Clubhouse is an audio-based social media platform probably spreading like wildfire in “elite circles” near you, recently in the EMEA region. That’s due to a strategy currently focused on expanding its user base in the region, doubling down on Germany and the UK through an invite-only system. Having launched in the US last spring, it initially attracted Silicon Valley venture capitalists, tech bros, and influencer types – which is perhaps what contributed to that exclusivity vibe. Moreover it only works on iOS, which thus far only adds to the great divide. As a respected Venture Capitalist put it in one of his blogs in a different context: “A widening gap – a gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” between those with disposable income and those that don’t have jobs. A gap between fact and fiction, between those that have access to the truth and those that are fed lies non-stop. A gap that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic, certainly, but also by the forces of technology, media, and politics, not just in the last four years, but for the past decade.”
When I look at other reviews using words like “elite circles” I can’t help but think of “virtue hoarders” – a twist to Chomsky’s Professional Managerial Class “elite workers who labor hard in a space of performative identity and virtue signaling, and who stand in the way of social justice and economic redistribution” but really, let’s not go there.
Aside from virtue signalers and hoarders on the platform, who at times speak on behalf of serious social issues that they often don’t represent, it is of course full of nice and sincere people looking to drive change through their work. The social network has a twitter layout with more bio space to describe yourself, work, and/or passion. It’s divided into different audio-only chat rooms where you can have conversations, in effect giving you the feeling of a live podcast. Some users host regular shows joined by thousands, but you can also decide to simply tune in.
The topics you find people start are rich and variegated, but given how it all began in closed tech/business circles in SF, most profiles and conversations center around startups. Art, design, history, social justice, and many other topics also started to mushroom lately. I’ve personally checked out rooms that spoke about technology/knowledge workers with a migration background in Germany, black lives matter, the Egyptian revolution, impact investment, startup exits in emerging markets, conversation ethics, comedy, trivialities, and some random nonsense. My only issue is with the app’s elitism and social hierarchy design – it doesn’t give the microphone to poor people when it’s poverty that we’re talking about, or factory workers when the topic of unionisation is at hand. It’s the same social media trap: same pool of people, saying the same thing, over the same issues that are often shallow and self serving.
To conclude, Clubhouse is a great way to network and connect with likeminded people during lockdowns, but it also has to open up a little to include broader communities and social stratifications sometime soon, at least when the invite-only growth strategy runs its course.
Why Clubhouse Could Fail
Everyone seems to think Clubhouse is the “next big thing” but I think there are many reasons why it could still fail. Naval and Keith Rabois said good things about it, everyday a new celebrity joins, news outlets and talk shows keep bringing it into the spotlight, and A16 invested more than $10 million, valuing the startup at over $100 million. But here are some contrarian points to consider on how product development can eventually pave the way towards failure.
Daily active users aren’t growing as fast as a few months earlier. Looking deeper, retention is also slipping. It’s not terrible, but new users aren’t sticking around the same way those early users were. Talking to users revealed that Clubhouse really has two totally different use cases:
1. Content (Shows, Panels, Fireside Chats, Q&As, AMAs)
2. Chilling (networking, making friends, hanging out)
A lot of content can be engaging and really interesting, especially when someone like Elon Musk pops in to comment on something. So, it has its moments of “serendipity” – a unique selling point.
Clubhouse goes on to double down on content and builds features like scheduling, Q&A tools, and monetization. Content creators are happy, but retention doesn’t improve, because it’s a bad case of the “interesting-ness problem”. When a user opens an app (IG, youtube, TikTok) they need juicy content within 7 seconds or they bounce. This is the “Interesting-ness” problem. Those other apps (IG, youtube, TikTok) have millions of pieces of content to choose from. So their algorithms get really good at finding juicy content for you right away. But clubhouse is live. So you need something interesting that’s also happening right now.
Content is simply not as engaging as carefully planned podcasts. On Clubhouse, if you join a conversation 30 minutes late, you missed the best talking points and might be lost. On with Twitch, the “game stores the context”. No matter when you join, you look at the game and you know what the player is doing. Twitch creators are live 40 hours a week, the best creators do weekly shows 3-4 hrs a week, and the gaming industry – where Twitch is vertically focused – makes content creation easier. Clubhouse on the other hand is horizontal, so “great content” will be needed across every category.
When you think of content creators going after a big audience, do they want to switch platforms and spend an hour “live” on Clubhouse to reach 2,000 people, or do a podcast – with enough preparation – to reach 200,000 people? So one of big challenge for Clubhouse is to offer a recording feature to get around that problem. Even if it’s developed however, Clubhouse is still bound to flop. When creators care more about the recording, they stop inviting random audience members, so the fun of “live” is gone. Listeners also ask themselves why they should show up live when they can listen to a recorded podcast on more than 10 platforms (there are Hootsuite type of podcasting tools that post one recording on every platform out there).
Pivoting strategy into chilling (networking, making friends, hanging out) doesn’t make the cut either because of slow growth. It’s just the tech and influencer niche that really appreciate the serendipity the app has to offer. In other sectors and verticals however, Clubhouse doesn’t seem to offer much value over other social apps.