Clubhouse review: A step forward in niche community building

In her review of Clubhouse, NYT reporters Erin Griffith and Taylor Lorenz referenced Marc Andreessen’s recent rallying cry to build. “It was an inspirational call to arms,” they write. “But one of the first things Mr. Andreessen and other Silicon Valley venture capitalists have since rushed to help build was something else entirely: an app called Clubhouse.”

It’s exactly the kind of smug, breezy potshotting one has come to expect from east-coast tech journalism. It’s gross in part because it’s too easy. Everyone read that a16z post. But the less-read, but more relevant set of posts for understanding why a16z, Andresson’s VC firm, might have invested in Clubhouse come from a16z partner Li Jin

How Clubhouse works

The app is invite-only right now. There’s no real onboarding, so once I signed up through my Twitter I was spit out into a kind of foyer where I had a few “rooms” I could enter based on the names of the people inside. 

It wasn’t clear what would happen when I entered the room. Would I be on mute? But, I charged ahead anyway.

There are up to three tiers of users in each room. It’s not immediately clear what each tier means or who decides who goes into which tier. 

Everyone in the room is represented by a square avatar photo and a name. They’re three or four across and unlimited rows, as far as I can tell. 

The speakers are at the top. 

Under them is the “Followed by the speakers” tier. Last you have the “Others in the room” tier. You’re muted by default, and if you want to be unmuted, you have to raise your hand. Apparently a moderator can choose whether or not to raise you to the level of speaker. I’m assuming if you start the room you’re a moderator and can choose who else to give mod powers to but I’m not sure. 

What the conversations are like 

The people in the first room I ever entered on Clubhouse were talking about… Clubhouse. It’s interesting to be able to jump in and join an ongoing, real-time conversation regardless of where you are, what else you’re doing, or how you look. 

While there were some cringeworthy moments, such as when what appeared to be an older white guy complained about cancel culture meaning he can’t say “open kimono” anymore. And some casual whorephobia. 

But there was also a really interesting conversation spurred by someone asking whether the people in the room identified more with Beyonce or Rihanna. One woman brought up how Beyonce has reached a level of fame and financial success where she has the latitude to center social issues like police brutality against Black Americans. 

Despite the lack of video, the conversation feels more like real life than Zoom. I think it’s the decreased latency and uncanny valley. There are fewer dropped words and phrases, so there’s less fear that you’ll get a stunned silence and not know whether it’s because people didn’t hear you or because you’re awkward. 

Clubhouse also seems to support crosstalk better than Zoom, which is interesting for me. I hate being interrupted, and try not to interrupt others in conversation. But what I’ve come to realize using Zoom and now Clubhouse is that when you get more than two people together interruptions are really necessary to keep the conversation flowing. Without them, no one knows when it’s time to talk and you get silences that get harder to break the longer they go on.

What’s next for social media

People are rightfully interested in who’s on Clubhouse now and who’s likely to sign up in the near future. Right now it’s mostly VCs and tech founders, with the occasional appearance from a celebrity. 

It was super cool to get an alert one night at like 10:30 pm that Hannibal Burress is chatting on Clubhouse. I entered the room to see what they were talking about. And, just to see if I could, I raised my hand and got promoted to speaker. Then I closed the app and went to bed because I was tired and high and not about to embarrass myself. 

But what’s more interesting to me is the setup. 

I think Clubhouse is a step towards building the tools for people to participate in a trend in social media away from the mass reach of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and LinkedIn and toward what Li Jin calls the “passion economy” and the microinfluencers and niche communities described in the most recent Hubspot future of social media report. 

In sum, most people don’t want or need to connect with thousands of people they have nothing in common with and with whom they share few behavioral norms. Instead, most people want a safe, friendly place where they can connect with tens or hundreds of people they have important things in common with. 

There are at least three main barriers to creating and maintaining safe, friendly places where people can connect with tens or hundreds of people they have important things in common with. 

First, maintaining safe, friendly places requires human moderators. Fair, transparent, active moderation is a lot of work and the payoff isn’t always there. So there’s always going to be more demand for good moderation than supply. Second, the smaller and more insular the community, the harder it is to monetize. Third, you’ve got to find, attract, and retain the right people in your community. This is also a delicate balance where you don’t want to be too inclusive or you end up with people who destroy value but you also don’t want to be too exclusive or you get echo chambers. 

One thing Clubhouse does better than any other social media app I’m aware of is make moderating a discussion super easy and immediately rewarding. The ability to give and revoke talking privileges is a super easy and simple way to safeguard the quality of the discussion. And the rewards are obvious and immediate. 

The other interesting thing about Clubhouse is that when I’m using it I give it my rapt attention. Sure, I might be lifting weights or something if I’m not a speaker. But it’s a different kind of attention than what I give to scrolling through my feed or stories in other social media platforms. This could portend really interesting things for monetization. 

The last thing I want to mention about Clubhouse that I think is really interesting is that unlike any other popular social media platform there’s no record of anything that’s said on Clubhouse. Anyone could, in theory, record the conversation in any room. But, by default, Clubhouse works like 4chan or 8chan, except instead of all messages disappearing after a period of time there’s never any record of them to begin with. So how will ad targeting work? Is Clubhouse recording all conversations and keyword tagging them? Will there even be ads? 

The only thing necessary for healthy online microcommunities that Clubhouse doesn’t solve is the curation. Right now you can “follow” users on the app, which seems to mean you get notified when they enter or start a room. But it would be great to find and follow people based on mutual interests. 

The last super interesting thing about Clubhouse is that so far it has a nicer vibe than Facebook or Twitter. It could be who’s invited, the moderation, or the fact that it more closely resembles real life, where people are generally nicer than they are online.

So far, I think Clubhouse is a cool app that’s moving things forward in terms of smaller, nicer, more niche online communities. We’ll see how things go from here.

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