Clubhouse’s Allure and Pitfalls as the New Social Media Sensation

To understand the unexpected social media phenomenon that the drop-in, audio-only app Clubhouse has become, all you have to do is look at its growth—up from 10,000 users to 10 million in five months time. This, despite the fact that it’s still in beta, and can only be joined by invitation, on iPhone.

Recalling the early-aughts days of Gmail, at least some of Clubhouse’s allure stems from this perceived exclusivity. No invitation? Join a waitlist, just like at an exclusive restaurant or nightclub. The purpose is to allow smaller groups of users to test it out and iron out kinks, sure, but it’s also a classic psychological paradigm: If not everyone can have it, more will desire it.

So while Clubhouse is being described by media outlets like Vogue, Vox and Wired as “buzzy” and “out of control,” in reality, it’s the coverage itself that is buzzy. The actual time I’ve spent on the app itself, in a mirror of human interaction, ranges from absorbing and interesting to tiring and mundane. Running the gamut from university seminar to idle gossip, Clubhouse can appeal to both our highest natures and lowest indulgences—and everything in-between.

In the Zoom age, the way Clubhouse removes visual focus—you can only see other participants’ tiny headshots—the stress of setting up the right lighting and background, applying the right makeup or wearing the right shirt, is removed.

Unlike podcasts and call-in radio, it allows for immediate democratic participation, via hand-raising. Panels are run with speakers and listeners, with moderators calling people to the “stage” and the ability to expel trolls or anyone violating guidelines. Users have the option to listen, learn and be entertained while cooking dinner or doing the laundry, and perhaps chime in.

It’s a stark contrast to social media that requires eyes on screen and constant, addictive infinite scrolling. Clubhouse’s audio-only aspect allows for fluidity and spontaneity, as opposed to the stiltedness of Zoom work meetings or happy hours, and those little boxes that leave us never quite knowing where to look, not to mention seeing our own image reflected back at us.

But what is actually deeply innovative about Clubhouse is the portal it opens to talk in real-time with people all over the world (well, not China, where the app is banned), on any topic, at the click of an icon. Following a year of so much isolation, what feels more urgent and necessary than to listen and be heard?

From coworking spaces to NFT art, talk is rampant everywhere on Clubhouse, bringing back memories of a pre-Covid, louder world. There are “clubs” about everything: science fiction, travel, therapy, comedy, creativity, politics, languages, religion, veganism and a vast amount of tech. Investing, venture capital, startups, AI—there’s a club for that. A few recent conversations: “All things Jane Austen,” “Blogging & Podcast Collabs: Let’s Feature Each Other,” “Today in Democracy,” “Elon Kanye, Emojis and NFTs.”

Social products ask of us the ultimate investment—time—and people are making it on Clubhouse. Perhaps, following a year in isolation, the sound of voices and gathering for spontaneous conversation in groups seems novel and extreme. After all, a year of Covid quarantines has left many of us starved for group discussion and the ability to eavesdrop on interesting conversations, whether that’s random chatter the next table over in a restaurant, or attending panels at professional conferences.

Clubhouse Rules

So is an all-talk social platform exactly what we need now? Long after the buzz dies down and it’s one other app next to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok, will the platform increase empathy, connection and thought exchange as a democratic forum for conversations that matter? Or will it just be more noise and one more thing for influencers to monetize?

When I snagged one of those coveted invites, I binged on Clubhouse and spoke with a handful of startup entrepreneurs and other early adopters to find out.

I was excited about “Townhall Italia,” the first stop on “Clubhouse World Tour,” an effort to host town halls to orient international users, and for co-founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth to answer their questions via a translator. “Townhall Italia” was an auditory mini-voyage to Italy from my living room, and an ideal introduction to the platform as Clubhouse’s energetic (sometimes to the point of sounding very, very excited) co-founder Davison, who studied engineering at Stanford and worked at Google, explained his creation to Italian influencers.

