Clubhouse: a *truly social* social network

Thoughts from an early user on Clubhouse’s magic.

First published in June 2020.

I’ve been talk-on-the-phone-first for the last three years. You can read about some of those explorations over here and there.

@ryandawidjan and small plug around for the next thing I’m doing around consumer communication with RIFF-→earsarethenewthumbs.com

This isn’t intended to be a news piece nor is it a hot take. If you’d like the former, see the NYT, TechCrunch, CNBC, and Wired. If you’d like the latter, please log in to Twitter.

A fuller picture

You know about someone. You follow them on Twitter. You watch their videos. You build this idea about them. Then you see them speak. A thrill of excitement comes as you are now meeting them.

They open their mouth and you can’t just wait for them to spit those same thoughts in person.

Yet as you hear them, you realize it’s different. They are not the same as their online persona…

That’s a regular occurrence in Clubhouse. Why? Because talking (and having to do so within an active conversation for 15–60 minutes) is far different than editing videos, tweeting 178 characters, or being on a scripted podcast. It rivals truly meeting someone and perhaps even more pure given you can’t be distracted by body language, aesthetics, and hundreds of other “signals”.

It’s not Clubhouse-specific; it’s the medium. It would be the same at the beer garden (more on that below). Very quickly you get a fuller picture of who they are. Can they actually listen, how high is their EQ, can they speak to a subject with depth that they so often tweet (or signal) about, are they actually wildly funny, do they ask thoughtful questions, do they keep the beach ball going, etc.

Some folks certainly treat other social apps as means to build a reputation and yield influence through distinctive tactics. That narrow and well-honed pattern has the potential to get disrupted when you find yourself surrounded by actual voices, jokes, and questions.

Talking Transforms

That’s why you call your mom, go to lunch with friends, tap Houseparty notifications, and open FaceTime. That’s why we’re all using (or at least open to trying) Zoom, Slack calls, Internet Town, Upstream, Tandem, and Icebreaker for a mix of personal and professional uses.

Talking is actual social. Tweets and stories are just surface area, meant to be talked about.

How do you use Clubhouse? You open your mouth and your ears. That’s it. You are off and running and immediately are doing the most important thing: talking. It makes doing the most difficult thing very easy.

Not every interaction in our day has to be “synchronous” but if social distancing and quarantine have shown us one thing, it’s that you can’t get by as an Internet citizen, family member, or friend with endless swiping, scrolling, and tapping on feeds.

You don’t truly feel fulfilled emotionally, socially, or mentally without conversation. You need to actively engage and earn the opportunity to get to random topics, nuance, stories, jokes, and depth through dialogue.

Why are folks listening and talking for hours night after night on Clubhouse? Because it’s inherently healthy and normal. You don’t get the same “social” media hangover and thoughts of regret you get by tapping passively on IG stories or TikToks or tweets for hours.

Why Can’t We Just Talk

Good ol’ phone app, FaceTime, Zoom, and Slack calls were all around pre-Clubhouse and pre-COVID. So why weren’t people talking through on those at a high rate before? Why are they now flocking to use these every day and night?

Getting to talking was actually tough. Both from a cultural norms perspective and a practical UX level. Who wants to cold call their friends? Never mind their acquaintances. Who wanted or even thought to schedule regular catch-ups? You couldn’t actually tap your thumbs to start hearing someone’s voice.

Who actually wanted to be on video for each FaceTime or Houseparty push notif? Why can’t we just talk?

Who was going to go through the thumb tapping and mental effort to mix + match different pockets of groups to get overlapping friends on the same text thread to then group FaceTime audio with no agenda?

Who was going to regularly slide into DMs of modern friends on twitter and ask to hop on the phone call…get their number and set up time with a calendar invite? A non-starter if the ask for conversation wasn’t around a “meaningful”topic or an explicit request of their time.

Who was going to talk with perfect strangers that they didn’t even know existed? You don’t because you literally can’t. Go try and talk live with one stranger in this world tonight…just one. Or maybe just a friend of friend. Then try to go do that every night.

What’s the easiest way to get to people talking? Place them in the same room, right next to each other. That’s elimination of friction. Whether it’s a best friend, friend, acquaintance, or stranger, you’ll have to start talking. Just don’t open up with a lame “so how do you know [mutual friend]?” and you’ll be fine.

