Could Clubhouse be the next killer social app?

—In January 2019, we wrote a primer on an emerging social media platform called TikTok, in which we predicted it “could be the social media story of 2019.” Now we’re taking a look at another buzzy new social app, the audio-only network Clubhouse.—

A new term has come into vogue in tech circles: social audio. One of the companies at the forefront of this trend is Clubhouse, the latest Silicon Valley creation to be trumpeted as the new “it” platform in the constantly evolving social media space—garnering recent mentions in everything from The New York Times and Forbes to Good Housekeeping and Vogue.

Its buzziness is in large part a testament to the extensive media coverage, which has focused on its invitation-only access and the involvement of single-name celebrities like Oprah and Drake, as well as the flood of VC dollars that have been pouring into its coffers since its March 2020 debut.

In basic terms, Clubhouse is an audio-only platform, where users are invited to jump into conversations about topics that interest them via user-created rooms. A CNBC story last year described the user experience as a “mashup of listening to a podcast while scrolling through your Twitter feed and attending a conference remotely.” Bloomberg—which describes Clubhouse as “the next killer smartphone app”—offers a more succinct description: “[It’s] like a large conference call, but more fun.”

There are several theories about what is driving social audio’s growth, but one assertion is that listening to other humans speak can provide some much-needed intimacy in this new era of social distancing and isolation. Others say it does away with the ambiguity associated with written posts.

In a July blog post introducing the service, Clubhouse’s creators said that rather than simply typing something and hitting the “send” button, its users (which now number about 2 million) can participate in a back-and-forth discussion. It can eliminate the confusion that can so often lead to misunderstandings—and heated exchanges—on traditional platforms like Twitter and Facebook, they said.

“The intonation, inflection and emotion conveyed through voice allow you to pick up on nuance and form uniquely human connections with others,” they wrote. “You can still challenge each other and have tough conversations—but with voice there is often an ability to build more empathy. This is what drew us to the medium.”

In many ways, Clubhouse possesses all of the hallmarks of a Silicon Valley start-up: a rapid rise in valuation despite having zero dollars in revenue; a wave of breathless coverage by the business and mainstream press, and all of the attendant concerns about toxicity and user safety.

Speaking during his weekly “Decoding the future” segment on Montreal’s CHOM-FM this week, Six Pixels Group founder and former agency head Mitch Joel likened Clubhouse to AM talk radio, minus the skill of DJs and the curation capabilities of producers. He concluded, however, that it holds enormous promise. “It’s the most exciting thing we’ve seen… probably since TikTok,” he said. The Message spoke with Joel to ask his thoughts on the service.

About that $1 billion valuation

It was just a few months ago that Clubhouse raised money (and eyebrows) with a funding round that placed a valuation of $100 million on the then-nascent platform, this despite the fact it had just 5,000 beta users at the time. It turns out that was just a prelude to something a lot bigger.

The most recent funding round, led by the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz—which also led a Series A round in May 2020—reportedly values the platform at $1 billion, even though its user base is relatively small, it has no revenue, and it’s currently only available for iPhone.

In a blog post this week, Andeessen Horowitz general partner Andrew Chen, who led the funding round, suggested that Clubhouse has the potential to propel social media into a new era. “It reinvents the category in all the right ways, from the content consumption experience to the way people engage each other, while giving power to its creators,” he wrote.

And the MIT Technology Review said recently that audio could represent the future of social networks by “baking the immediacy and rawness of audio into the core experience, making voice the way people connect again.” Among the format’s primary benefits, said MIT, is that it provides the immediacy of a voice or video call, but on users’ terms.

Is there advertiser potential?

As with any social platform, the short answer here is yes.

Joel says that Clubhouse presents “tremendous opportunity” for brands pursuing a content strategy, whether that comes from creating their own rooms or by sponsoring rooms hosting conversations that are relevant to their brand or category.

Another potential opportunity for advertisers, said Joel, could be in filling the blank space that exists on the screen. “Because there’s no texting and no video, the screen is staring [users] in the face the whole time,” he said. “There’s a lot of property there.”

Fine, but what’s the revenue model?

Frankly, the picture’s still a bit murky here. According to a report in The New York Times, “Where’s the money at?” was one of the questions asked in a Dec. 17 creators roundtable session meeting between the company’s senior leaders and influencers. According to the Times, ticketing, tips and subscriptions were all raised as possible revenue opportunities.

Joel, meanwhile, predicts that the major financial windfall will come when Clubhouse’s founders sell the platform to a fellow tech giant—an audio-centric company like Spotify, for example.

The content

Joel said that the content on Clubhouse has been “supremely disappointing,” largely owing to a lack of professional moderators who are able to keep discussions in line. “People are jumping in on top of each other; it reminds me of the old-school party line—just a million voices at once” he said. “It’s basically the worst AM radio station with non-skilled announcers.”

At the same time, however, the service offers a form of communication that’s wholly unique compared to the other social platforms. “I don’t think it would be wise of us to simply dismiss it as noisy, bad audio on a smartphone,” said Joel. “It occupies a space where everybody can be part of a podcast, not just listen to it. That’s the space it occupies that makes it unique.”

The safety concerns

Just like every other social platform, Clubhouse is already grappling with the inescapable fact that not everyone using its service is an upstanding citizen

In July, The Verge wrote a story noting that the Clubhouse creators “made a depressingly common mistake” by failing to develop or enforce community guidelines. According to The Verge, Clubhouse users have no ability to report harassment or any other terms of service violations through the app, and no ability to block users. And there continue to be concerns about its failure to police everything from anti-semitism and racism to homophobia and transphobia.

In a lengthy Twitter thread last year, community management and moderation expert Tatiana Estévez—who oversaw moderation for the question-and-answer site Quora between 2011 and 2019—outlined just how hard it will be for Clubhouse to establish an effective moderation system.

Among the many challenges, she said, is the fast, fluid and interruptive nature of social audio. This can be particularly problematic for Clubhouse’s female users, she said, since men are more likely to use interruptive behaviour with women—such as cutting them off, disagreeing or correcting them—in conversation.

“The sexism/male-interruptiveness problem is *much* worse on audio than w/text,” she wrote. “Text is at least somewhat asynchronous—even basic chat. Each participant gets time to compose a thought, put it into an editor, [and] post it in whole. A man basically can’t cut off a woman in text!”

The ephemeral nature of voice chat can also make it harder for the platform to identify serial offenders, she said. It’s unclear if Clubhouse will record all sessions so that moderators can review any flagged content.

So what’s the future?

“Either you become Twitter or you become Meerkat,” said Joel, referring to the live-streaming video app shuttered in 2016 after losing a showdown with Twitter’s competing service, Periscope. “Right now people are placing bets.”

Joel said that social audio possesses enormous potential, but Clubhouse’s higher profile is sure to put it in the crosshairs of more well-established rivals like Facebook and Twitter, both of which have shown a propensity for either copying rivals’ capabilities or simply acquiring them outright.

“All of the bigger players are either going to try to acquire it quickly or try to choke the oxygen out of it,” said Joel. “The market eats itself, for sure.”

Photo by William Krause on Unsplash

Chris Powell