I remember when I finally got an invite to join Clubhouse. My friend had recently gotten off the waiting list and sent me a text with a link to download the app. I was excited—I had heard nothing but great things about the platform for months. The exclusivity of the app, which required an existing member to invite you, also heightened my anticipation. After creating my account, I landed on the home page and with a single click joined a conversation between relatively high profile celebrities.
I’m certain we’ve all wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall during an important moment in history. Perhaps the situation room during a tense crisis, or a Board room during an important corporate pivot, or at a party with Hollywood stars. That’s what it felt like using Clubhouse for the first time. I thought it was amazing.
Conversations were polite, no one was shouting over one another, and by and large, there were no ad hominems. Discussions seemed intimate, thoughtful, and productive. There were no ads, no clickbaits, no sensationalism. Sure, there was some pretension and smugness, with sprinklings of five-dollar words here and there. But it was a world’s difference from the typical hell-hole of Twitter, Facebook, or the infamous YouTube comments section.
The platform seemed too good to be true—and it was. After maybe a week or so on the platform, I realized that Clubhouse, much like the other platforms to come before it, was an utter waste of time.
Within a week or so of joining the app, prepare to be sold to. It could be a book, podcast, blog, business, website, or worse—a session with a life coach or a course on how to escape the 9-to-5 rat race and get filthy rich. I’ve never seen more self-promotion and self-aggrandizement as I’ve seen on Clubhouse. Entire resumes are included in bios, with not a single high school volunteering experience, participation trophy, or chance encounter with a celebrity left out (see Clubhouse Bio Generator). People import clout from other platforms by including Twitter or Instagram followers, net worths, or valuations of companies they’ve sold.
It follows that on Clubhouse, more people have the desire to be heard than the desire to listen. For example, I’ve been in mega-rooms that have more than twenty speakers, each waiting to turn the conversation toward their agenda for the thirty second window they have. And in these mega-rooms, I’m confident that people don’t care much about what others have to say. Most people probably stick around for a chance to reach an audience that by themselves they could not build.
FOMO and Flow Disruption
Clubhouse is the ideal platform for generating FOMO—the fear of missing out. Other social media’s share this property—like on Facebook when you see a picture of your friends having fun without you—but on Clubhouse, FOMO is built into its core concept.
Because no conversation is saved and many conversations are not scheduled, users have to chase a window of opportunity to listen or join a conversation. Of course, part of the appeal of Clubhouse is spontaneity and transiency. But is this tradeoff worth adjusting our schedules according to the whim of others, namely strangers and celebrities we don’t know?
If you have notifications on, and worse case, if you’ve set them to the very frequent option, then say goodbye to the flow and rhythm of your day. Your phone will constantly be bombarded by tempting invitations to drop what you are doing and open the app.
We live in a world of unlimited information. There are millions of books, blogs, and YouTube videos to watch. Our news-cycles are so short-lived that decade-defining events are old news by next week. We also have new technological inventions that can make use of time we usually spend bored. Most important of which is on-demand audio in the form of podcasts, audiobooks, and now Clubhouse. People can use Clubhouse while working out, driving, or doing the chores.
Audio-first content has created a new addiction—an addiction to information. People with this addiction feel compelled to gather more and more what they consider to be knowledge. But there is a clear distinction between absorbing information and learning. You can get a lot of information on Clubhouse. Often, people on Clubhouse are passively listening in the background to fill up idle time.
And although idle time may not appear to be productive, some amount of it seems essential to our mental wellbeing. As we move through life, we need to digest and process the things that happen to us. When do we get a chance to do so? Not when we’re doing calculus homework or listening to Clubhouse, but when we are doing nothing. That’s the magical reason why we get “shower thoughts”—those brilliant realizations that we have in the quiet confines of our bath tubs.
