Is The Future Promising for Clubhouse?
The drop-in audio chat app has seen explosive growth in the social audio movement - but will the hype last for Clubhouse?
Imagine if someone told you that you could join a conversation with the greatest thinkers and celebrities in the world.
Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Elon Musk, Oprah, and more unique minds in your pocket. All you need is a mobile app. This conversation is completely free and curiously unscripted.
None of the scrupulous PR wiping that comes with your favorite talk show or meticulous editing that comes with your favorite podcast. The guards are down, the exigencies exhausted - it’s as if they’re sitting on your couch or at your slumber party. This is raw and honest. Completely unpredictable.
But there’s a twist: you’re not actually allowed to talk. You’re not even allowed to react. Like an immobile statue at a party, you have to simply sit there and listen as these conversations materialize, as if you were a fly on the wall.
What’s more, you’re not even guaranteed the conversations will be particularly interesting. Expecting a riveting story? A unique insight? Your fate is in the hands of a moderator, who might just leave the door open to endlessly vapid monologues.
Oh, one more thing. Did I mention celebrities and greatest thinkers? Sorry, these are actually few and far in between - most of the people leading these conversations will be everyday people.
Some of them might be people who have just reached seven figures of ARR for the first time, crowned themselves into influencers and decided it is now their life mission to make you a millionaire at all costs.
Are you in?
Thus is the story of Clubhouse, a new app that describes itself as an “audio-chat social networking” app. While initially launched in beta in early 2020, Clubhouse has become one of the pioneers in a new trend of social audio that has taken over the internet.
At its face value, social audio seems to offer the incentives of social networking mixed with the incentives of a radio or podcast. Radio and podcasts leave your hands free to multi-task, to work, to run aimlessly around the world while still consuming content. The social networking aspect seems to fill the general social void of podcast or radio consumption - you can not only listen to content, but you can apparently make friends too!
For venture capitalists and people energetic about anything tangentially related to apps, it won’t be hard to convince someone to be bullish on Clubhouse. They’re on pace to hit five million users, they have consistently ranked in the top ten for social networking apps and are apparently even booming in Japan.
But, what will happen in the long run? Will it shift behavior away from other social app use? Become a regular part of our routine?
Is social audio the real deal?
As a frequent listener of Clubhouse, I’ve found both areas I’ve enjoyed and areas where I do feel it’s genuinely failed to live up to hype. But the hype does get me curious - is there a psychological reason Clubhouse will succeed where others haven’t in the past?
Let’s take a deeper dive into the good, bad, and ugly… of Clubhouse.
Why is Social Audio Attractive?
To dig deeper into Clubhouse, I wanted to understand this new concept from a high-level: what makes social audio particularly attractive?
In her piece Why Do Audio Stories Captivate? from the Atlantic, Tiffanie Wen touches on the emotional appeal of listening by sharing some research from communications professor Emma Rodero. Rodero’s research has focused largely on audio storytelling, with the thesis that audio’s incentive comes from its power to stimulate the imagination. She says:
“Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production. And that of course, is something that you can never get with visual media.”
Of course, Clubhouse is not the same as a dramatic audio narration - but the idea of higher brain activation from listening is also a thesis shared by psychologists who studied radio advertising in the boon of the early 1930s.
Walter Neff and Herman Hettinger, authors of Practical Radio Advertising wrote back in the 1930s that “when a man listens to an unseen speaker the situation is simpler, with fewer distractions, and the message is therefore more effective than if the speaker were seen. The speaker's words are less critically analyzed, the relationship is less personal, and the higher mental processes of the listener are slightly dulled.”
In essence, listening leaves you with fewer biases to confront.
Because you aren’t shown visual stimuli, you don’t have to allow them to form your opinion of a speaker beforehand. This also allows us to fill visual gaps the way we want. Professor Gallant takes it a step further in his piece on studying podcast impacts on the brain:
“A living internal reality takes over the brain.”
There’s also the logistical value of audio. Research shows many podcast consumers are efficient multitaskers with over 40% of listening happening while someone is driving, at work, or exercising.
So we know the value of audio - it activates our brain, allows us to focus on content, and allows us to multi-task. But what about the social part?
For being ranked so high in “Social Networking” in the app store, is Clubhouse actually a social app?
For all the incentives that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram offer consumers, it would seem, if anything, Clubhouse offers only the illusion that it’s a social network.
