Issue #15 "Audio can feel shockingly intimate"

An in-depth exploration of Clubhouse with WIRED's Arielle Pardes

Over the course of this pandemic year, and under the punishment of isolation, one of the things we’ve arguably been craving the most is to be able to actually hear each other’s voices; to talk and listen. Last March, a couple of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs introduced Clubhouse, an audio-driven chat app, which has since exploded onto the scene as a go-to tool in helping us to do just that. And, sure, we’ve been talking to one another by phone for as long as we can remember but Clubhouse appears to be taking it a step further by introducing us to strangers with shared interests and allowing us to establish new communities. Arielle Pardes is a senior writer at WIRED. She joined perspectivves to talk about the craze surrounding Clubhouse, her thoughts on the “darkside” of the app, its exclusivity as an invite-only tool (for now at least), and whether it can survive as social media giants like Twitter and Facebook work on introducing competing features of their own.

Ziv: Let’s start off with the basics here. What is Clubhouse?

Arielle:  Clubhouse is an audio-based social network. This is an app that came out last spring just as pandemic boredom was setting in and it felt and continues to feel really different from anything else in the social landscape. Twitter and Facebook kind of grew out of this ethos about blogging and micro-blogging and sharing your thoughts in little text snippets. Instagram and YouTube grew out of this visual tradition of documenting what you’re doing and where you are and showing a slice of your life. Clubhouse is kind of leading the pack of this new wave of apps that's focused on audio and trying to connect people, share experiences and promote media through voice, through music and through sounds, which is really different. 

“There’s something about the medium that feels more intimate because it’s more of a two-way conversation.”

Yarden: What’s the appeal of Clubhouse? What is it about this app that attracts the likes of Elon Musk, Mr. Beast, MC Hammer to use this platform and interact with strangers in such an intimate way?

Arielle: I think that the appeal of Clubhouse, at first, was just that it felt so novel. If you were on it a year ago, which I was, you know the app was [primarily occupied by] venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, start-up founders, and people who tend to fall into the category of the early adopter. I think people are excited that it just feels new, it feels different. There’s a whole new set of gestures, behaviours and social norms and that’s really exciting to navigate. But why is it that it’s blown up among high-profile people? My guess—and this is just an educated guess because I am not a celebrity or a person with a million followers—would be that there’s something about the medium that feels more intimate because it’s more of a two-way conversation. So Elon Musk is actually a really interesting example. In case your readers or listeners don’t know already, Elon Musk sort of made Clubhouse history recently for going on the app and giving a really candid conversation in this space called “Good Time.” It was an event! And I have to imagine that part of the reason that Elon did that is that people can really talk back to him in a way that they can’t on other platforms. Elon and other celebrities are not in need of a stage because they already have one. People will read Elon’s tweets and listen to the podcast that he goes on. This is a person who already has a voice. But maybe what’s lacking in the social ecosystem is response. Maybe it gets lonely to talk to an empty room all the time. There’s something nice about being on an audio platform where Elon can say something kind of crazy and people can respond in real-time.

“[Clubhouse] feels less like walking into a room in a house party where you’re going to strike up a conversation with someone over the punchbowl; it’s more like you're walking into someone's very curated space and you’re going to sit down and you’re going to listen to them.”

Yarden: You mentioned Good Time as a recurring room. Can you expand on how these rooms work and the overall structure of the app?

Arielle: Yeah, with these Clubhouse explainers it's hard to even know where to begin. It’s like explaining a foreign country [laughs]. At any point when you log on to the app, there are a number of different audio rooms and they’re organized by topic. The rooms really range in size, in subject matter, in structure. Some of the rooms on Clubhouse are super informal. Everyone has speaking privileges, it’s chaotic, people are talking over each other but then there are also rooms that are really formal and you feel more like [you are joining a] conference or a panel event. There are also rooms that have recurring conversations and it's like a panel event every week. Good Time is one of these recurring spaces that is run by a pair of venture capitalists and they invite on speakers that they think are interesting. That feels more like a podcast in a lot of ways. It feels less like walking into a room in a house party where you’re going to strike up a conversation with someone over the punchbowl; it’s more like you're walking into someone's very curated space and you’re going to sit down and you’re going to listen to them. But, yeah, that’s one of the things that you can have on Clubhouse and then, on the flip side, you can walk into a room where someone is reading auras over the phone for example [laughs]. 

“The more people that join and the bigger that that community grows, the less control the founders have about what that place is for and how it’s used.”

Ziv: Why is the app so exclusive by design?

