Portrait of a Clubhouse skeptic
11 min read

Portrait of a Clubhouse skeptic

I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!
Portrait of a Clubhouse skeptic

A song to read by: “Everyone,” by Van Morrison

What I’m reading: “The Sympathizer,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Clubhouse in the dog house

On Sunday night, Elon Musk did to Clubhouse what Kim Kardashian did to the internet circa 2014. After Musk announced that he would be speaking in a room on the popular audio app, tech Twitter went bananas, and Clubhouse rooms quickly formed to talk about the Clubhouse rooms that would soon form to discuss Musk’s Clubhouse room.

When the rocket whisperer logged on at 10 p.m. Pacific, his chat room quickly reached its 5,000-person capacity. Two overflow rooms, where others live-streamed footage of the Clubhouse room where Musk was speaking, popped up to accommodate the throngs of Tesla Tequila aficionados. Tech journalist Casey Newton called the event “Clubhouse’s moment,” and the late-night session was to blame for many East Coast tech writers showing up bleary-eyed to work the next morning.

While eye-catching, Musk’s appearance on the app was just the latest in a series of Next Big Thing christenings that Clubhouse has received in the last month.

According to The Information, Clubhouse surpassed a billion-dollar valuation last month, despite having only 2 million registered users, no Android version, zero revenue, and being invitation-only. On Twitter, “Join us as we talk about X on Clubhouse” tweets have become commonplace. My colleagues at Insider are discussing YouTube drama, Shane Dawson, Jeffree Star, and Trisha at 1 p.m. Eastern tomorrow, and I participated in a Clubhouse discussion last Friday centered on the creator economy.

And last week, two Clubhouse conversations set the agenda for tech gossip Twitter: a group of Silicon Valley techno-optimists took on San Francisco’s uncouth DA in a no-holds-barred, impromptu argument over how to solve the city’s crime issues; and a “Tech vs. the Media” dialogue featuring Casey Newton, Taylor Lorenz, Kevin Roose, Margit Wennmachers, Sonal Chokshi, and others captivated listeners, as the two parties traded verbal slings and arrows for all to hear.

However, for all the hype surrounding the app, there has been a suspicious lack of critical press surrounding its rapid ascent. Journalists like Lorenz were quick to identify an immediate problem plaguing the app — content moderation — and rightly so: Clubhouse has found itself an unwitting host to hate-filled, anti-Semitic, and misogynist conversations. In a Jan. 21 blog post, Clubhouse obliquely addressed these issues, but color me skeptical.

Still, excepting this issue, the buzz around Clubhouse has been disproportionately positive. There are, of course, several explanations for this.

Because the app is invite-only, early feedback is coming exclusively from people who opted to use it, which increases the likelihood that such insights will be cheery.

The invitation-based access also means that like-minded early adopters are sharing the platform with other like-minded early adopters, and what’s to dislike about an app filled with people who work in a similar field, make a similar wage, and share a similar worldview?

In recent months, the platform has also been permeated by the kind of hustle-culture brain rot that emerges from any platform that mixes social media and professionalism (Here’s looking at you, LinkedIn). Clubhouse has not yet devolved into an audio version of the most hellish social media on the planet, but there is a strong possibility that it could.

In this culture of capitalist brinkmanship, where ROI is roi, venture capitalists and tech founders reign supreme. Users speak breathlessly about the possibility that a venture capitalist might grace a room with their presence, and founders’ offhand opinions are treated like the word of god. So, if you are a tech professional, founder, or venture capitalist, what’s not to like?

Well, plenty. For a detailed analysis of the platform’s pros and cons from a product standpoint, this piece from The Information’s Sam Lessin is the perfect place to start. But Lessin’s overview overlooks some key issues baked into the Clubhouse concept. So, below are four reasons why I’m still skeptical about Clubhouse.

Limitless bloviation

The nature of Clubhouse rewards a certain type of conversationalist, and those who are unafraid to throw themselves into conversations will find themselves right at home on the platform. While we often praise people who can jump fearlessly into chats with strangers, the real world and the audio world differ in key ways.

On Clubhouse, there are no visual cues or body language, so you have no idea how many people you cut off by adding another thought to your previous point. The lack of physical feedback encourages the conversationally aggressive to dominate dialogues, creating an environment where the least socially aware are the most likely to do the talking. There is no way to measure your listeners’ reaction, to gauge their interest, to see their ears perk up: Without this kind of visual data, even the best speakers will struggle to meaningfully connect with their listeners.

Good conversation is a dance, not a lecture, and Clubhouse fails to make that distinction.