Clubhouse’s other co-founder, Seth, also a Stanford engineering graduate previously of Google, was also present, but on mute. Seth is the quieter of the two, in contrast to Davison’s extroversion and excitable manner that’s palpable even on an audio-only platform. The two met in the tech world and immediately bonded, working on social product ideas together. Clubhouse is the one that took off.

“Clubhouse is a new type of social network based on voice where people all over the world come to talk and learn from each other in real time,” Davison says in the Italian town hall. “Voice is at the base of civilization. We want anyone to be able to sit down for a meaningful conversation with anyone else. We want to build something that’s different from existing networks.” That means one that’s “not based on likes and follows and social media managers, but authentic human connection.”

However, it’s still a follower-based system, replete with its own influencers already. As Davison says in the town hall, pathways to monetization are already being paved.

“Our goal is to create a more human network where you can close the app feeling better than when you opened it because you have met new people, made friends and learned,” he says. “Any room you see in your home feed, you are encouraged to join, people want you to join. If you’d like to speak, just raise your hand, otherwise you can sit back and listen. The goal is to keep it very casual.”

The Italians responded with enthusiasm. During a time when sociable culture in Italy had to largely shut down, what would have traditionally been large gatherings, such as the Sanremo Music Festival—which in 2021 was held without a live audience for the first time because of Covid-19—happened on Clubhouse. Speaking of music, the room took on a festive atmosphere as popular Italian musical duo Daudia popped in to perform a brief song they wrote about ... Clubhouse.

COME TOGETHER The Clubhouse app has become a social media sensation by evolving the art of conversation. But will it end up being an echo chamber? (Design by Kara Brown)

Open Source

The founders’ omnipresence—open discussion about the app, their hopes for it and plans for what lies ahead (Android version, opening it up more, monetization and solutions for content moderation to curb racist, sexist and anti-Semitic commentary)—is rare among the social media platform-founder landscape of reserved enigmatic figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey.

Seth and Davison have started hosting town halls and provide onboarding presentations for new users the world over. I lived in Italy as a kid and hearing the language in a way that sounded as if I was there again was heartwarming. Such is the Clubhouse effect: Listening in on a live town hall with a social media app’s founders, accessible and on the platform constantly, while getting a refresher in your second language, doesn’t happen on static, visual infinite-scroll sites.

The most memorable rooms during my month-long Clubhouse deep-dive, though, were the Plant-Based Food and Wellness Community’s “Ask a Pediatrician,” featuring plant-based pediatrician and emergency wilderness responder Dr. Atoosa Karoush (which reinforced my choice to raise my kids vegan with evidence-based information from the recognized expert) and “Lucid Dreaming as a Complement to Meditation,” hosted by digital health strategist and lucid dreaming enthusiast Tony Estrella and Minh Do, an engineering professor at the University of Illinois.

While there is undoubtedly a place for the ubiquitous “what should Clubhouse be” or “how to promote your content,” the endless possibilities of what we can learn by listening and participating in Clubhouse communities designed to educate are fascinating in themselves.

Despite the constantly available topics as varied as conversation itself (when it is found out that Facebook is making a Clubhouse copy, a room immediately springs up to talk about what it means) much of the discussion so far seem to be about Clubhouse itself: how to use it, moderate and build a following on the app, monetize content (when there is a means to do so) and so forth. A group called “Clubhouse Undercover'' offers users tips under categories such as “Understand Social Dynamics” and “Utilize the Psychology of How the App is Used,” hosting a panel on “The Keys to Growth on Clubhouse.”

Talk and Mirrors

Bay Area hospitality expert Emillio Mesa is listening. Pre-Covid, the host, event planner and freelance writer’s tagline for his highly rated dinner parties was “The Art of Conversation.” Mesa has organized events and dinners for Google, Facebook and the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, among others. (His name literally translates from the Spanish for “table,” he points out, suggesting his hosting destiny.)

