Issue 293,  published February 16, 2021

So, what about this Clubhouse thing?

Much of Clubhouse is boring — or, at least, disproportionately filled with the awkward in-between of group interaction.

This is far from a novel observation, and it’s an observation that continues to be made even as the attention and discourse around the audio chat app rose to fever pitch over the past few weeks. Pulling data from Apptopia, the New York Times reported that the app had been downloaded over four million times in the past month alone, which broadly corresponds with my own immediate networks. I started out the year with few outside my professional circles knowing what the app was; now, it’s something that gets brought up in my various Whatsapp groups every few days.

That I personally find much of the app boring is a subjective contention, of course. I’m certain a substantial portion of the app’s user base would passionately differ from my assessment, and perhaps rightly so. I’ve only been on the thing for about a week, and I get the sense many users have cultivated a different relationship with the platform than I have. I, for one, picked up the app in search of experiences that justify time away from other things I could be doing: watching a movie, chasing my cat, lurking in far-flung subreddits, plowing through more podcasts. On that front, I often find little of comparable value, even when there is spectacle.

Yet I am compelled, because there is something genuinely compelling about the Clubhouse experience. I keep dipping back into the app when I have a few minutes to spare, leaving it on in the background as I do other things — cleaning the house, making lunch, figuring out tax forms — when my brain is tired from listening to podcasts demanding close attention. Again, I rarely find anything worthwhile, but that’s part of the pleasure I get from it. And let’s be clear: Boringness is not antithetical to pleasure. It’s kinda why I’ve developed great affinities for lo-fi hip-hop and environmental sound ASMR YouTube livestreams.

Part of the positive feedback loop here is rooted in novelty, I reckon. I’m a citizen of a few Discords — and have voice-chatted with enough randos while gaming online, abuse and all — so I’m broadly familiar with various forms of social audio interfacing, but there is something that feels alluringly new about being able to slide between various pop-up communities you didn’t intentionally seek out. (Put crudely, it tickles the voyeuristic part of my brain.)

Some part of this also surely has to do with the pandemic: It’s been a full year since I and many others have been in a big room full of strangers, so yeah, it’s kinda nice to half-listen to subpar conversations while virtually simulating the feeling of being in a big room full of strangers. But it’s not lost on me that both of these appeals are temporary in nature. At some point, the novelty of the app will fade, and at some point, we’ll be back in big rooms full of strangers. Whether the Clubhouse experience is scratching a fundamental itch remains to be seen. Clubhouse is broadly exciting as a concept now, but I’m eager to see what the argument for its value will be when it’s normalized and taken for granted.

There are, in truth, two stories about Clubhouse. The first concerns the specific app itself: its manifold contemporary composition, its seemingly explosive growth, its command over an increasing number of headlines, its potential as a business (which, to be clear, is all potential at this point), its close affiliations with the Silicon Valley elite, and its many, many, many points of controversy.

The second story is about Clubhouse as the face for what could be argued as a new layer of media: Let’s call it “live group audio.” Clubhouse is by far the most prominent representation of this archetype for now, but it will soon face intensifying competition. Twitter has Spaces (an effort aided, in part, by its recent acquisition of the team behind Breaker, the social graph-oriented podcast app), Facebook is customarily working on a clone, Mark Cuban is co-founding something called Fireside that carries shades of Twitch, and one imagines there will be a range of more specific, niche-oriented alternatives that will emerge down the line.

In the face of all this, a fair few podcast operators wrote me posing the pertinent question: Does Clubhouse mean bad things for podcasting? And to extend the inquiry: Will this new “live group audio” format affect podcasting in either direction?

Well, the answer is yes, of course, probably. For one thing, on the consumption side, all media formats ultimately compete with each other for minutes of attention in a day, and within the specific frontier of audio, one could make the case for thinking in zero-sum terms: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces or whatever is time that could have been spent on, say, Apple Podcasts or Spotify. (It’s also, for that matter, time that could’ve been spent digitally streaming the radio, or listening to music.) But there are also non-zero sum possibilities: Time spent on Clubhouse or Spaces could theoretically increase affinity for audio experiences that can be trickled down to elsewhere, which in turn grows, to borrow Edison Research’s terminology, the overall “share of ear.” (Product and M&A possibilities abound for the audio-streaming platforms.) In any case, this isn’t an unprecedented competitive cluster: Think about how Twitch relates to YouTube relates to Netflix relates to cable television. They compete, sure, but they also co-exist.

(For what it’s worth, podcast folk seem pretty mixed on the matter when I asked around. The majority believe it’s a fad; others believe it’ll stick around and will offer strong marketing opportunities. None of them believe Clubhouse to be a meaningful competitor to their interests, though this is to be expected.)