I try to be generally deferential in conversation, to let the other party speak and to respond to their inquiries, especially around strangers. I think this habit makes for a good journalist, but on Clubhouse, in a conversation full of participants who consider silence an invitation to speak, it will only leave you silent and unenthused.

Compounding this issue is the fact that there are precious few ways to get someone to stop talking. Conversations have moderators who are imbued with the power to move speakers from the stage to the audience, as well as to mute speakers. In practice, I have never seen someone muted or reprimanded for speaking ad nauseum.

In a room full of adults, most of whom are strangers, it would take an egregious act to push a moderator into an action so punitive that it feels plucked out of a schoolroom. Instead, moderators offer general calls to “keep responses short” and interject when the loquacious pause to draw breaths.

In reality, the only real restrictions on how long someone can speak are the socially unspoken ones, the ones that govern polite behavior. As we saw from January 2017 to January 2021, when an individual fails to recognize unspoken rules, they become meaningless.

In Clubhouse, if the wrong person gets the floor, what started as a conversation quickly begins to resemble a filibuster.

Imagine a Ted Talk, but from someone whose points are uninteresting and whom you never wanted to hear from in the first place. Enjoy!

Call on me, maybe?

Have you ever taken a class where the professor called on people at random? Even if you are prepared, the need to be ready at a moment’s notice can trigger an adrenaline rush, or at least an elevated pulse.

On Clubhouse, the same thing happens, but this feeling of being on edge can last for hours. This might be more of a personal reflection than a universal sentiment, but not knowing when I will speak but having to be prepared to speak at any moment does not relax me, nor does it bring me pleasure. It makes me unbearably nervous, my heartbeat climb and my palms sweat.

On top of this unpredictability, there is a special kind of stage fright that comes from having to speak in front of dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of strangers — all without being able to see their faces. I have seen some writers dismiss this concern, saying that the nature of Clubhouse is informal and that no one needs to feel pressure to perform or offer incisive commentary.

To that I would counter: That’s not really how it works.

If I am speaking in front of hundreds of people, I feel the need to say something compelling, something that makes their time spent listening to me worth it. To believe otherwise is not brave, it’s overconfident.

If you have arrived at a point in your life where you think that your off-the-cuff remarks are worth others waiting hours to hear, you might need a little dose of ego death. Yes, your adoring fans might wait patiently to lap up your every syllable, as was certainly the case with Elon and the Muskovites, but looking to your acolytes for behavioral clues is a first-rate path to megalomania.

If you feel no pressure, no obligation at all, to prepare something cogent when speaking to hundreds of people, you might be overvaluing the importance of your thoughts.

The conversations are boring

Lessin describes this phenomenon in a creative, quantitative turn of phrase, calling it “lower-quality-per-minute conversations,” but most folks will recognize this problem by its street name: boringness. Most conversations on Clubhouse are boring. Even the good ones are mostly boring. Conversations are, by and large, boring!

This could change as Clubhouse rooms develop scripts and recurring formats, but as of now, the back-and-forths have all the appeal of small talk on a crowded elevator. This is inevitable, as even talented performers would struggle to make an hour’s worth of spontaneous conversation interesting. But the problem persists, and it is hard to overlook.

Lessin offers some interesting solutions. At the moment, Clubhouse conversations are not recorded or stored. This adds to the “you had to be there” appeal of the platform, but the app could benefit from saving and indexing its conversations. For one, if chats were recorded, others could rifle through them, pick out the interesting parts, and compile them into a clip. Or, if chats were saved and indexed, someone could search through them based on keywords or topics.

Either way, Clubhouse faces the same challenge podcasts do: for a user to give something a fair try, they have to invest half an hour of their life. This creates a high bar for discovery, which is why Clubhouse’s push notifications use the names of speakers to entice you: I don’t know whether “Influencers on Mental Health” will be appealing, and neither does Clubhouse, but if people I know are there, then maybe it will be worth it.

Clubhouse works well … in quarantine

The audio-centric nature of Clubhouse has dramatic implications for when and how you can use the app.

If users want to add their voice to a conversation, they must be in a physical surrounding that allows them to speak. This is somewhat possible while working from home, but impossible from an office. They also need to have headphones or AirPods in, making it a challenge to politely use Clubhouse while around others.

Both of these caveats — the need for privacy and total concentration to participate — mean that Clubhouse suits quarantine just fine, but what about when real life returns? A glimpse of Instagram brings a fleeting burst of serotonin, but a second’s worth of Clubhouse is meaningless. Will you then, at night, leave your family in the other room so you can pop your headphones in and listen to strangers swapping their valuable thoughts on the news of the day?

