Clubhouse thoughts from an early user · Issue no. 2
My experiences as an early user, Clubhouse vs Podcasts vs Radio, what Clubhouse should solve next, how I recommend using CH as a speaker and listener
Hello friends, happy March! I’m eagerly waiting for the city to plant the colorful tulips on my block to signal it’s spring. Writing takes a lot out of me, but is a fulfilling way to express both my rational side that likes to build frameworks and my emotional side that resonates most with stories. This week, I write about Clubhouse, an app I’ve spent a lot of time on over the past year thanks to the pandemic. I actually wrote the first draft of this two weeks ago… but this space has been developing so quickly that I kept evolving my perspective, and now it looks nothing like the first draft. If you’re in a rush, scroll down to the table mid-way and bulleted summary at the bottom. I recommend staying for the stories though; they’re the best part!
The goal of this piece is to share:
The magical experiences I’ve had in Clubhouse over the past year
My working mental model of Clubhouse as a live social audio format and how Twitter Spaces and others can compete
What you can’t do on any other platform (how I recommend using Clubhouse as a speaker and a listener)
On what I thought would be a forgettable Wednesday night last July, I talked to Michelle Phan about my obsession with plants. She riffed on the idea from The Secret Life of Plants that plants have sentience and are visibly affected by the energy you give it. I knew of her as one of the pioneers of beauty videos on Youtube, but this evening I was hearing about her years off the internet, and sharing a bit about myself too.
On a Friday night a few weeks ago, I practiced Mandarin with a Taiwanese Canadian girl in Calgary, a Cantonese guy in Guangzhou, and a Boston guy originally from Urumqi. There was no calendar invite, no zoom link to attach, no one I had to coordinate with ahead of time. For the first time, I didn’t feel self-conscious about my Mandarin with an American accent, conversing with the vocabulary of a ten year old. I didn’t have to see these people’s faces and, if it all went terribly, I didn’t have to talk to them ever again. I had found a safe space, and it was free.
The beauty of technology is that these conversations were even possible. I joined Clubhouse on April 27, 2020, when there were less than a thousand users total. Over the past year, the atmosphere of Clubhouse has changed dramatically as the app scaled to over 10 million weekly active users. This growth was fueled by its exclusivity as an invite-only app, the global pandemic and our collective desire for human connection, and the revival of interest and investment in consumer social products.
How Clubhouse has evolved over the past year
When I was quarantined in the suburbs last year, I would open the Clubhouse app and join the first room I saw because I knew it’d be a high-quality conversation that I probably couldn’t hear anywhere else. I kept their push notifications on, despite getting multiple a day. I learned about incarceration and redemption from Shaka Senghor. I heard a prominent VC slip that Barack Obama is on Airbnb’s board (not true, afaik). I listened to and shared hot takes on Instagram Reels the day it was launched. I attended dinner parties hosted by Felicia Horowitz — virtual, of course.
John Mayer joined Clubhouse in August and in his first conversation, he waxed poetic about everything from conspiracy theories to guitars, cities, and kids. “If cities were people, Tokyo is my lover, LA is my gf, Montana is my spouse,” he said. “I only want to have kids so they can draw on my production title card.” There were only a few people in the room, and he was talking in real-time, not to us, but with us. Maybe he was wearing pajamas; I certainly was. The session wasn’t recorded, so it felt like an intimate, non-linear conversation you’d have at a bar late at night with a few friends. We covered topics that would never make it into a primetime interview. It was audio only so there was no need to check how our hair looked in the camera; our profile pictures did the job for us. The late night energy made everything seem possible.
Clubhouse vs Podcasts vs Radio
Since I’ve spent so much time in this app, the rational side of my brain wanted to create a framework around this social audio format that Clubhouse has made successful. Having a framework helps me evaluate other products that use this format, such as Twitter Spaces and Quilt, compare it to other formats like Stories or podcasts, and maybe even dream up new ones. In the following table, I compare the Clubhouse format to existing audio formats: podcasts and AM/FM radio.
In my view, the distinguishing characteristics of the Clubhouse format are that it’s live, ephemeral and audio-only, where anyone can speak, and recommendations are powered by an interest graph. While Clubhouse has been the first to successfully get traction on this format, Twitter Spaces and Facebook are building fast-follow clones. What’s notable is what they choose to keep the same and what they choose to change.
The first few ways in which Twitter Spaces deviates from the Clubhouse format are emoji reaction, live voice transcriptions, and the ability to highlight a tweet. Speakers get a better read on listeners’ reactions, and listeners can express their sentiment without having to speak. Clubhouse only has hand raising in terms of reactions. Twitter also moved fast (!) and built an Android experience, trying to get as many Android users as possible while Clubhouse is still iOS only.
In contrast to Clubhouse’s room titles and long list of people in each room, Twitter Spaces only highlights 1-2 speakers in the room without revealing what they’re talking about, removing what I think is a critical element in room evaluation. For most people I follow on Twitter, the fact that they’re speaking live is not enough for me to want to jump in and listen. I actually think a more compelling place to put Spaces is directly in the Feed. There’s more space for merchandising the Space, and you can attach it below a tweet. Like this tweet? People are talking about it now, live!