Clubhouse borrows the room metaphor and brings that to life within your ears. You just plop into a room and start listening…and start talking if you’d like. It’s effortless.

Hanging out on Clubhouse. What’s that like?

The best way to think about Clubhouse rooms and the social dynamics within them is to picture a beer garden. 🍻

There are many ways you can decide if/when to go to the beer garden.

  • You could just show up with friends at a certain time on the weekend reasonably confident other people are going to be there.
  • A friend could text you and say, hey it’s been a longtime…let’s find time to catchup and propose it as a spot.
  • A group of friends could say, we’re in your hood — come over and hang out if you’re around.
  • You could know some friends are listening to live-music at the venue.

This is what makes the daily base-case for Clubhouse strong. A simple push notification on any of these levels gets you aware of what’s happening and provides a compelling reason to show up.

  • Listen to your best friends talk
  • Talk with your best friends
  • Listen to your modern friends talk
  • Talk with your modern friends
  • Listen to strangers talk
  • Talk with strangers

And it’s very rarely only one of these types. It’s a fluid mix.

This is what makes the non-celebrity and “live podcast” nature of Clubhouse very interesting. It’s a bunch of normal people talking (but with interesting, smart, funny, diverse, random things to say). Kinda like what you’d find at an ordinary offline beer garden…

Again, if you believe talking transforms — this is a magical experience to teleport into every day. Please do so with #wiredheadphones though.

Don’t overlook that it’s not always about talking. You can just listen like a fly on the wall in any room you’d like. And leave whenever the hell you please. These explicit design choices enable a wide range of experiences.

Try going to the beer garden with or without friends and just sitting there completely silent. Not a zip. You wouldn’t dare. Wander over to a group of strangers and listen in with complete silence. Again, same thing. Leave your friends after hanging for 10 minutes…awkward.

This is why CH feels like hacking time and geography. Try going to the beer garden everyday or multiple times a week? You can’t. Is it a full replacement for IRL activities? No. But it’s not trying to be.

A friend said it best recently.

It’s this live formation of something, building, and deconstruction of a sandcastle in real-time. And when you leave, the water washes away the castle, but you remember the parts of what you built together.

What other elements of Clubhouse are unique or potentially helping it have a moment?

A moment that can certainly dry up, end abruptly, or continue on its torrid pace.

Modern Friends

What does it mean to actually connect with others and why is that happening so intensely on Clubhouse?

Modern friends are simply relationships that primarily originate and develop through digital channels.

The best way to know if you would get along with someone? Talk to them. Or listen to them for an hour. It will be quite apparent where you now fall on the “how much do I appreciate their vibe” spectrum.

If it took many months of looking at someone’s sparse tweets (public and direct @ replies) to understand if you would want to grab a beer, coffee, or a phone call with them, it takes about a week of passive listening + talking to get this same confidence.

Varadh put it best when with his explanation of the CH beer garden as engineered serendipity.

Dozens of folks who met solely via CH have already converted this mutual friend vibe into deliberate Twitter DMs, text groups, 1v1 Zooms, emails, and offline (socially distant) hangs. If you think Clubhouse is a Silicon Valley thing only because folks want to signal that they are on the app, you would be hard-pressed to explain this off-app investment of energy, time, and social capital.

Clubhouse will be one of the better top-of-funnel places to mix it up with a range of people.

Modern friends. Digital buddies. Friends. Meeting via XYZ app or free website. It’s a thing.

Civil Dialogue

The actual amount of two-way discussion that follows relative to the initial velocity and strength of hot takes, signaling, and online spats is staggeringly low. Take a second to reflect on the last week of fights, takedowns, and feuds you have witnessed in your timeline. Now imagine being able to ask each main contributor if they would like to actually talk about said points of debate.

Tolerance for those all-too-convenient fingers-on-keyboard takes and virtue signaling has fallen to an all-time low. Now that I’ve experienced CH and small group voice chats, each time I see one of these “debates” kicking off, I think “if you really cared about this for yourself and others, you’d talk this through.” Sure, we’ll become a small “audience” but I want to hear you get to nuance and depth on the subject…stop polluting our TL with surface level emotional takes.

It’s partly a human problem and a medium problem.