In many ways, Clubhouse is the anti-Quibi: Where one counted on normal life and flopped in quarantine, the other is killing in quarantine but poised to flop in normal life.

Clubhouse also demands an above-average level of attention from its users, which makes it challenging to use it and multitask, leaving you to either eschew the app or give it your undivided attention.

If you choose the latter route and focus solely on Clubhouse while using it, prepare for a disaster; paying strict attention to a product whose second-to-second appeal is lower than any other social app on the market is a surefire route to mind-numbing boredom.

For example, the other day I told my girlfriend I was joining a Clubhouse chat I had been invited to. An hour of me staring at my phone later, I had not spoken a word. My heart was racing — I was primed for a question at any moment! — and I was irritated. It’s one thing to open Instagram or Twitter, see nothing of interest, and close the app. It’s another to devote your complete attention to an app for an hour and gain nothing from it.

Finally, there is the issue of Clubhouse’s synchronous content. While some Clubhouse rooms are beginning to function like nightly or weekly recurring events, most of the conversations at this point are spontaneous or casually planned. Unlike podcasts, whose asynchronous nature allows you to queue them up and listen when you find the time, Clubhouse does not run on your schedule. Clubhouse rooms fire off like synapses, one after another, in erratic order, and none of it can be saved, shelved, or revisited.

When commutes and daily life return, people will once again have a few parceled-off periods of the day in which they can listen to audio entertainment. If there are no good Clubhouse conversations at those exact times, the app is far less valuable than a podcast platform or music-streaming service. The very characteristic that makes it so appealing — its real-time nature — will make it challenging for listeners to fold it into their lives when reality returns.

Three reasons to like Clubhouse

In fairness, the platform does have three intriguing components.

First, it is extremely authentic. While just about every other kind of social media — from tweets to photos to videos — can be ghost-produced, real-time audio is impossible to fake. When a celebrity shows up to speak, they are actually the ones speaking. That’s worth keeping.

Second, while I will be caught dead before I refer to Clubhouse as “democratic” or “accessible,” its emphasis on audio does open the doors for the writing-averse to participate in the marketplace of terrible ideas. Those who might feel uncomfortable or unable to articulate themselves through writing get the short end of most social media sticks, but Clubhouse is a welcome exception. I can appreciate the novelty of that.

(On Twitter, Ann-Marie Alcántara of the Wall Street Journal offered an interesting point about this feature. The audio-only nature of Clubhouse, absent any transcription of the conversation, makes the app inaccessible to the deaf community.)

Third, from a business standpoint, I am excited to see how Clubhouse monetizes. In a post from the company, the founders point to three methods — tipping, subscriptions, and ticketing — as potential vehicles for making money.

The key word there is the one they left off: advertising. Will Clubhouse be the first ad-free social platform? I would love to see that, as I think it builds a much healthier ecosystem. If Clubhouse can make money without ads, it can avoid the data-harvesting that fueled social media 1.0.

In summation

The main takeaway is: Clubhouse might not be for me, but it could be for you. From a product standpoint, it achieves exactly what it set out to do — I just don’t love the end result.

The kinds of interactions Clubhouse facilitates give me anxiety and seem likely to empower the brazen, the un-self-conscious, the anxious to offer their opinion. A battle royale conversational format might be the pinnacle of entertainment for some, but for me it is a source of stress that only encourages participants to be louder, brasher, quicker, and more aggressive.

Social media networks always try to “hack” human conversation by upending some integral part of it — send messages without context, create videos for strangers, edit casual photos into oblivion — only to find out that the thing they cut out is an integral part of what makes those interactions enjoyable in the first place.

Speaking without seeing is novel, and it certainly offers a much-needed source of friendly banter in quarantine, but the appeal of Clubhouse is confined to a subset of people who think speaking and communicating are synonyms. For the rest of us, at least there’s Bro.

Some good readin’

— The artist formerly known as Everything is now … Every! (Business Insider)

— This piece on The Washington Post building outs its video team to drive subscriptions via Instagram — a Facebook product! — is giving big “fool me twice energy.” (Digiday)

— Nextdoor isn’t killing local news, but it is filling in its shoes. (OneZero)

— The best take on the Robinhood debacle includes this line: “The American idea is about starting over. It’s about burning the bridges to the corruption of the old world and being reborn as free men, only to find that the corruption is inside us, too.” (Tablet Mag)

— It simply does not get any richer than a journalist telling other journalists to tweet more, and yet still tweet less. Got it. (The New York Times)

Cover image: “Ohhh ... Alright ...” by Roy Lichtenstein