Thoughts on Clubhouse

I got on to Clubhouse, so you don’t have to. It is actually a fascinating idea but one I can’t quite adhere to fully for numerous reasons, some of which I’ll dive into here.

But first, whenever I jump into a room on Clubhouse, there is literally nothing that couldn’t be better served in podcast format. The ability to stop/start when you like, the offline capability and the accompanying show notes that often point you to supporting materials, are all clearly missing from Clubhouse. This has been confirmed by the fact that many presenters are actually recording and publishing their “talks” through podcasts and YouTube post-room.

In fact, that’s the primary reason I got on the platform, to try to understand its relation to podcasts and to see if it would disrupt them as so many have been predicting. I’m happy to say that no, Clubhouse will not put a nail in the coffin of podcasts any time soon. If anything it is more like to become the model on which conference panel discussions get digitalised (and subsequently marginalised in value). There’s scope for the democratisation and digitalisation of many of the panels that are hosted around the world. COVID-19 has accelerated the acceptance of that reality. As a panel host/guest speaker invested in that market, i.e., if it’s your main job, I’d be worried about where well-paid work will come from in the next couple of years.

In fact, I’d go as far to say that if the platform becomes very popular, it could decouple live panel discussions from conferences and even kill off local discussion in-person forums. And like any platform on the internet at internet scale, the problem quickly becomes discovery. How do you find out about those interesting and informative conversations? How do you stop from getting placed in a social bubble (remember you’re linked to your contacts)? What part does moderation play in this?

But what is Clubhouse? I think a good way think about it is a cross between a phone-in radio show from a small town, populated by procrastinators, narcissists, and grifters. Its sudden popularity has meant that it is the latest target for dollar store wisdom mongers, snake oil merchants and outright fraudsters. That is not to say that there aren’t any interesting and enlightening discussions taking place on the platform, of course there are, just like we’ve seen on TED. But boy, there’s a lot of absolute crap out there too! If you do join, just beware of the VCBS and the pathetic rich-splaining like ‘Ooh look at me, I’m a millionaire’ or “Get More Clients in 2021”. I think I’ve said enough.

Clubhouse
Clubhouse

From an analytical point of view, I can see it as an ancillary service in digital conferencing —something that despite trying, we still haven’t cracked meaningfully, particularly the conference-goer interaction space. You’ve all been there, when the filthy mic gets passed around the hall in the Q&A session. You’ve probably all spent time in a Zoom-like conference wanting to get to talk to the panel/presenter and couldn’t because the tools don’t allow for that yet. Using Clubhouse as a digital alternative might possibly be very compelling.

The big question, of course, is how is Clubhouse going to monetise. I’ll put that to bed immediately because there is only one proven solution to qualitative tools on the Internet. Ads. Only businesses pay for quality (ahem) software. Consumers wilfully (or ignorantly) allow spying to be performed on their footsteps in cyberspace for that to be monetised later using some flaky and downright fraudulent claims on accuracy and ROI. And so it will pass. Clubhouse will become Clubhouse + ads. The funding round mostly from A16z practically guarantees this. They have bet big and will want big returns or nothing.

There is also a technical and practical dilemma for Clubhouse too. How it can interject adverts without the speakers announcing “This room is sponsored by …” —something I’m not even sure is possible in the T&Cs. (Note to self: Check the terms for advertising clauses). If it is audio, i.e., the primary reason you get on the platform, then having your favourite show interrupted by an advert about a website builder or better yet, the next “hot” Clubhouse room is so user hostile that I can only imagine adverts inserted as you enter or leave a room. Interstitial adds are super agressive and frictional to the point that many of us might reduce the use of the app. The other option is visual ads either static of video-based. Again, this is a tricky prospect as many people open the app, join a room and turn the screen off listening on headphones, the phone’s speaker or AirPlay-ing it to the voice in the box. I mean, where’s the moat? How is this different from live-feed podcast?

As it stands today, Clubhouse is just a feature waiting to be copied by the big boys in the classroom. Twitter and Facebook have started doing just that. They’re unlikely to stop until they can kill off the disruptor before it gets a foothold or be told to stop by legislation. It’ll most likely be achieved through two strategies; using their already hard-won networks and graphs, and out-featuring the features of the product for nothing more than is little more personal data.

I wrote this passage a few weeks ago as I was taking notes using Clubhouse:

Just as an aside, a note about building the network. Clubhouse requires, yes requires, you to upload your entire contacts list if you want to invite someone to the party. You get two invites when you’re successfully integrated. If you store contact details on any European citizen (regardless of where you like), you are defect breaking GDPR laws unless you’ve got permission from the person being invited. I make no judgement, I inform. Think about that for a minute. I currently have 1346 contact cards on my Mac (some are old or defunct), but Clubhouse wants 1300+ just to send two invites. I suspect around 800 or more of those contacts are EU citizens; therefore I’d be breaking the law over 800 times.

That paragraph is meaningless today, as the app has been updated to allow an invitation to be sent to individual phone numbers thus avoiding the wrath of the EU for now. Who knows if they’ll go after those who have already broken the law. 🤷‍♂️ For them, Clubhouse has provided means by which you can delete the contacts you uploaded. Looks a bit like shredding the papers before the inspectors to me. As far as I’m aware, French authorities have opened an investigation to determine if there was indeed a breach of law by Clubhouse.

I doubt much will come of it, though. But it is a sign of the very different times in which startups in the tech industry are trying to get off the ground, of which they will be no doubt acutely aware.

30 March 2021 — French West Indies

Matthew Cowen @matthewcowen