There are people to follow, but a majority of them never create any content. There are prompts to add pre-selected friends from contacts or other apps, but really no incentive to connect with or know strangers. There are topics to follow but no search function and larger no personalized feeds. Even the dopamine receptors that fire off when you get a like on a tweet are absent on Clubhouse - if you’re not a speaker, there is largely no feedback loop to let people know you even exist on the app.
Of course, one could argue that most people don’t want to speak and are perfectly fine just being pawns in a larger social audio movement. There is also research that shows just being excluded triggers negative emotional and sensory processing.
But for those that are bullish about comparing social audio to social media, is there actually a valid argument for this?
There are two incentives of social media that I do think social audio captures well.
One is the idea of bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is a type of connection that links people across typical divides of society (i.e. race, class or religion). You see this on Twitter or Instagram all the time - the content and value you provide on a platform will introduce you to people you may never meet otherwise.
The fact that there is largely no gate to entering a Clubhouse room means you get to access the same conversations as someone at Andreessen Horowitz or a private country club dinner. Sure, it doesn’t automatically mean you’re friends with Marc Andressen, but simply being part of that room means you become suddenly attractive.
I tweeted a week ago about being part of a discussion on Sriram Krishnan’s Good Time show regarding Gamestop and was promptly followed by a flurry of tech operators. (I’m actually curious what the retention rate of this, given the rest of my Twitterfeed is sometimes hot garbage.)
But pause to think about this for a second: I have zero credentials in venture capital. I wasn’t even specifically commenting on the situation. Just being in the room somehow indicated that I was someone to know - and it makes literally no sense. But it’s one thing Clubhouse can definitely offer. Giving you some perverse sense of privilege by just sitting in rooms.
The second value of social media that Clubhouse offers is one that I actually think is a bit alarming - it’s the idea of interreality.
In Psychology of Social Media, researchers talk about how social media shapes identity and creates an interreality - or a mixed reality. It’s basically the idea that you can curate whoever you want to be on social media to create a new identity.
In a way, it’s beautiful - Clubhouse offers someone the chance to create an interreality purely through audio, especially those who are more conscious of appearing on video or posting active written content on social profiles.
But there’s also a dark side - being able to transport your identity means you can aim to sell snake oil. Give people the impression that you’re more powerful or knowledgeable than you are. While Clubhouse offers this opportunity to well-meaning people, it also means hucksters, charlatans, overconfident business zealots and fraudulent thought leaders can create the same interreality.
That’s where we might see problems with the future of social audio.
Will Clubhouse Actually Catch On?
Its uncanny popularity in private beta and an uncharacteristically early investment from Andreessen Horowitz back in early 2020 gave Clubhouse a weapon - scarcity. It could continue to grow the waitlist while its tech stars shined a light on their exclusive experiences within the app.
Soon, Clubhouse invites were as valuable as minted money on the tech side of Twitter - even today, a simple tweet about having an invite will have you bombarded by eager early adopters.
But, we don’t know much about its retention numbers or how they define “active” users. Without a fee or subscription in hand, it’s unlikely that Clubhouse will run into the Quibi problem (90% drop-rate post free trial) but there are still a fair amount of barriers that can turn a new user into a regularly active one.
Here are four flaws of the bat:
Harassment: They’ve drawn regular ire for the amount of unmonitored toxic behavior on the app and a lackadaisical approach to moderation. In a twitter thread, former leader of community and moderation at Quora, Tatiana Estevez writes about the nature of social audio being fast, fluid, and interruptive - making it ultimately hard to block or even flag content. On top of visibly awful behavior, there are also a lot of biases exposed, such as men interrupting women or people cutting people off. In turn, there is no downvote button or lever to pull a monologuing asshole off the stage. In most rooms, not needed. In some, an experience that can lead to immediate churn.
Fraud: A regular trope for Clubhouse continues to be the amount of snake oil and business growth peddlers. Largely born out of the promise of interreality we discussed above, rooms have started popping up for anyone to offer a quick buck or sell arbitrary courses.
Photoshopped Fortune covers, fake checks, and polished headshots are used for signaling assets with glee. Unlike Linkedin, where credentials can be easily verified, or Twitter, where fraud can be slowly erased by full-scale roasting, Clubhouse rooms insulate the interreality into a vacuum that often empowers the fraudsters themselves.
