Clubhouse: Putting the Social Back into Social Media?

Clubhouse is the latest social media app to take the world by storm.

The invite-only drop-in audio platform, backed by VC firm Andreesen Horowitz, now has more than 2 million people using it each week and is valued at over US$1 billion.

The platform received a huge push last week when Elon Musk was joined by embattled Robinhood CEO, Vlad Tenev, and proceeded to grill Tenev about the GameStop saga for a full 15 minutes.

A hit with celebrities and thought leaders, you might find the likes of Marc Andreesen, Ashton Kutcher, Chris Rock, Eric Weinstein, Gary Vaynerchuk, or Jared Leto hosting or speaking at a session at any given time.

While social media has already been democratizing access to such personalities for over a decade now, Clubhouse takes it one step further than simply tweeting at or shooting someone a DM that will never be read or replied to.

On Clubhouse, you can can hop on to the stage and contribute your ideas alongside the likes of Drake. You might typically pay US$2,000 for a ticket and fly out to Austin’s SXSW conference for these kinds of privileges, but instead, you might be in the comfort of your living room, and not a single cent poorer.

But moving far beyond this surface-level appeal, what Clubhouse appears to be doing is putting the humanity — the social — back into social media.

Bringing Social Back

The hit Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma shone a light on big tech and social media in particular, and how tech platforms are financially incentivized to hijack our attention.

This hijacking of our attention can not only leave us with shorter attention spans and a compromised ability to do great work, but also lends itself to political polarization, as we’re served up more of what engages us— stuff we like, and stuff that makes us outraged. The end result is a sense of moral righteousness and that the other side is evil beyond reprehension.

So what makes Clubhouse different?

Serendipitous Algorithm

First, having used the platform for over a week now, it doesn’t seem to have a ‘more of what you like’ algorithm — which some might say is both a blessing and a curse.

Yes, I’ve been served up my fair share of events that I would typically be interested in — events on entrepreneurship, tech, and fitness — but I also see a whole lot of events in my feed that I typically wouldn’t search for but found myself joining and deriving some value from — Africans speak with Black Americans, Hate Crimes Against Asian Americans, and… The Bachelor on Clubhouse.

Just popping into the former events gave me a unique and nuanced perspective into the lives of people from the Black and Asian communities in the United States, and the issues that matter most to them, unfiltered through the lens of biased media. I was a proverbial fly on the wall and found myself developing more empathy and understanding in a way that I previously might not have been able to.

I can only hope that my feed, and that of other users, continues to be a buffet of ideas long into the future.

Voice over Text

Second, we knew it all along but Clubhouse makes the toxicity of text-driven social media platforms such as Twitter all the more evident.

The likes of Sam Harris and Joe Rogan have previously eluded to the fact that people with opposing views are unlikely to spew vitriol at each other in a one-on-one face-to-face setting the way that they might on Twitter. And it appears they were right.

Hiding behind 140 (or 280) characters, where all nuance and humanity is essentially stripped away by ASCII code, it’s easy to throw stones, but when you’re speaking to someone in real-time, hearing the subtleties of their voice and their humanity come through, you truly connect with the person behind the Twitter handle, or in this case, the Clubhouse username.

And it paves the way for respectful conversations.

Case in point, I listened in on a conversation hosted by mathematician and social commentator, Eric Weinstein, on that Time Magazine article — about the secret campaign that purportedly saved the 2020 Election for the Democrats.

Weinstein has (wrongly I might add) been accused of being alt-right by those on the far-left on more than one occasion and has received his fair share of abuse on Twitter. However, nothing but mutually respectful conversations between Weinstein and what appeared to be left-leaning voices from the Bay Area ensued, despite the obvious tension in the voices of the latter who, unlike Weinstein, had expressed their displeasure at the Time article.

If these exchanges had taken place on Twitter, there would have been a lot less respect and nuance, and a lot more labeling, and straw-manning.

Thousands of Onlookers

What makes it even more difficult for people to submit to a lesser version of themselves, is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people listening in to Clubhouse conversations in real-time.

Sure, podcasts have brought people from across the political aisle together before, but even they — like the conversation between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein — can become unstuck. When it’s just the two of you in a room, or on a Zoom call, you can forget the fact that millions of people might listen to said episode later. But when there are several thousand people logged in on Clubhouse, and you can see their names and faces, our innate human desire not to make a scene and maintain a respectful disposition, kicks in.

Of course, it might just be the fact that Clubhouse is an invite-only app at this stage, and people have been careful and intentional about just who they invite onto the platform. Just whether the platform remains as respectful as it is today if and when there are several hundred million users on it remains to be seen.

Democratization of Voice

Finally, on the topic of political polarization, platforming has been a major talking point over the past several years.

As someone who believes in free speech and the exchange of ideas, I’m not a fan of such rhetoric, but there is little concern about platforming when it comes to Clubhouse.

And that’s because (a) room sizes are capped to 5,000 people which is more inconsequential than a podcast episode with a million downloads, and (b) everybody has the right to raise their hand and contribute to a conversation. Nobody can be accused of platforming anybody because having a voice is democratized on Clubhouse.

The Way Forward

Clubhouse is not without its challenges though, and has already been susceptible to hungry journalists looking to take what people say on the platform out of context for their own attention mining purposes — something that could dissuade people from participating.

It wasn’t long ago that Mark Zuckerberg was touting Facebook as a tool to connect the people of the world, but flawed incentives took over, and just whether Facebook became a net good or net bad for society is up for debate, with many pundits leaning towards the latter.

But for now, Clubhouse is indeed a net good for society and one that just might help to stem the tide of political polarization and remind us of our mutual humanity.