Folks are never going to want to admit they are wrong or acted inappropriately. But tweets and rambling threads are a format that make it inherently worse to actually find common ground or discover where each actually stands. Right now the precedent is to shout, never get into details, and continue parading your POV in subsequent tweets and podcasts for months. You’re never forced to meet your mental master.

The Clubhouse format of active dialogue is quite clarifying. It forces you to be human and if you truly care about maintaining a reputation, you will have to handle a conversation there quite differently.

If the point of conflict is centered around a different life, business, or social perspective (and not around a slur), I actually think one stands to win or lose more credibility/karma/reputation points for how they handle the discussion as opposed to the merits of the original point.

There’s no hiding and you’ve got a lot to lose if you can’t be civil and respectful.

One can imagine ad-hoc asks “@twitterperson hey, if you feel that strongly let’s discuss it. would love to hear why you think X is actually causing Z to happen. joinclubhouse.com/talk/e9ca5b6f855a” as a new CTA for noble Internet citizens.

Breaking Bubbles

How does one break out of their filter bubble? It’s certainly doable but not that easy. How do you become privy to thoughts and perspectives from those that you haven’t explicitly followed or surrounded yourself on a social network?

One option is to consume media from different outlets. But that takes knowing which outlets to consume from and regularly being in a position to read, watch, and listen. That media is also positioned, edited, and packaged with certain political objectives and business incentives. You don’t quite get to tap into the fundamental mix of opinions from the underlying groups of individuals that may be represented by the particular outlet.

An interesting and much-welcomed development in Clubhouse dialogue is the ability to directly hear from a wide-range of individuals on sensitive, top-of-mind, and developing topics. You are one tap away from listening to those who otherwise wouldn’t be in your Facebook groups, Twitter feed, or offline networks. You hear discussion, not 186 character hot takes, regarding contentious topics like COVID re-opening plans and racial injustice.

Better yet, you are enabled to ask the expert or fellow internet citizen to further explain their point-of-view or provide examples or share more details of their personal story. This experience is live within a small several thousand person network today. Breaking the bubbles has a real potential to happen at an even higher rate as the community grows in number and in backgrounds.

In the beer garden metaphor, you see tables of people you otherwise wouldn’t be interacting with or surrounded by, deeply engaged in conversation. Whether you welcomed the topic or happened across it, you pull up a chair and have the opportunity to learn and develop empathy.

Try doing that so easily and so consistently across other network today.

Passive Pleasure

Pro-tip: anytime someone in tech says “audio”, just replace that with “discussion”.

A lot of chatter around Clubhouse-like apps is that quarantine is a lucky intermediate tailwind. It’s no doubt been a force in helping folks confront their social outlets and pockets of time they never felt they had.

Even after a slight return to normalcy, one would believe this has led to a long-term mix of benefits for Clubhouse:

  • you believe you weren’t talking with friends as much as you wanted or needed
  • you realized that most nights (even if SF/LA/NYC), you don’t have much going on
  • we live in a networked world where discovering and engaging people outside of your zip code is not only fun but an increasing necessity for satisfying your work and interests
  • you know that tuning into a podcast at 7–10pm was not (and has never been) the look

Passive consumption being a compelling baseline experience here really opens up a lot of possibilities. Whether it’s the live-podcast format with someone of note or being a fly on the wall for interesting discussions, Clubhouse feels like personal AM radio that right now is worth tuning into more often than not.

Life Events

For two months, hundreds of folks have been finding a lot of fun and fulfillment in largely talking amongst strangers and only a couple of friends. Wait until you actually have your core 3–10 closest people on the app with push notifications flying. Talk about FOMO.

Better yet, wait until you have things to actually discuss with friends and strangers on the app.

Sports, concerts, IRL hangs, weekend adventures, and travel will eventually re-surface to fuel the hot takes, discussion, stories, and recommendations. If anything, I think the fact that people from many walks of life have continued to have engaging conversation for two months straight in a COVID time presents itself as a bullish proof point that Clubhouse chatter can get stronger and offset the convenient dynamics presented by quarantine.

There are two sneaky social dynamics involved in these friendly discussions. The first being that each time you invite one friend to join the conversation, you are likely causing 2–5 friends of theirs to actually log onto the app as well. Given the push notification and following model, you are alerted to when people you care about take specific actions. Secondarily and related, the FOMO given the ephemeral nature of real-time discussion is quite real. Arriving halfway through (what is‘through’ when it’s not a time-set podcast) is almost worse than not having listened or participated at all.

