Can the Clubhouse Craze Outlast the Pandemic?

The startup’s opportunity is not conference calls, it’s never-ending drive-time radio

The invitation-only audio-chat social networking app clubhouse is pictured on a smartphone
Photo: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty Images

Remember when the back of everyone’s toilet had a pile of magazines on it?Those magazine piles vanished with the advent of the mobile internet. Today, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are never-ending sources of content you can tune into in those spare moments, to occupy that part of your brain. Clubhouse — the new darling of Silicon Valley and the extremely online set — may have hit upon a rich vein of similar desperation, and if the company navigates it correctly, could become just as essential.

Stratechery’s Ben Thompson wrote about Clubhouse’s opportunity last week. Economics of podcasts and blogging aside, his most important product insight is this one about the role of serendipitous discovery:

The key for Clubhouse will be in honing its algorithms so that every time a listener opens the app they are presented with a conversation that is interesting to them. This is the other area where podcasts miss the mark: it is amazing to have so much choice, but all too often that choice is paralyzing; sometimes — a lot of times! — users just want to scroll their Twitter feed instead of reading a long blog post, or click through Stories or swipe TikToks, and Clubhouse is poised to provide the same mindless escapism for background audio.

Current discussion (and dismissive jokes) about the service complain that it’s essentially audio-only panel discussions, or conference calls with internet strangers. It’s sensible to be allergic to Elon Musk’s freestyle takes, but that misses the long-term strategic play.

(Remember when Twitter circa 2011 was just a bunch of Silicon Valley tech guys documenting what they had for breakfast? How boring.)

Captive audiences

Audio is the media format that we use to fill our minds when our hands are occupied with other tasks. We listen to the radio, stream our favorite Spotify playlists, or tune into audiobooks and podcasts in the car because driving is mindless and we crave stimulation (also: texting is illegal). Or rather, our hands and eyeballs are necessarily occupied elsewhere, but our ears are not.

There are plenty of other times like this, where audio is the only appropriate content format to ingest: when making dinner, washing the dishes, folding laundry.

I usually have a few podcasts ready to go, and I use Pocket to queue articles to read to me via text-to-speech. That’s what I put on in the car and in the kitchen. It’s more curated than the radio, but crucially, I expend some effort prepping my bookmarked reading list, and the playback list can inconveniently run dry. Plus, it’s dangerous to “switch channels” between these things while driving.

First-time caller, long time listener

The switching channels analogy is useful, because what Thompson gets at is that Clubhouse can ultimately transcend faux conferences and evolve into a never-ending stream of something more like talk radio that is guaranteed to be interesting to you.

“Drop-in audio chat,” which is how the service currently taglines itself, does not really get at this idea. Most people don’t want to chat, most of the time. Most people just want something to listen to while they’re doing other things.

Those who regularly raise their hands and participate are not the primary constituency; they are a minority. But participants help generate content for the hosts of the conversations, which in turn allows those conversations to last longer and be more compelling.

In the same way that the late conservative media personality Rush Limbaugh — like his countless imitators — employed callers as a foil to turn monologues into “shows,” audio streams on Clubhouse can use participants to give amateur hosts enough grist to mill something worth keeping on. And like all good “social” media, there are novel opportunities for user engagement beyond raising your hand to talk.

Democratize radio; aggregate talking and listening

As Thompson points out, podcasts may turn out to be the blogs to Clubhouse’s Twitter. Or the Great American Bathroom Book to Twitter’s feed. (Want to buy a used copy of a bathroom reader? Didn’t think so.)

Clubhouse hosts will be creators, and the business-savvy ones will want to monetize their content (just as we see with paid newsletters). The participants, like radio callers, are providing free labor that makes money for the platform (and the hosts). Podcast publishing groups of today may end up looking like the charmingly old-fashioned blog ad networks of yore — when Clubhouse knows about your personal revealed interests (the way Twitter or Facebook does), it can recommend real-time Clubhouse streams that match those interests and aggregate advertising sales and targeting on the back end without any effort by content creators at all. And thus the platform — like all successful aggregators — would make the lion’s share of dollars while tossing hosts enough to keep them coming back.

If they’re smart, Clubhouse will model the experience for most users like a personalized radio dial. After bookmarking some interesting sources, you can “set it and forget it,” but then would be able to do quick dip-ins with a simple UX that lets you switch channels and provide some form of social engagement signaling without taking your eyes off the road.

(The same gruesome algorithmic downward spiral that we see in other social media may happen here, too — outrage and conspiracies are naturally engaging, and if you thought Limbaugh was bad, just wait until an app fills unsuspecting ears with even more inflammatory stuff, a dynamic to watch out for.)

Will Clubhouse attain any of this? Right now, juiced by pandemic consumption habits, it looks like it’s following the trajectory of many early social networks that eventually became dominant. The opportunity to fill passive listening time with “mindless escapism” — even create new listening time if the content is powerful — is where the big green field lies.

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