How Clubhouse might still win

I enjoy Clubhouse, but it needs some changes

Two months ago, it seemed like everyone was excited about Clubhouse. People were getting in touch with me every week to schedule rooms. I was getting invited to various clubs. Dozens of people were DMing me on Twitter to ask for invites.

After a decade grinding through the daily hate-fest that is Twitter, Clubhouse felt like walking out of a prison into a peaceful meadow. People paused and said “No, you go ahead.” People asked “What do you think about that?” I went hours without witnessing a single denunciation of anyone or anything; on Twitter I’d be lucky to go 30 seconds. On Clubhouse people talked about ideas, whereas on Twitter they wielded them like weapons. I even wrote a Bloomberg column about how much I loved the new audio chat network.

And nevertheless, over the past month or so, I’ve found my Clubhouse use has dwindled to near zero. And from looking at the startling data on downloads, it’s pretty clear that I’m not alone:

Why have I almost entirely stopped using Clubhouse? It isn’t because of the end of the pandemic — I’m not doing much more socializing than I was at the start of April, and I don’t work out of the office. It’s something inherent to the product.

The key thing about Clubhouse is that it takes a tremendous amount of time. Each room typically lasts for an hour or more. If you participate in or listen to two full Clubhouse rooms a day, that’s at least 1/8 of your waking life.

Now, that in and of itself isn’t prohibitive — I spend that much time on Twitter (sad to say). But Clubhouse is very hard to consume in small, bite-sized chunks. I can scroll Twitter for news or check Facebook for a couple of minutes in between doing a bit of work or doing household chores. With Clubhouse, if I wander by a random room, it takes me at least five minutes just to understand what people are talking about, and at least ten to get any kind of useful point. Audio doesn’t scroll. And that means you don’t just have to commit large amounts of time to Clubhouse in aggregate; you have to block off a solid chunk of time. That’s a big ask.

To be honest, I think this is why people say Clubhouse content is “boring”. This is how Shaan Puri put it in his famous (and now, remarkably prescient) Twitter thread two months ago:

It’s not that Clubhouse content is boring, I think. Most conversations, when you really get into them, are really pretty fascinating. The problem is that it takes a long time to get into them. Since audio doesn’t scroll, it’s hard to get anything interesting out of Clubhouse quickly. The same way channel-surfing makes it seem like there’s nothing good on TV.

Another big reason Clubhouse makes huge demands on people’s time is that it’s live. That means I don’t get to choose the hour of the day that I listen to people talking about science fiction or quantum cryptography or venture investing. I have to be on when other people are doing their thing. It’s like back when there were no VCRs and you had to block off time to watch live TV.

Live-only discussions are often cited as a reason Clubhouse drew in so many people so fast. They created FOMO — Elon Musk is in there talking to Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev right now, and if you aren’t on the app you’ll never be able to know exactly what went down!

But while that FOMO might create a powerful reason to get the app, it doesn’t give you a reason to use the app day in and day out. And as people stop using it, fewer of those magic moments happen, and there’s less FOMO, less buzz, and less reason for new people to download Clubhouse. Death spiral results.

It’s not really a death spiral, though, is it? I mean, it might be. But social networks can hang around for a long time before they really explode. Twitter started up in March 2006, but it wasn’t until late 2008 that usage surged, and not until 2010 that the app really exploded.

Clubhouse is a bit different because it already surged in popularity once, so its decline will convince a lot of people it’s done for. But the smoothness of its basic functionality, its name recognition, and the large number of people who already have accounts mean that it might not be too hard to pivot and find a more enduring foundation for success. Audio is too useful and interesting a space to just completely die, and Clubhouse seems like it’s well-positioned to capture that space…with a few modifications.

Here are just a few ideas for what those modifications might be.

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1) Live-to-recorded audio

Podcasts are already a pretty big “creator economy” market (maybe $1B a year or so and growing), and a huge cultural phenomenon. Audiobooks are even bigger. Recorded audio is super convenient for two reasons:

1) You can listen to it whenever you want, and

2) You can listen while you’re doing something else, like commuting, exercising, or doing chores.

In fact, with every app in the world competing for a limited amount of screen time, there are whole hours out of the average person’s day devoted to “ear time”, for which relatively few companies are currently competing.

Clubhouse seems well positioned to compete for this time. Currently, it has trouble doing this, because the time when Elon Musk is on Clubhouse probably isn’t the time that you’re exercising or doing the dishes or driving to the store. Also, surfing Clubhouse requires you to use the screen.

Fortunately, it seems pretty easy for Clubhouse to add recorded audio. This should be fairly easy to integrate into the existing product, because live audio conversations also works well as recordings (unlike, say, most video). Just record convos and release them as podcasts.