Vanity: While vanity isn’t necessarily a problem, the issues about harassment and fraud don’t really address a majority of the users. One of the largest blocks of complaints is that Clubhouse is, well, kind of boring. In the stead of heavy-hitting debate and conversation, fluff thought leadership often takes the stage. I saw this following tweet that made me reflect a bit on the state of Clubhouse:
For those unfamiliar with the performative and vapid nature of the Linkedin newsfeed, Fadeke Adegbuyi has a great breakdown here of perverse examples. But consider that it, at its core, Linkedin is full of people who want to educate and help others, it’s not hard to make that case for Clubhouse. A lot of business ideas aren’t inherently obvious and that’s fine. But there is another flaw that almost makes Linkedin look more attractive than Clubhouse.
Feedback Loops: I mentioned earlier about how this was largely an incentive of social media that seemed to be nowhere on Clubhouse. If someone posts something strange, derisive, or condescending on Linkedin, they can be met with very strict critique or backlash from the audience. On Clubhouse, there is little to separate the wheat from the chaff. It seems the app might be riding the coattails of its more popular rooms, consistently good conversations around tech and generally safe havens to boot - but in a world where the best content is democratically decided, Clubhouse doesn’t seem to have emoji reacts, user ratings, or anything to even show when a room is collectively eye rolling. As CPG Investor Chris Cantino has noted, competitor Twitter Spaces is already rolling out a number of differentiating features - including emoji reacts and content sharing - to empower its audience.
So while these flaws still circle Clubhouse, I can’t help but think the problem here is not much one about tech. Features are solvable.
It’s a problem about identity.
Clubhouse doesn’t yet know what it wants to be.
In my few weeks of using Clubhouse, I’ve found a lot of smaller rooms I enjoy. There is an amazing marketing clubhouse room moderated by my friends Syed Ali and Chantelle Marcelle, as well as some really insightful rooms I’ve found hosted by Vincenzo Landino and House of Wise Founder Amanda Goetz.
But these are all people I know from Twitter and rooms I found out about on Twitter. It was the interreality and trust they created on Twitter that brought me over to Clubhouse. For close connections and people you already know, there is definitely clear incentive to join their rooms.
I’ve even found joy in storytelling rooms where a group once put together a Lion King musical in December to rave reviews. It hits perfectly at the incentive of radio and podcasts above - the power of auditory stimuli to help us spark visual imagination.
Others I know have mentioned they find fulfillment in rooms for creatives, identity-based rooms and in-industry networking that contains authentic people. The idea of bridging social capital that works well.
But, what does this tell us about Clubhouse?
It’s a social networking app where you mostly trust your friends you met elsewhere. An audio app that rewards both quiet listening and active presence. An app for selling products and career progression that also finds a home for people who just want music, stories, and vibes. As a marketer, I’m not sure I would even be able to accurately brand Clubhouse right now.
Does it want to be a platform for entertainment? For insight? For networking? For product launches? For credential shilling? For all of the above?
Could it be an attractive resource for brands?
When I chatted with Syed, my friend who both works in marketing and moderates chats, he shared my skepticism above around toxicity but also shared his thoughts on its potential in marketing:
I've only recently started seeing brands experimenting with Clubhouse by hosting town halls where they provide an update about the company, or an AMA where they're listening to comments and questions from attendees. The roll of the dice is you have no idea who will join. For brands, you have to ask yourself: Is my audience even there? Is it worth the time and effort?”
He also mentioned the impending re-emergence of society:
“What will Clubhouse usage look like when we can hang out with people again?”
I’m still not entirely skeptical of Clubhouse - but if the Elon Musk chat this past week taught us anything, it’s that Clubhouse will continue to face identity struggle as it grows. What happens when a group of journalists who want hard-hitting analysis and fresh perspective on Elon wrangle against a group of tech devotees who are perfectly keen to hear Elon talk about his email habits or meme consumption? Chaos.
Clubhouse will certainly survive for a long time, at least in part driven by its investor connections, consistently quality smaller rooms, and guests that will spike casual interest in the app. Android users are still waiting to get their chance at the pie. But there are lots of questions about its future, as they use a fresh round of investment to help address some of the feature gaps.
While they’ve grown well, we’ve yet to see any significant exodus from other routines or reduction in its mockery. As Spaces attempts to lean closer into their audience and the disruptive memes grow louder, how will Clubhouse respond?
As new people experiment with the app, they might spin the wheel for a bit - but a wheel can only spin so long once the first network effects die out.