these companies to design platforms that encourage the human behaviours they want to see.
Think of it in the same way we would design a building. People act differently when in a comfortable home, as opposed to an abandoned warehouse.
Leaving it as a free-for-all will always see the louder, more aggressive traits win. In the real world, barbarians had the run of the place before we built up some laws and institutions.
Clubhouse has an opportunity to seize the fertile land left by Facebook and Twitter. How it builds on it will define its lasting prospects.
We know Twitter and Facebook will use their existing data and networks as leverage. If Clubhouse simply mimics this framework, stealing its audience will be a straightforward task. The incumbents have all the resources.
Being audio-only is a distinguishing factor, but it can be copied. Clubhouse will need its own form of social capital and a hierarchy built on in-app interactions to create some “switching costs” for its early users.
Clubhouse has plenty of early buzz, but relying on that shaky substance will offer little guarantee of long-term success. Right now, Clubhouse offers a home for conversations that would happen elsewhere in other circumstances. As we return to those old patterns, Clubhouse’s lustre will diminish.
Were I Clubhouse, I’d look to Reddit for inspiration when it comes to organic communities. Reddit offers a place for a wide range of interests and it has steadily grown in popularity.
Clubhouse, unlike Reddit, is highly attractive for corporate customers and this creates options to build a viable business model. But only if it looks beyond its heady, early success to address the clear issues it faces.
In Paris in the 17th century, the marquise de Rambouillet ran the most popular of what would later become known as salons. These conversation evenings started in Italy, but it was in France that they would earn renown.
The word salon was only applied to these forums in the late 18th century, and they remain a byword for high-minded conversation between intellectual luminaries.
Salons were almost always hosted by a woman and the attendance list was curated very carefully. They were unashamedly elitist and, while their hosts claimed they discriminated only based on intelligence and wit, most of the attendees were very posh indeed. You’d find the likes of Voltaire and d’Alembert holding court over canapés.
Salons cultivated an atmosphere of respectful discourse. It was bad form to descend to insults or to talk of vulgar topics. Instead, they promoted playful exchange, with wit the only currency that mattered. Especially since the attendees already had loads of actual money.
Moreover, it was bad form not to participate in conversation. While the likes of Voltaire were the stars of the show, it was not expected that they would dominate the room. They wouldn’t have bored everyone with their “origin story”, that’s for sure.
It is easy to romanticise these traditions, of course. This drawing of an unknown poet reciting his new work at a salon suggests men haven’t changed one jot since then:
“Take a seat, everyone. It’s my turn to speak.”
But I do wonder how we could bring some of that light-but-serious tone to the online world.
I am showing my own bias here, I know. Frankly, I would prefer the rarefied air of the salon to the inarticulate-but-confident monologues of another Clubhouse bro. Clubhouse has a stage and it is often occupied by the same, bombastic men who wouldn’t make it past security at my event.
Perhaps the tech bros are the modern-day draw, in the way that an attendance from Diderot would increase the prestige of a particular salon back then.
Or perhaps these platforms are designed by bros, for bros. If different kinds of people had access to the right tools, they would build a different kind of social network.