Arielle: I think for two reasons and I am going to speculate here again because I have not interviewed the founders of Clubhouse nor have many journalists. They’ve been pretty cagey so far. My expectation is that one of the reasons that the founders haven’t given a lot of interviews and also the reason that Clubhouse has been pretty exclusive is just that it’s very much an experiment at this point. You’ll recall that Facebook for many, many years was a very exclusive platform. First, it was only available to Harvard students. Then it was only available to people with a “.edu” e-mail address and I think that’s where the exclusivity ends. The point is that when these platforms are taking off they start off small because once they start to get big it’s harder to be nimble and change the rules. For an app that’s a year old—and by the way has grown exponentially in the last year—it makes sense that they are trying to control it a little bit because this is really the time to define the identity of the app. The more people that join and the bigger that that community grows, the less control the founders have about what that place is for and how it’s used, and what is normal behaviour on that app. We’ve seen this with social media over and over again. Every platform of a certain size gets faced with these really thorny questions about how people are using it and so right now is maybe the time where you can put some parameters on something before it gets out of your hands. Whether or not Clubhouse is doing a good job of that is maybe up for debate. I don’t think we’ve really seen so far that the app has a strong sense of what it’s for and who it’s for and whose voices its lifting up and whose voices it’s silencing but those are questions that, I think, for an app that’s a year old it's very normal for it to be figuring that out.

“This is an app that’s really thrived in the pandemic for many reasons. One is that I think people are just so lonely.”

Yarden: What benefit has Clubhouse been offering users amid the pandemic?

Arielle: This is an app that’s really thrived in the pandemic for many reasons. One is that I think people are just so lonely. Our normal avenues for connection have been cut off and, at the very least, they’ve changed a lot. For instance, I know a lot of people who have had a happy hour with their friends once a week and now they are trying to recreate it on Zoom and it’s just not the same. I think we’re also all feeling a lot of screen fatigue. We’re looking at our screens all day for work, many of us are in back-to-back Zoom meetings and then we like turn to our computers for entertainment to watch something in the evening; maybe we're on our phones scrolling through Tik Tok or Instagram or FaceTiming our friends and so I think there’s this real fatigue from looking at the screen. Clubhouse [has come along], at the perfect time, allowing you to socialize with strangers but you don’t have to look at your screen and you could be taking a walk or like doing your dishes or just like closing your eyes for once. So that has been I think really refreshing and is definitely a part of its success. The other part of it is that we’ve now reached this stage of social media where the platforms that were meant to connect us don’t feel all that connecting anymore; maybe they never did but I certainly don’t feel when I scroll on Instagram like I am really catching up with my friends. I don’t really feel like I’m getting to know anyone on a deeper level. I don’t feel intimacy or vulnerability in any way. I see a lot of beautiful pictures but it’s not the same as having a real connection to someone and I think the pandemic has really deprived us of that and made it clear how important that need is. Something like audio can feel shockingly intimate. You’re basically on the phone with other people for as long as you want and whether you’re listening or talking back there’s an intimacy to that that I think doesn’t exist on a place like Instagram and certainly not on a place like Twitter or Facebook. I think that’s really special and is definitely apart of its success. On the other hand, [can Clubhouse] outlast the pandemic? I don’t know. When people are finally able to spend time with their friends in person again and are able to leave their houses and go to a crowded bar when they feel lonely, will they still want to turn to Clubhouse in their free time to listen to strangers oftentimes discussing stuff that’s really niche, weird and boring? I don’t know. But for right now I think it really serves a need that hasn’t been met by anything else on the internet.

Ziv: What are some of the more surprising activities you’ve been seeing on the app? For example, I’ve heard it’s being used for speed dating.

Arielle: Oh gosh. There’s a lullaby room where people will sing lullabies to each other, which is really sweet [laughs]. One of my favourite things on Clubhouse is that, occasionally, this guy will come on and will do Tarot readings, which is a strange concept and is difficult to pull off because he’s trying to read your energy over the phone but it's really entertaining to listen to and shockingly intimate. I’ve listened to this room sometimes for an hour and I feel so close to the people whose Tarot is being read [laughs]. I’ve also stumbled on to really interesting book talks, which is something that the pandemic has changed a lot. If you’ve written a book and you would normally do an event at like a Soho House type of place, that’s not really available to you now. But you can actually do something even cooler, which is to get on Clubhouse to talk to people about it and then engage in some really interesting conversations. I’ve seen that as well. 

“I think Clubhouse is itself trying to figure out who it is for and what’s the reason that people come back to this app and the reason can't be because it’s the only audio social app out there.”

Yarden: We’re now seeing that Twitter and Facebook are working on their own applications that are essentially clones of Clubhouse. What’s your take on that?