Other companies have taken a different approach, copying the Clubhouse format but focusing on a specific niche. Quilt is a “feminine audio social network for daily, live, supportive conversations on topics like family, relationships, spirituality and career & purpose.” Like attracts like, so it’s easier to get a listener into compelling sessions at cold start and ongoing when they’ve already self-selected into this short list of topics. Personalization becomes less critical, freeing up time to solve for the specific needs of a niche that might not make sense for a platform catering to all kinds of conversation.
Twitter has the best chance to steal significant market share from Clubhouse. In a world where formats are easily copied, distribution is king. Twitter is already filled with people interested in conversation; in fact, their mission is to be the “conversational layer of the Internet”. I don’t have numbers, but I’m willing to bet Twitter has funneled a ton of traffic to Clubhouse. It serves as the defacto channel to market scheduled Clubhouse talks, share summaries of compelling Clubhouse rooms, and connect with friends you met on Clubhouse. It’s certainly been my primary way of finding out about Clubhouse rooms I don’t want to miss.
Distribution and format are not the only two winning factors though. As we saw with Instagram Reels vs Tik Tok, content quality and diversity also matter.
Something Twitter Spaces may never be able to fully recreate is the FOMO. Currently, anyone can join as a listener on Spaces if they follow someone with access to the beta for creating Spaces. But that already limits discovery to people you follow. Some of my best experiences on Clubhouse were in rooms with people I’ve never heard of. And none of these clones will be able to recreate those serendipitous, small-room conversations with John Mayer or Michelle Phan.
Add #ClubhouseFatigue to the list
These days, I’ve turned off Clubhouse’s push notifications. Dozens of notifications a day designed to manufacture FOMO is deleterious to my mental health in an already trying time. As with anything good, consuming in moderation is key. Ultimately, the app is incentivized to take as much of its users’ time as possible, because more of everyone’s time means more ways to monetize.
As Inc. magazine commented, “Facebook seems to be so concerned that you might find something else to do with your time that it feels compelled to clone anything [including Clubhouse] that might compete with one of its existing apps.”
I’ve already been fighting (a losing battle) to spend more of my free time off technology, and Clubhouse is one more app on that battlefield. It’s not you, it’s me.
What Clubhouse should solve next
Clubhouse has dipped their toes into personalization, including:
Users’ contact list on their phone & topic selection during onboarding are used to cold start recommended rooms and deliver personalized push notifications for new users
Personalizing the feed of rooms for each user
Suggested people to follow on topic pages
Personalized push notifications: these seem to be a primary driver for return rates to the app. Clubhouse has taken the most aggressive push notification strategy I’ve seen in recent memory. I know it works, but can you tone it down for my sanity, please? 🙏
There are now hundreds, maybe thousands of rooms going on Clubhouse at any given time. Once the hype wears off, optimizing for increasing high quality conversations per user is what will make people stick around. With the influx of users over the past month, I worry about new user retention especially, getting people to their first successful session. For me, finding a good room these days takes more time and effort than ever. With user-generated content on an infinite number of topics, personalization will separate the wheat from the chaff.
What they should solve next in personalization:
Making room evaluation as efficient as possible. Ideally, I open the app, and the first room is one I want to join, and I can make that decision in seconds. Even better if I don’t have to make a decision; I open the app and CH drops me into a room with sound on, while still making it easy to pivot to other rooms (a la Tik Tok). Solving for the feed will be fascinating, balancing a diversity of topics vs the user’s highest affinity ones, popular rooms (a quality indicator) vs small-room serendipity, user preferences for topics vs creators, their friends vs strangers
Better ways of predicting quality rooms, both for the recommendation algorithm and the user (a hard problem to solve in real-time!). They should also find a way to give constructive feedback to hosts who had less engaging rooms to bring up the number of high-quality rooms
Predicting user intents: does a user want to be entertained with a casual conversation in this moment, or do they want to learn? Are they here for a specific guest, or are they open? Is this a lean-back listening session, or do they intend to speak as well?
Another thing Clubhouse should solve soon: lowering the psychological barrier of speaking and starting a room. The audio-only ephemeral format lowers the barriers a bit, but it’s still public speaking, one of people’s greatest fears (at least for 238 million people in the US). Clubhouse is a two-sided marketplace of speakers and listeners, and I don’t think they want a lopsided one.
Audio content discovery is an unsolved problem. I think about this a lot in my day job at Spotify designing algorithms and experiences for music and podcast recommendations, so I know it’s hard! Live audio discovery is even harder because there’s little time to analyze the conversation in real-time, and then it’s not recommendable anymore. Overall, I’m happy to see this renaissance in audio and can’t wait to see what Clubhouse does next, how Twitter and Facebook compete, and what new products and use cases spring up!
How I recommend using Clubhouse as a listener
It’s early days and they have much to solve, but there is magic to be found on Clubhouse if you look in the right places.
