Why Clubhouse isn't about audio

...and what's the attraction for these new audio apps?

At the moment there’s a huge amount of buzz about Clubhouse, a new audio social network. Indeed there’s so much buzz, the recent investments (of around $100m) have made it worth (well, on paper at least) $1bn.

Personally, I’m still not particularly sold. I think Clubhouse has definitely done some interesting things, but I don’t think the 'killer feature’ is much to do with audio.

So, what it is?

Right now it’s an iOS only app that allows people to host ‘rooms’, generally on a topic, that other users can listen in to, or (if allowed by the room’s moderators) contribute and join in.

Like many social networks, you follow people you know, or are interested in, and then the system tells you which rooms they’re in. That’s the core discovery mechanism. There’s then an explore-style tab that shows other rooms and a schedule function, so you can see what’s coming up from your network. Each room has a title, description and how many are in it. Anyone can also start or schedule a room.

At it’s worst, I’d say the content is basically the annoying self-promoters from LinkedIn given a microphone to talk to their echo-chamber. At it’s best you can say it’s a place for like-minded people to get together and have a discussion in a screen’s-off environment.

If we leave the audio element to end, there’s definitely other interesting functions that the app has created:

  1. Developed a live experience for your friends/people you follow

    On Twitter, and other social networks, you follow people you’re interested in, but it’s a very singular experience with most of the content statements or pictures. Yes, you can reply, but mostly it’s a passive scroll.

    The next stage up is probably subscribing to people on YouTube or watching live shows on Twitch. This gives a more long-form, entertaining, audio-visual experience. Regular YouTube posts or streams on Twitch help build community - even if you just watch, you’re joining in.

    To me that’s very close to a Clubhouse experience, for a generation - probably 30+ who missed having YouTube/Twitch as part of their formative years. The excitement online is from users who’ve found people like them (just like Teens discovering up and coming YouTube stars).

  2. It leans on content types popularised by conferences

    On Clubhouse you basically see a few different types of broadcasts.

    There’s ‘fireside chat’-style conversations. Someone interviewing someone who has something to say. This (just like at conferences!) is an ego boost for both participants as they get to hold forth in front of an audience. There’s then a period of questions from the audience, as attendees step up to the virtual mic.

    There’s panels. Similar to the above, but with more participants. The danger of panels on Clubhouse, as well as at conferences, is they can end up with similar types of people agreeing with each other.

    However, just like real world conferences, watching notable people talk about a subject you’re interested in does have value.

    Then there’s keynotes. Someone speaks on a topic and then opens the floor to questions.

    A great deal of the topics on Clubhouse tend to be business-focused or personal development - getting on in life/business. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that they’ve ended up aping much of real-world formats.

    There’s other types of content too. Lots of people refer to Clubhouse rooms as being a ‘live interactive podcast’ or ‘talk radio’ . There is all the good and bad of those as well.

  3. It can be a clever echo-chamber.

    Social media gets accused of being an echo-chamber, and that’s because it’s often really successful at being a well liked echo-chamber! You can just follow the people you like and agree with and filter out those who you don’t. Clubhouse does this well, I mean club is in its name. You tend to go to rooms with people in it that you know, or follow, so it can all be a bit self-affirming. Of course there’s some discovery where you can seek out other views, but whether people will etc…

    Indeed if you block someone they’re not able to join a room that you’re taking part in. Clubhouse-investor Marc Andreessen is a big journalist blocker, so when he joined an Elon Musk talk the other night, lots of journalists couldn’t get in. The forced-direction of echo-chambers is perhaps something new (and maybe a little worrying).

  4. There’s a lot of features around interests.

    Users can join clubs (similar to Facebook group), you can navigate around people who are like the ones you’re following. You can also search around people’s interests.

    Taken together it can do well in allowing you to find niches that you are interested in.

  5. It’s audio first.

    The Clubhouse experience is an audio one. You can see text information and navigate around rooms and people, but the core content is audio. This means that it can benefit from all the things we’ve known about audio.

    Yes, it can be on in the background. You can do something else whilst listening. It’s the true multi-tasking medium.

    It’s easier to produce when you’re not having to make video as well, there’s few barriers to entry in opening up a mic.

But for me the ‘audio’ element isn’t a core part of why it works. To me it’s the other features that will make this sort of app popular.

At the moment it’s very sales and business-led. Like I mentioned, there’s quite a lot of the bad bits of LinkedIn mixed with a perpetual conference vibe. I’m sure this will start to broaden. Perhaps it’ll also end up being a venue for comedy or live music or sports chat, but that’s not really there now.

The danger is that it’s just a fad. The novelty of apparent access, the audio content type and listening to people you follow might just get a little boring.

Just like many amateur podcasters, speakers can ramble and rooms can run for hours. After the initial excitement it can be difficult to get value for the time spent.

What I think Clubhouse will popularise is this idea of easily-discoverable open-access conferences and sessions. It makes sense that there should be a place to go to host and attend, for want of a better word, talks.

Especially after a year of lockdown, we’re all way more used to joining things through Zoom - whether that’s catchups, meetings, webinars or conferences. Doing what used to be a real-world thing, digitally, has been accelerated. Creating a place to make that a mixture of appointment to view and the ephemeral will likely have value - and that’s partly what Clubhouse has stumbled across.

However, I think this version of Clubhouse is just the first iteration. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be video led, and whilst, sure, audio makes it easy, I’m certain that people who like showing off, like being seen as well as heard.

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