In the technology world, this may be remembered as the month when Clubhouse started to matter. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg made appearances on the service. For a short time, Chinese-language discussions dealt with the Xinjiang issue in a frank and open manner, attracting wide public attention.
If you don’t already know, Clubhouse is a year-old social media service consisting of virtual “rooms” where people can talk to each other — by voice. That may not sound impressive, but many users swear by it, seeing it as a communications platform that could help restore peaceful discourse and civility rather than exacerbate tensions. I think of Clubhouse, which I joined last summer, as somewhere between talk radio and a dinner party.
Back in the 20th century, famed communications theorist Walter J. Ong suggested that oral cultures are more aggregative, more redundant, more conservative, and more openly questioning and dialogic. Given the social turmoil and polarization that the United States is going through, that all sounds pretty good.
To me, a lot of Clubhouse sounds like elders chatting around a traditional campfire, with many of the younger people listening in (noting that “elder” here is defined more by status than by age). Extra points go to those who are genuine, engaging and good at thinking out loud and leading a group. There is a subtle but definite set of hierarchies, though to the benefit of the conversation.
Tech is a major topic on Clubhouse, but there is also chatter about the NBA, South Asian cuisine, Nigerian politics, and dating advice, as well as many other topics. If you are a member, you can start your own room. Black voices are prominent.
Many of the virtues of Clubhouse stem from its software. Although the company has only about 10 people, the user experience is fun and empowering. For one thing, you can be involved immediately by the mere push of a single button, a kind of “one-click” listening.
Unlike a Zoom call, there is no video option, so it is more relaxing (or you can do the dishes while listening). The audience is represented by tiles with photos, so speakers feel the force of the crowd, which further encourages pleasant behavior. Room moderators can decide who has speaking rights and who does not. Practices of calling on people, and granting speaking rights, produce orderly discussions, though there are also more rowdy rooms with 30 or more people with speaking rights.
Members participate by invitation only, although membership has become increasingly easy to obtain since the service’s debut in spring 2020. Through access to your address book and the list of people you “follow,” Clubhouse connects you to conversations and people in a way that Zoom does not.
Recording conversations is against the rules. That lowers the risk of being canceled for a wayward remark. People still say bad things on Clubhouse, of course — but the people who get upset tend to go to Twitter to complain. The expectation is that moderators will restore order, and disgruntled listeners can just leave the room.
Clubhouse is well-designed to create buzz and a sense of excitement — it was a genuine surprise when Elon Musk showed up to question Vlad Tenev, the chief executive of Robinhood, about recent trading suspensions on that platform. Who knew what was going to happen next?
One of the great strengths of Clubhouse is its celebrity-friendliness. If you are a major tech executive, why not speak in a Clubhouse session rather than to a journalist? The assembled crowd will spread your message, and can vouch for what you said and its context. It would not surprise me if Clubhouse soon becomes the major conduit for news about tech and tech executives, perhaps for Hollywood stars too. The one group that seems most out of place on Clubhouse are the journalists, who possess no special status and are discouraged.
So far there are about 3.4 million downloads of Clubhouse, with about 900,000 of those coming just last month. The service probably will not remain open to China once the censors consider it more seriously, but at a suggested $1 billion valuation it has a bright future, even though the revenue model has not yet been pinned down.
My personal frustration with Clubhouse is simple. Often when listening I long for something more rapid and more informationally dense, as I can find on Twitter. Like most people, I do not like the nastiness frequently found there, or elsewhere for that matter. But I am learning that, in open systems, information density and nastiness may come bundled together.
So maybe Clubhouse’s niceness isn’t always for me. But at the margin, I am quite sure that America needs more of it.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.
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