Mesa also had a pre-Covid career niche curating small-group dinners out of his San Francisco home. Attendees booked the intimate events Airbnb style via EatWith, through various Silicon Valley-based companies Mesa did events production for, or personal connections. Mesa’s dinners were akin to a live version of Clubhouse. Politics, immigration, gender and social justice were frequent topics. The pandemic upended Mesa’s literal tables, but Clubhouse provided a tool for the host to pivot.

“It’s very similar to what I used to do, but in a virtual space,” he says. He sees Clubhouse’s success as an interesting byproduct of the pandemic, calling it “the next wave in social media,” because it “takes it back to warm communication with people. There’s only so much you can do via a post with images. This is not about how you look or write. It’s about how you sound and what you say. It’s soothing.”

(Side-note on the topic of soothing: as one might expect, there are a slew of clubs devoted to helping you fall asleep at night. Perhaps after the pandemic, the simple sound of voices also has an increased ability to soothe.)

“This strips everything completely,” Mesa says. “It’s who you are and what you have to say. People listen and it’s a lot more direct because it’s just about the person, not an image. What’s in your heart and mind? What are you doing and what do you say about it?”

Mesa is inspired by Felicia Horowitz’s weekly “Virtual Dinner Parties.” Horowitz, one of Clubhouse’s biggest influencers with 4.3 million followers, is married to tech investor Ben Horowitz, who, along with Marc Andreessen, formed Andreessen Horowitz, which raised new funding in a Series B round for Clubhouse through its General Partner Andrew Chen.

In his essay on investing in Clubhouse, Chen writes, “Because you’re listening to people talk, Clubhouse is about a real-time exchange of ideas, not just consuming highly edited, static content.”

This is the precise quality Santa Cruz-based photographer and designer Jules Holdsworth, who has a following of more than 11,000 on her Facebook “Infertility Awareness” group and a Clubhouse club of the same name, most appreciates about the product.

“In the past they have wanted me to host podcasts and YouTube channels, but I’m not comfortable talking at people,” she says. “Clubhouse allows me to talk with people and interact with them on a level podcasts and YouTube don’t.”

She has also found her community already on there. “I went into a club someone else was hosting about infertility. When I got onstage and introduced myself, the moderator said she had followed my Facebook page for years and was honored to have me. I nearly fell out of my chair! The ability to communicate in real-time, hearing people's tone of voice, makes it a very rich experience. It's a way to socialize with people from a distance during a very isolating time of a pandemic.”

For Holdsworth, the drawback is trolling, especially as her club is about a sensitive topic. “On Clubhouse, you don't have control of who is listening to you, so I do feel exposed in that regard,” she says.

So far, it’s been self-policing, with users able to report violations, though Clubhouse’s blog reports they are at work on security improvements, ways of reporting inappropriate behavior and moderators’ ability to end rooms. “Some trolls come in rooms and spout obscenities until a moderator kicks them out,” Holdsworth says. “I’ve heard it several times. A woman trolling a room claimed she was locked in the basement by her boyfriend and needed help. The mod offered help, then the troll yelled racial obscenities. The mod handled it with grace and reported the troll. It did throw the room off for a bit.”

CONVERSATION STARTER Jared Truby, co-owner of Santa Cruz’s Cat & Cloud, initially found the discussions on Clubhouse to be ‘annoying a lot of the time,’ but he saw its potential after starting a room for specialty coffee enthusiasts that kicked off worldwide discussions. (Photo by Keana Parker)

Virtual Soapbox

Not every early adopter sees Clubhouse as the world’s best chance at a more sincere form of social. Journalist Ian Kumamoto, who writes for Vice, The New York Times and Business Insider, is concerned about how many conversations “get off the rails” and lead to “rambling,” with rooms favoring “people who already talk a lot, not necessarily the ones with the most important things to say,” he says. Whose perspectives will be drowned out in all the noise?

