Clubhouse Isn’t What It Says It Is
Why Clubhouse is destined to become more like Twitch than Twitter
Clubhouse has exploded recently. It’s sitting at ~6 million registered users, up from 600k in December 2020, and is currently valued at $1 billion (up from $100 million in May 2020). That makes it a certified Unicorn alongside AirBnb, Uber, etc.
As I’ve scrolled through Twitter over the past few weeks and read tweet after tweet about Clubhouse’s certain world domination, something has felt off.
None of my non-startup-or-tech-nerd friends are talking about Clubhouse. I haven’t run into random people using Clubhouse in the wild. I have been spammed by “Welcome X random friend to Clubhouse” notifications, but I never see those people online and check back weeks later and see most of them sitting at 2 or 3 following and 1 or 2 followers.
I don’t *feel* the presence of a 6-million-strong user base like I would on other social platforms. I’m trying to put a finger on why that’s the case.
The Attention Capacity Problem
I joined Clubhouse in December 2020 — not early by any means. Still, I’ve come to realize that my experience in Clubhouse rooms is basically the same as it was when there were 600k users instead of 6 million. I’m sure many Clubhouse users would argue that they found as many interesting conversations when the community was small as they do now, even after a 10,000% increase in users.
Clubhouse’s core experience is sitting in a room and listening (and, in the founders’ vision, talking). In a given room, a strong majority of users are… listening. Logistically, only one person can talk at a time, and you can only listen to one room at a time.
Whether there are 599,999 users listening with you or 5,999,999, the experience of listening to one person talk is the same.
The reality is: Adding more users to Clubhouse has not enhanced the core experience.
What other social network does that statement hold true for? Nearly every platform we’ve seen in the past 20 years has characteristics which are enhanced by a massive network effect. Facebook is made better when you connect with more friends and see new posts more and more frequently. Twitter is made better when there’s a constant stream of new, interesting tweets at all times.
You might assume that more Clubhouse users would = more interesting conversations to choose from. Unfortunately, the average new Clubhouse user doesn’t contribute to interesting conversation. Clubhouse has becomes polluted with hundreds (thousands?) of concurrent conversations that are largely uninteresting.
You can only choose one, so it better be worth your time. If you’re on Clubhouse, you’ve probably noticed that you scan the list of speakers before entering a room. If there isn’t a name you recognize, it’s increasingly unlikely that you’ll even give the room a shot the more you use the platform.
I assume the founders of Clubhouse recognized this problem. It’s part of the reason they kept this thing so exclusive for so long.
It’s also part of the reason they’re investing so heavily in clubs with shows on a regular schedule.
Clubhouse isn’t a passive social network in the way we know social networks to be today. I can mindlessly scroll through Twitter anywhere, but I need to be paying attention to get anything out of Clubhouse and I can only pay attention to one voice at one time. I’m much more likely to open TikTok than Clubhouse when I’m on the bus… unless I already know a certain Clubhouse show is on that I enjoy.
The Incongruent Goals Problem
You might be thinking: “The point of Clubhouse is to actually engage in these conversations. If you’re actually open to meeting people on Clubhouse, the experience is made better with more new people to talk to.”
This, it seems, is Clubhouse’s vision and goal for all of their users. They want to foster more intimate communication; after all, Clubhouse is listed as a Social Networking application on the App Store. The best way to encourage someone to recurrently engage with the app is to nudge them to actually talk.
In most cases, for the average joe, talking isn’t the goal nor a possibility. It would be impractical as well as counterproductive to the Clubhouse experience to actively encourage all users to hop on the mic in any room all the time. Most people don’t have anything they want to say anyway — they just want to hear people they admire talk about things they think are interesting.
44% of Twitter accounts have never tweeted. The friction to talk on Clubhouse in a public room is astronomically higher than clicking the tweet button on “My First Tweet.” I’m comfortable assuming that ~98% of Clubhouse users have never spoken in a truly public (not just a couple friends) room.
Devoid of any prospect (or motivation) to speak, the average user is going to devote their time on Clubhouse to listening to blockbuster rooms when their schedule allows. That is at odds with the vision Clubhouse wishes to portray outwardly, at least.
The reality is: People don’t use Clubhouse the way Clubhouse says they want people to use it.
Other “social networks”, being passive in nature, are built to cater to the lurker; the user who consumes content all day but never contributes themselves. Other “social networks” make the vast majority of their revenue from increasing engagement among that audience.
I don’t believe Clubhouse has built their platform without the lurker in mind, per-say, but it’s clear that they are trying to encourage more active participation. They recognize that convincing someone to engage in conversation is the best way to get them to come back.
Again, they placed their application under the category: “Social Networking.”
Unfortunately, this goal is out of sync with the goal of most Clubhouse users. Most of my friends hop on Clubhouse for entertainment… to listen to the big rooms they hear about through other “social networks.”
You only sporadically open Clubhouse and see nothing interesting a few dozen times before you quit trying and just listen to certain rooms when somebody on Twitter says you should.
What Paul Davison and Rohan Seth have done with Clubhouse is remarkable. They’ve managed to scale natural human conversation to a level never before made possible.
The challenges that Clubhouse faces are just challenges. They can be overcome. I don’t mean to suggest Clubhouse is doomed to fail so much as I mean to say that the platform’s current trajectory isn’t in line with its (portrayed) vision.
If I had to make a prediction about Clubhouse on-the-spot, I’d wager that it is destined to become more like Twitch than Twitter (despite it clearly wishing to augment the latter). Clubhouse won’t be the true social network it claims it is; rather, a collection of talk shows with occasional celebrity guests at predictable times that I can make plans to attend. Throw ’em behind a paywall, and you have a decent business plan.
Is that what the Clubhouse team wants?
Is that what the Clubhouse team is planning for?
As long as the Elon Musk’s of the world keep talking on Clubhouse (and as long as unqualified randos like me keep writing about it), people will be listening, at least.