Stars Collide

A lot of words have been given to the idea of celebrities and influential individuals holding court on Clubhouse. It is no doubt an interesting and rare development partially fueled by intrigue, due diligence, and let me show you who I know vibes.

This initial fervor will only subside over the long term. That said, there are many interesting ways for star power to build a base of Clubhouse community members.

Getting what it’s really about: A wise man once said, ears are the new thumbs. The first time you hear the live voice of someone you admire from afar tunneling into your own ears is a magical experience. That’s what folks mean by live-podcast. It’s someone of note (celeb, exec, artist, etc) who you would normally have heard “live” on CNBC or a redcarpet video feed. Or would have heard on a well-orchestrated and edited podcast many days or weeks later.

But this is different.

That intimate feeling of hearing their voice as you listen to an organic conversation perched up on your couch or while lying in bed is what can get people hooked. Describing it doesn’t do the format justice. But it will immediately give thousands of first-timers the “ohhhh” for the listening part of the conversational nature.

Ad-hoc events: There’s much to discuss when a team wins a big game or there’s a large announcement around quarterly earnings. A light “let’s spin this room up” AMA, fireside chat, or interview works well for the app. Said individual or group will get to share a room-specific link to their own crowds across Twitter that will then become passive listeners.

Tooling, business models, and platforms are allowing those with audiences to be as communicative and direct with their readers, listeners, and fans as possible. Spinning up a fireside chat to talk through a new idea or running a light Q&A is as intimate as you can get.

Best of all, it is the “cleanest” mode of interacting you can find. There’s no preparation from a content perspective and no logistical hassle to find good lighting, adequate background, or a sharp look. If spending time with a community is a function of the work (perceived or real) it takes to actually do the thing (listen, answer, riff), Clubhouse rooms have a sneaky good return on time.

Community

See Magic School Bus as one example, more context here.

The format (or rather, interaction model) lends itself to the same offline dynamics. You’ll chat with those you know, are getting to know, or open to knowing.

Breakfast clubs, regular post-show recaps, happy hours, book clubs, etc are one personable, proactive moderator away from forming and evolving.

Since the time of this writing — the CH bulletin is live.

TL;DR

There are more open questions than answers. There is never an answer sheet for the next new big thing.

How will they balance the influencer driven growth and positioning with normals talking amongst themselves at a beer garden?

  • It will be tricky but they may not be all that opposed to each other. Distinct room types could definitely aid in thisby 1. establishing an expectation of what the experience is you are entering into and 2. controlling communication dynamics amongst speakers and listeners.
  • Everyday users talking in rooms talking about what just happened in other another room with a notable person may be the default gateway drug into learning how to talk on Clubhouse. A shared experience and shared reference point will eliminate the what do I/we talk about crickets problem?
  • Enabling some social graph features (Twitter graph auth or basic permissioning) will help tame the unruly dynamics as the numbers go up.

What happens when people go back to work? Won’t they get their fix there?

  • When will they actually?
  • Hundreds of thousands may not really be returning to an office in the next 12-18 months.
  • Millions have felt firsthand the power of talking to their world with a range of apps.
  • It may be a mistake to equate ‘the appetite and yearning for IRL collaborative communication within offices’ with ‘looking to talk with friends across the country and Internet’.

What happens when quarantine relaxes and people can hang out during the week?

  • Will they? It could be at least six to nine months before you do this regularly without hesitation. Plenty of time for norms to change and momentum to build.
  • Most importantly, do all your friends or acquaintances live within ~10 miles of each other? How about maintaining or building friendships across the state, region, and country?
  • This isn’t like returning to the same college campus where 90% of your social bonds would be contained.
  • You would be surprised how many parents comprise the early contingent of avid Clubhouse users. They’re finding time away from kids and spouses in side bedrooms and walks with dogs to get their fix. Even if slight normalcy returns, they still don’t have convenient ways of connecting with friends and modern friends outside their city.

If you feel strongly, have questions or want to share a few ideas, I’d love to hear your perspective.

ryandawidjan@gmail.com and @ryandawidjan

Better yet, it would probably be more valuable for us to have a real discussion. Wait, what’s the best way to actually do that?

🙂

building NYC products and teams. // 🗣 w/ modern friends. big heuristic guy.