More interesting impacts can be theorized on the creation side. I’m partial to thinking that the “live group audio” format is a better fit for a specific type of audio creator than podcasting could ever be. Much of Clubhouse is boring, yes, but it’s boring in the same way that much of a certain kind of podcast is also boring. I am, of course, talking about the vast universe of barely edited conversational chat-casts — and I say this as a genuine lover of the genre — where a good deal of the value lies not in the effective delivery of information or narrative, but in simply cultivating a sense of hanging out. There is a possible future in which people who would otherwise start a podcast to shoot the shit and maybe get famous would instead move to Clubhouse to shoot the shit and maybe get famous. Assuming these “live group audio” platforms will eventually roll out quick monetization tools on their closed centralized environments, these audio creators may actually end up being materially better off plugged into those spaces than into the existing podcast monetization stack. (Though, with the on-going rise of programmatic advertising options in podcasting, who knows?)

On that note, here’s a hypothesis: The rise of this “live group audio” media format could lead to a deceleration in the number of new podcasts created (which, in turn, may prove to be a material problem for podcast hosting companies and, I guess, Spotify’s Anchor division.) Personally, I don’t necessarily interpret this as a negative outcome. Sure, the wholesale volume of new podcast creation might slow down due to losing out on this specific creative use case, but the end result is podcasting becoming more defined and specific as a media category (i.e. the scene where you get purposefully crafted, on-demand audio experiences, among other things), which may well prove to be a net positive thing over the long run.

I’m hedging a lot in this analysis, of course, because much of this feels really early, and much about Clubhouse itself is up for grabs. But say you held me at gunpoint and asked the doomsayer’s question: Could Clubhouse and the rise of “live group audio” options pose an existential threat to podcasts? I would say no, because there are enough portions of the podcast ecosystem that has sufficiently formalized an economic basis and a differentiated value proposition. I’d wager that enough listeners already internalize that they can access media experiences from podcasting not attainable anywhere else, whenever they want, and podcast publishers have already set up various monetization structures for their troubles. Furthermore, the distinction between live and time-shifted modalities are meaningful in distinguishing between the use cases of the two categories. If anything, Clubhouse and its competitive set is more likely to further disrupt traditional broadcast radio than contemporary on-demand audio, particularly if we use the term “disrupt” in the original sense, which is to say Clubhouse is establishing a foothold in a newly formed low-end “live audio” market that sets it up to pull value away from traditional broadcast talk radio over the long run.

But if you were to refine the question and ask: Does Clubhouse and “live group audio” experiences pose a threat to podcasting’s growth? Now that is certainly possible, particularly if the audio-streaming platforms and advertisers become more materially interested in that category over on-demand audio and allocate their efforts and dollars accordingly. And that’s certainly what I’ll be looking out for.

The more interesting question, to me, is this: What is Clubhouse supposed to be, anyway? The difficulty of answering this question stems from the fact that Clubhouse is still at a point in its pre-revenue life cycle where its internal universe is filled with abundant potential futures, operationally capable of accommodating a variety of different metaphors about its product experience and its theoretical place in the market. For the most part, the app feels like a virtual approximation of a live conference with occasional good discussion (though without recreating the real value of conferences, which is the provision of networking opportunities and theoretical proximity to power), but that’s not all you get from the app. Some rooms effectively replicate the feel of a live events space, complete with open mic nights (in all its glorious agony). If you know enough people on the app, there are ways that hopping from room to room can approximate the feeling of being a social butterfly fluttering from party to party. I’ve dipped into virtual watch parties for the NBA and the Premier League, semi-amateur takes on American Idol, user-generated attempts at the call-in radio show. There are even rooms replicating lo-fi hip-hop YouTube livestreams, opening up questions about the potential for music distribution.

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t also bring up the fascinating instance in which users in China and the broader Chinese diaspora briefly used the app to speak freely about the Chinese government. The app would eventually get banned in the region shortly thereafter, and I’m reluctant to read too much into what that episode says about Clubhouse’s material possibilities. It’s stuck with me, though.)

Clubhouse’s current state of housing a vast universe of possibilities seems untenable to me, particularly once the app starts having to grapple with monetization. The history of digital and social media tells us that incentive structures drive content forms, and whenever Clubhouse slaps on its first business model at a wide scale, I think we’ll see its internal universe of possibilities narrow quite dramatically as user-creators cluster towards content forms better compensated by the implemented monetization tools.

As that happens, the lanes of competition will open up, and that’s where things can get interesting. The future of Clubhouse specifically is unclear to me, but the future of the “live group audio” format is slightly less so. It’s fairly easy to imagine a future in which competing entities move to claim any of the metaphors left aside by Clubhouse, and a kind of Great Sorting begins: the virtual conference angle claimed by LinkedIn or Microsoft, for example; the virtual live events idea by Patreon or, oh I don’t know, The Knitting Factory; next-generation call-in radio shows by Spotify or Pandora or Apple Podcasts; virtual sports watch parties by ESPN; and so on.

In that imagined future, what will Clubhouse look like when all that sorting is done?

I run this thing.