“It’s tapping into a zeitgeist,” says Jonathon Feit, co-founder and chief executive of Beyond Lucid Technologies, a Silicon Valley medical software startup currently working on Covid vaccination tracking systems. “But you end up with the same issue of noise. I can look at someone’s Twitter on their profile and send them a DM, except every other person in the room is doing the same thing.” He adds that, from a startup perspective, “Going from a zero to nine hundred million dollar valuation, you skipped a lot of steps along the way.”

When he first logged in, Feit remembers thinking “This thing seems like Silicon Valley hype.” But exploring the platform, he says, “I started seeing an enormous number of people on this thing—more than I expected. I bit the bullet and gave into the wave. I focus on venture and healthcare, that’s what I look for.”

Entering a room about healthcare in underserved markets, the topic of emergency services in rural healthcare came up, Feit’s area of expertise. The moderator knew who Feit was and made him a speaker. Feit ended up giving an impromptu talk about the role of ambulance services in rural spaces during Covid.

Feit likens Clubhouse to a “21st Century version of a guy on the soapbox in the town square, talking to whoever wants to listen about whatever was interesting. If 99% of the stuff on Clubhouse is garbage and 1% turns out to be great, is it worth it? That’s very apropos of so much of venture and so much of innovation in general. You throw stuff against the wall and all it takes is the one person in the room that says, ‘actually I totally need to talk to you.’ And then next thing you know you’ve got a check, you’ve got a customer, you’ve got a partner, you’ve got something. So I have to give them credit for creating occasions. I think they’ve done it somewhat accidentally, and where the growth curve becomes a problem. It’s an interesting addition to the toolkit when you can’t meet people at conferences, you can’t go get on a plane.”

He recalls, in pre-Covid times, meeting someone on a plane to Phoenix who then became an important collaborator. “You don’t do that if you’re not sitting on planes or in the hotel lobby. So this provides occasions, and as such, it’s useful. The question is how useful it becomes. It’s creating noise, but out of the noise you can find a way to create a path.”

Coffee Talk

Over in a very different room in another industry—specialty coffee—Jared Truby of Cat & Cloud talks about missions and values, coffee and culture, and “connecting to farmer-producers and the ethics of buying coffee.” Truby received his invite from an entrepreneur who follows his podcast.

“When I jumped on,” he says, “most rooms were filled with shark-tank-like vibes and famous people talking to famous people while normal people listened. I found it interesting that you could look at profiles and learn about all people in a room while listening, but the content was annoying a lot of the time: how to level up, pitch me your idea, here’s how to make a million dollars from CEO’s...blah blah blah. All of those approaches were so ‘look at me’ disguised as how to help. The cool thing is that everyone was polite, the annoying thing is it was looking like marketing in disguise of philanthropy. So I started a room with the hopes of doing a Q&A and attracting some other specialty coffee people.”

Truby got engagement from around the world. “Friends who have been in specialty for 20 years along with people who are known by name can get together, talk and share. This is where there can be so much positivity. The connections, the learning and the progression to better are on the table, if the moderators set a good tone.”

Truby’s favorite Clubhouse moment so far was when Nick Cho, known on TikTok as “your Korean dad” and an old coffee friend of Truby’s, asked about his approach, mission and values in business. “It allowed for an honest share and peek behind the curtain. The response from the listeners and participants was huge. Oftentimes, values are buzzwords used to market a business and I was allowed to share how ours can help people who work with us as well as our guests and partners. I ended up having to leave, but came back two hours later and the discussion had kept going, it kept evolving.”

Ultimately, Clubhouse’s drawbacks and benefits may be one and the same. If Clubhouse mirrors society, it’ll most likely be a matter of what room you happen to be in. “A truly helpful room can be a place of connection that outlasts the creator,” says Truby. “That’s a great ideal. It’s a platform with as much potential as you are able to create yourself. You just have to know what you’re trying to get out of it.”

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