This would also allow Clubhouse to focus more on content creators, similar to Twitch streamers, who have regular call-in shows. That would allow a subscription- or tip-based business model, and it would also create a dedicated class of content creators whose job it is to create interesting discussions, instead of just hoping it happens organically.

Shaan Puri actually considered this idea in his thread, but rejected it, for reasons I don’t quite buy:

I don’t think these ideas should be so easily dismissed.

First of all, there’s no reason why audio content creators couldn’t be on the air for a significant number of hours per week (I believe talk radio hosts do about 15-20 hours). Of course current Clubhouse content creators don’t do that much — they’re not getting paid! Streamers/podcasters/talk show hosts with a subscription or tip model would be getting paid.

Second, there’s definitely still a reason to show up live — you get a chance to participate in the discussion! Talk radio works this way, with people listening live and calling in, eager to talk to their favorite hosts. Clubhouse is already set up to work exactly like this.

And if people don’t show up live quite as much…so what? Do content creators really care how much of their audience is canned vs. live, as long as they get paid? Is there some benefit to having more people listen synchronously as opposed to asynchronously?

Adding recorded audio, but keeping the live audio too, seems like it would make podcasts much easier and more plentiful than they currently are, as well as adding the call-in element that makes talk radio such a hit.

2) Adding text

As I noted above, I believe that the reason people say Clubhouse is “boring” is because it takes a long time to get into an audio discussion. But you know what isn’t boring? Discord chats.

A Discord audio chat includes text chat as well. While you’re talking or listening to people talk, you can write text, add links, drop in images, etc. In Clubhouse you can’t currently do this, so if you want to distract yourself with text while you’re listening to people get to the point, you have to simultaneously be on some other app like Twitter (usually on a second device).

Adding text chat to Clubhouse rooms would make the discussions more interesting, and it would also keep people inside the app. It also very naturally solves Shaan’s question of how to keep people coming to live conversations when they can just listen to the recorded version; the live version lets you text chat with others in the audience.

Of course, once you get a big enough audience, a standard text chat, where every message gets blasted to everyone, becomes ridiculous. The way to solve that is the way Twitter does it, with an @ function, a Mentions tab, and threaded replies. That way people can talk to each other instead of at each other, and conversations naturally organize themselves into threads.

In fact, adding text to Clubhouse would allow it to evolve into a complete public-discussion social network — something that could actually replace Twitter instead of complementing it. Letting people send each other DMs would increase the value of follows, allowing people to build up what my friend Eugene Wei calls “social capital” by DMing and getting follow-backs from their favorite creators or influencers. Right now, a follow on Clubhouse isn’t worth much; it’s the ability to actually talk to people more famous than you that make those follows valuable.

As a matter of fact, on top of in-room text chats and DMs, Clubhouse could just clone Twitter. Why not? Twitter is trying to use Spaces to build a Clubhouse-like functionality; why shouldn’t Clubhouse just do the reverse? Let people post text on an “open channel”, and use that Twitter-type feed as the basis for starting audio rooms. If there’s any functionality that’s guaranteed to keep people glued to the app all day, it’s a Twitter-type feed. (Of course, I also think there are lots of ways Twitter’s interface could be improved, so if Clubhouse added a Twitter it might actually be a much better version of Twitter.)

3) Organizing and discovering audio content

Right now, no one has solved the problem of how to discover good recorded audio content. For music this is a hard problem, but for conversation audio you can probably do it with speech-to-text. A.I. tools for automatic transcription are getting really good (and in fact, Clubhouse will eventually have to use these anyway, for disability access). Just store transcripts along with each show, and allow people to scan them to see what they like. Audio doesn’t scroll, but audio transcripts do!

Organization could be another big win. Right now, with the podcast market so fragmented, people aren’t really able to queue up playlists of podcasts. But if Clubhouse dominates the podcast market (which it might be able to do because it already constitutes an excellent podcast-creation interface), it would then allow people to create playlists that let them skip from recorded discussion to recorded discussion. It could even mix in live audio — you could tell your playlist to interrupt your recorded stream with a live show when it comes on the air.

A one-stop shop for conversation

In other words, with its existing live-audio interface, Clubhouse seems well-positioned to become a one-stop shop for public conversation. The suggestions above basically involve taking the best elements of Discord, Twitter, and Spotify and integrating them into Clubhouse’s existing product, such that people have more ways to listen and more ways to talk.

To some, this might seem like a hard pivot — an abandonment of Clubhouse’s basic idea and business model in favor of ideas pioneered by other social networks. But I don’t think that’s what it would be. Drop-in audio chat might not by itself be a complete social product on part with Twitter, but it might form a solid base for creating something better, not just from a social standpoint but from a commercial one as well.

Audio conversation is awesome, and adds a real human element that much of the internet lacks. Maybe it just needs some add-ons in order to become central to our online interactions. It’s worth a shot, anyway.


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