Without idle time, life’s unprocessed events, emotions, judgements, and teachings can manifest as generalized anxiety or unease. You may have experienced this yourself. Maybe there was a time when you were anxious, but not sure why. Then you thought about it for a bit and realized your friend forgot to venmo you for the Chipotle you bought him last night, that cheeky fellow. And just like that, articulating the cause of the discomfort made it disappear.
My own mental state changed after I embraced more idle time during the day. In the past, I would listen to a podcast every free moment I had, even when I brushed my teeth and during breaks while studying. Even five minutes of doldrum was unacceptable. Unsurprisingly, at the end of the day, my brain was fried and I felt anxious. After I started doing nothing during the breaks in my day, however, my mind became calmer. I lost the urge to be constantly stimulated and began appreciating the random daydreams, old songs, and memories that came to me when I just sat still.
Many people say Clubhouse is a great place to meet new people and make friends. I don’t deny it can provide an opportunity to network professionally, but I’m skeptical that it’s a good place to make friends.
Relationships that start on Clubhouse, as well as most digital-first relationships, are so different from the relationships we make in-person. You may meet someone on Clubhouse who shares the same interest as you and can talk to you for a few hours about it. But when your car breaks down or you need support during a difficult time in life, they’re not going to be there for you. Likewise, you can’t be there for them.
Instead these pseudo-friendships subtract from real-life relationships, because we only have a finite amount of time to spend with others. I also suspect they trick people into feeling a sense of community, while not making people feel any less lonely, because they are not strong relationships.
Low effort, low value, low leverage content
People on Clubhouse jump on for a few minutes whenever they get a chance and tend to speak extemporaneously. Conversations are not saved and rooms are capped (5,000 right now but will likely increase as the app scales). People consider these features as what makes Clubhouse unique and better than its social media counterparts. And when I first used the app, I thought that too. But once the novelty of these design choices wore off, I realized that they were nothing but major bugs for both creators and listeners.
Firstly, Clubhouse encourages low effort, low value content. The clearest contrast with Clubhouse’s on-the-cuff rambles are books. When an author writes a book it’s often years or decades from their initial idea to when they finally publish. Over this time, they’ve likely spent hundreds of hours researching, hundreds of hours writing, and hundreds of hours editing. They’ve layered ideas over ideas like a painting, abandoning old drafts, removing cruft and carefully organizing its structure. Their manuscript is passed through multiple hands and has been professionally edited.
A speaker on Clubhouse can just roll out of bed and start talking. Of course the quality of content will be inferior to what the speakers themselves could convey to us in a book or an article. I’ve listened to many Joe Rogan podcasts for the full three hours and then read the guest’s book, which gave me more insight into their ideas in the first few chapters than their entire 3 hour discussion.
We don’t always want to listen to audiobooks, however. Sometimes we want to listen to raw and authentic conversations, like those in podcasts. Even in this case, Clubhouse is still a poorer alternative. You can’t pause, rewind, or re-listen on Clubhouse, all of which you can do with a podcast. There’s no better way to describe it than the cable of podcasting, with unnaturally imposed bandwidth restrictions.
These are the disadvantages for the audience, but it's a bad platform for creators too. The room cap limits the reach of your message. It’s like standing in front of a large crowd with a microphone. Thousands of people can potentially hear, but with the internet every single person on the planet can hear (see Oppa Gangnam Style). In addition, content is lost as soon as it is created, as compared to a Youtube video or Twitch steam, which lasts for eternity (at least until the data centers keep chugging). Other platforms offer creators infinite leverage and minimal marginal cost of replication; Clubhouse does not.
Clubhouse is still in its infancy so it can always pivot or add new features. But at its current state, it provides no real advantages to existing mediums of distribution. That said, I have nothing against the founders of Clubhouse nor anyone who uses it. I also acknowledge that it has helped a lot of people, and it is beautifully designed and stunningly bug-free. But ultimately I think the platform is a huge house of cards built on hype and novelty that will eventually come tumbling down.