Clubhouse has reminded us what the internet originally promised us: collaboration and community, not arguments and alienation. Conversations on the audio app feel intimate and curated, rather than public and open-ended. Perhaps because of its invitation-only model, the ‘clubby’ feeling on Clubhouse means more users are interested in meaningful conversations, and taking those conversations further, on other platforms and into real life.
I hope that Clubhouse can show the big social media platforms — which Clubhouse itself is on the way to joining — what we really want from social media. But I doubt that the exclusivity and trust that Clubhouse is built on can scale, unless the way we use social media completely changes.
I’ve been on Clubhouse since October; I was invited by an early member who was even the face of the app. But even in those five months, I feel the slow creep of the internet troll seeping into the platform. Clubhouse’s intimacy can create overfamiliarity or inappropriate behaviour. There are some users who have already become infamous for being provocative and offensive about sensitive racial, political or religious issues. Others have tried to use it as a pick-up platform, inviting women on stage only to proposition them.
If Clubhouse and others want to preserve and scale the magic of the early days, they should start treating online spaces more like physical ones: creating some filter over what people and behaviours are acceptable, and allowing the community to hold itself accountable.
Scaling the magic
Clubhouse’s founders will be as keen as anyone to hold onto what makes it special. Less than a year after launching, it is currently valued at $100m. After its latest funding round, it is predicted to be worth almost $1bn, making it a big player in social media.
Other big players have benefited from the isolation of lockdown, but it is Clubhouse’s sense of community and authenticity, fuelled by real-time audio conversations, that has stood out. By allowing users to derive meaning from the intonation and rhythm of speech, and to feel that they are part of a fireside chat — rather than a town hall — it has captured the moment.
Clubhouse could end up being an audio-enabled Twitter clone.
But how big can the fire get before the fireside chat becomes a scattering of strangers? With invites in some territories being sold for up to $77, many want to join — but some of those may not be a true part of the ‘community’.
Clubhouse hasn’t needed to make money yet; it is still existing solely on VC. When it is forced to take the training wheels off and make its own money, it will struggle to maintain its special appeal — and could end up being an audio-enabled Twitter clone (Twitter has launched Twitter Spaces to pre-empt this).
This scalability problem is already breaking Clubhouse. The more I use it, the more I see people ejected from rooms for either spurting out racist or sexist comments, or for shameless self-promotion.
So how can all social media platforms, new and old, have some ‘Clubhousiness’, so we can enjoy them more?
Simply, we need to demand the same standards of behaviour online that we would expect in brick-and-mortar locations. Blocking an anonymous user isn’t enough; they can just create another account. Maybe we need to block the person who recommended them too. This would help to get around the pay-for-invite model.
Getting your friends, as well as yourself, barred would add extra social pressure to stay classy. This works in real life and it can work online: if your plus one at an exclusive club started a fight, you would probably expect to be kicked out with them.
Another solution is to increase accountability. We can end the trolling that anonymity creates by doing something else that an exclusive club does: asking for ID. To address privacy concerns, this could be held centrally by a trusted third party such as the many ID verification companies already used by banking apps, and not by each platform (Clubhouse is already the subject of privacy concerns.)
The assumption that social media should be free is breaking it.
This ID requirement already applies to certain types of online behaviour, like running political ads on Facebook. Maybe if it applied to everything, social media would be so much better.
A final option is to remember that no exclusive club is free. Paying for entry is part of a night out; maybe online clubs can be the same. The assumption that social media should be free is breaking it.
Not everyone will want to pay, or share their ID — but if this is what it takes to create a platform where everyone is respectful, and if the content is high quality enough to justify the cost compared to joining an online conference or subscribing to a newspaper — it could work.
Measures like this would almost certainly slow down Clubhouse’s growth, but more importantly it would allow it to stay ‘clubby’ — which is what makes Clubhouse what it is.
Clubhouse could either be a blip in social media’s current trajectory, or a teachable moment that allows the whole industry to change course and shows us all what we really wanted from social media.
I hope it is the latter.