People are impressed by the celebrity conversations, like hearing Elon Musk grill the CEO of Robinhood, Vlad Tenev in real-time, a few days after their Gamestop debacle. (I’m not going to lie, I rushed out of my shower to catch that room on a late Sunday night.) But the truth is, all the celebrity conversations are shadow recorded, so they’re not that different from interviews on Youtube or in podcasts. The audio quality is better and the boring parts are edited out in these asynchronously consumed formats anyway. Honestly, I was underwhelmed by the Elon conversation, as I have been with other celeb convos on CH. The cost of dropping whatever I’m doing to listen for an hour or more wasn’t worth the little joy I got from schadenfreude (admit it, that’s why you listened too). If the celebrities really say something groundbreaking, I’ll hear about it. Now that Clubhouse has over 10M users, these people know they’re talking to a big audience, on the record. If you’re optimizing for insights per minute, you’ll be more efficient elsewhere.
The one thing you can’t do on any other platform is find your people, talk to them in real-time, and listen to them talk to each other in real-time. When Clubhouse was made available all across Asia, I saw a flood of rooms with people like me talking about our experiences, unpopular opinions, and deepest insecurities. There were rooms debating controversial topics like free speech in China (CH is not subject to, as the Economist puts it well, “the word-sniffing controls that stifle free speech” on WeChat and Weibo; the app has been banned by the CPC, yet is still accessible by VPN). There were rooms with Taiwanese Americans, Taiwanese Canadians, Taiwanese locals and Taiwanese reporters working through why there was Taiwanese support for Trump pre-election, and debating whether Taiwan media outlets biased their reporting towards Trump because he wasn’t afraid to piss off China.
There were fun topics too, like reminiscing about our favorite snacks in Taiwan night markets. It was as close to visiting Taiwan as I’ll get in this pandemic and elicited in me warm and fuzzies rarely found these days. As an Asian American, sometimes I feel like I don’t fully belong in America nor in Taiwan, but here on Clubhouse, there were people like me who also felt this dissonance. Hopping in and out of those small rooms, I felt seen, on a massive scale.
On other platforms like Instagram or Youtube, or even in physical books (like Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, which I highly recommend), you “find your people” in influencers who create content that resonates with you. But there’s an implicit hierarchy there — the influencer is talking to their audience. In Clubhouse, everyone can listen and talk. The best rooms are those where no one is on a pedestal.
How I recommend using Clubhouse as a speaker
My recommendation for being an effective speaker on Clubhouse is to be authentic and focus on delivering value through sharing your unique insights and experiences — the more vulnerable and off the cuff the better. That will increase your chance of forming genuine connections with like-minded people, and any other benefits you might seek beyond that — finding a date, a customer, a deal — become all the more likely. Once you have a genuine connection, slide into their DMs and take it offline.
I’ve been invited to speak in a few pre-scheduled Clubhouse rooms on product and personalization, and have hosted a few of my own. These felt quite similar to speaking on a panel in real life, and it was even easier to invite up a bunch of listeners to chime in. I see Clubhouse as a great alternative for industry events while we’re all stuck at home. Ticket sales would enable concerts, events, conferences, and group discussions. Post-pandemic, I’ll still prefer seeing interesting people speak and perform in person, but I suspect this location-independent alternative is here to stay.
Because Clubhouse sessions are not recorded by default, creators will reach fewer people compared to other platforms like Youtube, Tik Tok or Twitter, simply because of content retention. Listeners have to be on the creator’s schedule, and how many people are willing spare 2 hours on a Tuesday night? It’s even harder to reach people not in your time zone. Creators grow their base by having a huge archive of content (see: @navalbot); the more evergreen their content, the more free leverage they have. Clubhouse changes this game.
To have a consistent share of attention on Clubhouse, creators have to show up, day after day, week after week. They can gain an audience faster if they’re helped through Clubhouse’s recommendations or are part of their Creator Pilot Program. They’re less dependent if they are well-known elsewhere and can bring their audience over. I can see all this evolving quickly; Clubhouse said they would be testing ways for creators to monetize via subscriptions, tipping, or ticket sales. Thus far, an innovative way Clubhouse has elevated new voices is featuring someone on their app icon. Erika Batista amassed over one million followers in part because her face was the app icon for a few months!
It will be interesting to see whether Clubhouse decides to make recording a first-party feature. If they do, it will dramatically change the dynamics and FOMO growth loop of the app. If they don’t, creators lose the compounding effects of a content archive.
The distinguishing characteristics of the Clubhouse format are that it’s live, ephemeral and audio-only, where anyone can speak, and recommendations are powered by an interest graph.
The format is here to stay. Products that copy the format will have most success if they win distribution or win a niche(s).
The one thing you can’t do on any other platform is find your people, talk to them in real-time, and listen to them talk to each other in real-time. The best rooms are those where no one is on a pedestal.
What they should solve next: optimizing for quality sessions per user through personalization. It’s too hard to find a good room these days without a word-of-mouth recommendation. They should also work to lower the psychological barrier of speaking and starting a room.
Questions for you
Thanks for reading! I’d love to hear from you:
What resonated and what you didn’t agree with
Your favorite, worst or most awkward experiences in Clubhouse
If you’re on iOS and want an invite, I have a few to share!
Have a fabulous week,