When a new social media application hits the J curve, it’s the most exciting feeling in the world. The magic of network effects kicking in to make each day on the app more valuable than the next for its users.
It’s also stressful as hell for teams because everyone is watching and has opinions. So I feel a little bad that today I’m going to talk about live audio talk radio app Clubhouse, but it’s on my mind and I made a commitment to myself to hit publish every single day, so here I am.
First some disclaimers. I didn’t join the beta in the spring because early users do the bulk of culture building and I didn’t think I had it in me. Several female friends of mine had negative experiences and I didn’t want to be on clean up duty. Toxicity compounds and I get plenty of it having significant visibility on Twitter. I’ve been doxxed, stalked, harassed (my favorite story is about Glamour Magazine’s attempt to do a crowd sourced Dos and Don’t section), and canceled by Gawker. So I’m inclined to steer clear of being an early adopter these days as I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to build positive communities that I’m not getting paid to build. This is not a commentary on whether I think Clubhouse is a good or bad place so much as a personal preference I have.
So I’ve only been on Clubhouse since it hit exponential. That means most of my feedback reflects the experience of the app hitting popular consciousness and not it’s early Silicon Valley FOMO insider days.
Audio is a wonderful medium that carries emotional depth. It connects you more intimately and is exceptional at narrative. It’s also much slower as an informational conveyer than writing and an attention resource consumption hog when you pay attention (some people like background noise, I personally do not). These two factors are the driving tension in the Clubhouse product. You feel connected listening to other humans, but your attention quickly lags as your brain works faster than the content.
Unlike in photo feeds, or a mixture of image and written content, you cannot scroll out of a lull. And unlike in precorded podcasts you cannot play it at 2x speed or rewind for something you missed. So you get stuck in boring rooms in Clubhouse but feel bad that other nice humans bores you. People are on a stage in Clubhouse “rooms” so you tune out, as unless you jump on stage there is no way to improve the engagement. And in large rooms you aren’t getting on stage.
But you shouldn’t feel bad that you’re bored because it actually is usually pretty boring in Clubhouse. People don’t naturally talk in consistently engaging ways without significant production and preparation. No one is always concise and engaging. Literally being “interesting” means to hold interest. And no one, not even A list actors or television hosts, are interesting all the time. Even though they have entire teams dedicated to making it seem like they are.
So what does this mean?
First, Clubhouse is going to need to elevate influencers that have experience in the kind of production work that works in audio. That probably means talking product cues from talk radio like call screening, cueing the audience what is coming next, having prepared topics and set time frames and giving audio stitchers to drive attention. TikTok is the gold standard in narrative tool enabling creation and might be a good source for product inspiration on what tools to give those on stage.
Clubhouse is also going to need to decide if they want to be more conversation driven. A stage and an audience naturally begets status anxiety and a one-to-many dynamic. But that means you can’t drive the same massive numbers as a one-to-one or many-to-many social space. Maybe they will be content to have a smaller influencer driven creative pool that brings in audiences but they will be forced to adapt their tools to that reality. In that way it looks more like Spotify. People use Spotify because the talent is there and it happens to have some social feature. I believe Clubhouse could pull this off as it certainly has the money for it and there is clearly an appetite for produced audio. Rush Limbaugh is a very rich and influential man (disclaimer I worked at 77WABC as an EA and did stints on his show) and there is room for more types of voices.
I’d personally prefer a conversational platform as a user. I was a rabid fan of the first iteration of Anchor before it became a podcast product. It was call and response “voice messages” initially. It was enormous fun to talk into the ether and get messages back. I still talk to friends that I made on it. To call back to my opener, it was a magical time as the app grew quickly around a massive influx. They eventually pivoted and sold to Spotify for what was clearly a better business, but I look back on those few months as some of the best time I’ve ever spent on social media. The magic of asynchronous audio messages made me feel in control as a user. There something I don’t feel I have yet on Clubhouse which has given me a sense of being overstimulated and even anxious. Timing choice is a significant part of social media scale for users as not everyone can be extremely online.
Clubhouse’s product choices in the next few months will determine how long they can keep that magic going and for how many people. Their team has captured something special for a lot of people and and they some of the best institutional backing in venture capital. I’d personally love if they went in a more conversational less status audience driven direction. But it’s not my startup so all I can do is comment from the sidelines and wish them the best.