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The ups and downs of Clubhouse

Trying to merge intimacy and scale in an audio-only setting

Clubhouse is an attempt to build a new, audio-interaction-only kind of social network. Sure, there is Discord, popular in the gaming community, and don’t forget podcasts have been on the rise for some time now, with podcasters strongly advocating for the power of audio.

When we looked at media trends and predictions for 2021, audio was on the shortlist for “things we need to invest in more.” It’s been a growing presence on media managers’ radars for a few years, now.

Nowadays, it is easy to start a podcast. There is free hosting by with almost seamless distribution to major podcast platforms – and regular people actually know how podcasts work.

Clubhouse takes the whole audio experience forward, in some ways, and in some ways reminds me of the old times when whole families used to sit around the radio in the living room.

How Clubhouse uses FOMO

It all started off quite harmlessly. Posts from friends and people I follow on social media saying they will be using this new app to talk about such and such topic at 20:00 with other people.

Many of the people engaged in those future conversations have been fairly popular personalities. The kind you would want to listen to.

To explain, let me go back to the first communities that occupied Clubhouse and the controversies that have plagued the app and its founders.

One of the first reports on Clubhouse mentioned that:

Clubhouse blew up this weekend on VC Twitter as people scrambled for exclusive invites, humble bragged about their membership, or made fun of everyone’s FOMO. For now, there’s no public app or access. The name Clubhouse perfectly captures how people long to be part of the in-crowd.

For a couple of months – and one can argue even today – the app has been spreading among like-minded individuals with high public profiles.

Some used the free invites that came with being on the platform to boost their engagement on social media (“I have a Clubhouse invite, leave me a comment and I will choose a winner”), after which the app opened also to ordinary folks.

From the very beginning Clubhouse’s value proposition has been, first – here are the elites, and second – connect with famous people (and the rest) in an intimate audio-only way. Somehow, it  feels like this is still the case, even now when Clubhouse has reached more than 2 million active users and a $1 billion valuation.

The creators of the app have been criticized for not having clear community guidelines from the start. This gap resulted in the abuse of a journalist by venture capitalists, or a conversation that led to accusations of spreading anti-Semitism.

This all feels very out of sync with the trends of the last few years. We applauded Tristan Harris for pushing tech giants to focus on well-being. We fell in love with Netflix (and all streaming services) because of their convenience and on-demand ‘watch whenever you want’ philosophy. That’s also why podcasts have been so successful.

Modern society adopted on-demand culture to the fullest extent.

Now there is a disruptor that (re)introduced the FOMO (fear of missing out) that we have worked so hard to put behind us.

FOMO is like a drug, you know it is bad for you but you cannot control yourself. The first few nights I finally got an invite to Clubhouse I was frantically changing rooms (that’s how conversations are called on the app, you set up a room, invite people, and talk).

There were a lot of discussions that seemed valuable going on, I did not want to miss out on them. Also, I screened future conversations (you can create a future event in the app and let others know in advance) and added a few to my calendar.

I also left notifications on (big mistake). So my phone kept reminding me with notifications on an almost hourly basis that I am missing out on another interesting conversation.

The FOMO on Clubhouse is strong.

Clubhouse vs. Twitter Spaces

Sure, you can have a very chill conversation on Clubhouse without pushing too much for high attendance. For some friends, it has legitimately become a virtual club to hang out.

One of my contacts on social media has described his experience on Clubhouse like this: It is a place where you start a conversation with friends about drugs, space, and school canteen nostalgia, and end up talking about the future of AI with a member of the European Parliament.

Sounds great, right?

The combination of scarcity, high profile users, and audio-only interaction do make Clubhouse stand out, for now. As The Information reported last year, Silicon Valley has noticed the success of the app, and there are already dozens of audio-startups looking to replicate the Clubhouse buzz.

But maybe the biggest contender is Twitter. The social media platform has been testing Spaces, a Clubhouse lookalike, since last winter.

You wouldn’t find many similarities between the two but here is what Twitter has that Clubhouse is trying to build from scratch – the social graph.

Twitter has hundreds of millions of users worldwide, it is already known by everyone and many popular Clubhouse conversation hosts have large Twitter followings, yet they usually draw crowds in hundreds. If they could suddenly get the message to their followers via notification, I am sure there would be at least thousands listening.

Twitter Spaces is still in beta, and apparently, the testing program is open if you want to join.

Will see what happens once Clubhouse gets to go head to head with Twitter. It’s not just me who sees a very similar story to what happened to Snapchat once Instagram shamelessly decided to copy the popular stories format.

The Audio full circle

One possible future for audio apps in the post-corona world is going for a niche market. Some will turn to event apps, providing a platform for an audio-only experience for busy managers glued to their computer screens but who don’t mind listening in.

Another possibility for some is to turn into podcasting tools. As a podcaster myself I would pay reasonable money for an app that would let me easily do a live podcast with audio questions and generate an audio export in the end.

The possibilities are endless of course and it is too soon to give a definite answer about what is Clubhouse’s future.

Though, it is not hard to imagine that a tech giant snatches up the buzzy app to build an audio-business arm (looking at you, Facebook).

All that said, it’s 2021 and we are talking about audio as the new hot thing. What a time to be alive.

(Oh, and have you heard, newsletters are another hot thing. 2021, you are full of surprises.)

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.