Arielle: That is the question. I guess you have to think about what they are copying. They are copying the medium but they are not necessarily copying the community or the feeling of being on Clubhouse and I think that’s an important distinction to make. When you look at a feature like Stories which was pioneered by Snapchat and then got copied by Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and all these other [platforms], you know, some of them found a lot of success with that and some of them didn’t. I think the reason is that Snapchat didn’t get successful because it had a really cool medium; it was that plus it had a really cool community and it understood how people were going to use it and exactly who it was serving and why. So when you look at something like copying an audio format you have to ask: does it make sense for Facebook? Does it make sense for Twitter? Does it make sense for whoever else is going to experiment with this? And I think it’s a little too soon to know but there’s definitely space for lots of different people to use ephemeral audio chat rooms in interesting ways to connect people. Right now, I think Clubhouse is itself trying to figure out who it is for and what’s the reason that people come back to this app and the reason can't be because it’s the only audio social app out there because that ship has already sailed. What is the reason that you would come to Clubhouse versus Twitter’s audio space versus whatever Facebook is building versus, you know, millions of other startups that are going to be doing something similar? The answer has to be something like: this is the place that has the creators that people really like to listen to and this is the only place you can have that content. Or it’s something more like: we’ve really tapped into how a specific demographic, like Gen Z or Millennials, wants to use this technology. So we understand how to give them the tools to communicate in a way they want. But it has to be something like that. I mean, if you look at Tik Tok—and I realize I'm going on a total tangent here— but Tik Tok is another one of these apps that felt so original and cool and now the format of the short-form, music-driven video is getting copied over and over again. But when Instagram tried to pick that up it just didn’t really work. Instagram Reels is not, as of yet, a successful feature and so the question is whether they can ever be? Do they understand what they’re doing? Are they attracting the right people for the right reasons? Are they building the right tools to enable the kind of content that they want? I think those questions are still all up for grabs, but it will be interesting. I think it’s better to have more genuine competition because I think it will force Clubhouse and all of its lookalikes to figure out these questions and then one of them, if not all of them, will be stronger. 

Ziv: What are some of the darker, less savoury elements we’re seeing on Clubhouse?

Arielle: Hmm the darkside of Clubhouse. Where should we begin [laughs]? The first thing that comes to mind is that there have been complaints about harassment and questions about moderation, which is not surprising. This has happened on every single social app there is but it is a genuine issue that has to be considered and worked on. You know, when people are in a room talking to each other they’re not always going to agree; they’re not always going to say things that are nice or true and so that’s something that has to be considered. I do think that Clubhouse is pretty different from [platforms] like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube because it’s a lot harder to amplify what one person is saying. You're in a room and you're speaking out loud in real-time and there’s no record of what you’ve said. You’re only being heard by people who are in the room, which is really different than putting out a YouTube video that gets juiced by the algorithm and then, before you know it, millions of people have seen it. So I think in that sense the medium in some ways makes it easier to deal with problems like harassment or disinformation or other moderation issues since they’re on a smaller scale. This doesn't make them necessarily better but it does mean at least that there’s not any amplification issue yet that I know of. I've seen some people complaining about disinformation and arguments about the truth on Clubhouse. I don’t really see those as Clubhouse issues though, I see those as people issues; I see that as a reflection of the fact that people, especially in America today, are on very different wavelengths and have very different understandings of what reality is. The other thing I’ve seen raised as an issue is in response to things like harassment or rudeness on the app. The founders have introduced some new ways to control the conversation and those include features like blocking, which is really standard. If someone is harassing you repeatedly or you don’t want to see them in your space, you should be able to block them.

“Clubhouse has brought back this 90s era view of the internet where people are really excited to talk to strangers and they are really excited to find their communities.”

Yarden: Anything else you’d like to leave us with on this?  

Arielle: I’m going to end on an optimistic note because I think that there’s a lot of negativity around social media, the internet, and Clubhouse and I think it’s important to recognize not just how this reflects poorly on the world but also how it reflects well. One thing that I find really exciting is the way that Clubhouse has almost brought back this 90s era view of the internet where people are really excited to talk to strangers and they are really excited to find their communities. I am a millennial. I’m very much of the Facebook generation and that wasn’t my experience with the internet and certainly hasn't been for the last ten years and Clubhouse very much plays to that. It’s like you follow people because you want to listen to the things they have to say and respond to them and maybe you make a friend along the way, which feels pretty cool and exciting. I think that if that’s sort of where social media is headed whereby we can start thinking about the internet again as a place that builds community and as a place that helps us find our tribes then there will be less of the nastiness where the internet is about us versus them and how do I ruin someone's life today [laughs]. It could be more about having a real conversation which has just sorely been lacking on social media in the past decade. So more conversations, less shouting into the void, and ruining people's lives would be great.  

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently, he produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.