Clubhouse or Cliquehouse?

Clubhouse is quickly and quietly dividing into the have-microphones and have-not-microphones

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The Clubhouse home screen

I’ve been using and enjoying Clubhouse for the past week. It’s genuinely a fantastic new social experience. It’s engaging, it’s personal, it’s rich and it’s unique. It’s made lockdown feel less lonely and it’s brought my friends closer to me.

But, perhaps like any real-world clubhouse, there’s just the faintest whiff of an unpleasant odour in there. Clubhouse smells just the teeniest bit cliquey. A whole new aural dimension of online community! But a distinctly two-tiered community.

Every clubhouse needs a club. And a club needs members. And members need rules to keep non-members out. Clubhouse’s club is its stage and implicitly, or explicitly there are rules for who gets to be a member of the stage. And there’s something quietly, gnawingly uncomfortable about the divisiveness that that comes with that.

Like any club, it has its benefits. Clubhouse has better signal:noise ratio than any other social network. There are great speakers in there and I’ve already spent hours listening to some many of them (though to avoid you wasting unnecessary time, I’d advise against all rooms with the word Millionaire in the title).

Unlike Twitter which is a flurry of noise, Clubhouse is clear and crisp. Strong anchors help you identify interesting rooms and good hosts, help draw out really high quality conversations.

But the same stage that makes it easy to hear the speakers, also makes it hard to hear the audience. They are offstage, off-mic and silent. They are excluded.

And in that sense, Clubhouse is explicitly exclusionary in a way that, for all their other faults, the other social networks are not. They might be exclusionary in reality but there’s not a literal (or virtual) stage dividing the influencers from the influenced. It’s a quiet, smooth exclusion. You’re free to add your tweet, comment on the picture or post your video. It may not get a reply, a like or a view, but it will be added to the pile. On Clubhouse though there is no pile. There are only those with the microphones, and those without the microphones.

And at this early stage (I’m only a week into it), that vibe is subtle. In fact it’s so subtle that actually feels like a bit of a love-in right now. We’re all fumbling around with all sorts of rooms that might as well include anyone (though, of course, they don’t). It’s like Fresher’s Week. Anyone can snog anyone or hang out with anyone and nobody cares. But there’s already a hint that there are parties and stages you’re not invited to. And people who aren’t invited to yours.

Because after the Fresher’s Week love-in, people cluster into groups. And those groups disappear into their own halls, they go on their own holidays and they host their own parties. They’re great to those who are in them. But they exclude those who aren’t. Nobody likes to be excluded but at least the exclusion is mostly silent in our real-life groups, it’s behind closed doors.

But Clubhouse is different. These groups are the speakers and mods who are onstage and running the rooms. You get pinged every time the group comes together, alerted by either the app, or a speaker, eager for you to to come and listen to them. And the incentive for the speakers is not to bring the audience closer, it’s to push them further away. To find bigger speakers with larger followers who will ping yet listeners into each room. And audience members are expected (and incessantly reminded) to show their gratitude and appreciation by following all of the speakers on stage.

Right now speakers are grouping and entrenching. Finding their niches, pooling their followings. I don’t blame them, it’s what the app incentivises. Speaker circuits are as old as speech. To whatever extent I can, I aim to be a part of that.

But on the regular speaker circuit there is a whole set of complementary, inclusive, real-life activities. Speakers hang out with everyone else. They have drinks with them, they have lunch with them, they party with them.

Clubhouse has none of that. There are those with the mics and those without the mics. Those who are invited to speak and there are those excluded from speaking. The speakers speak, the audience listens. And the audience is asked to follow the speakers. Many, many times. And then it ends and everyone leaves.

Come, listen, follow, leave.

The draw of good speakers and of crisp, high-signal rooms is high. So speakers are optimising for it. And what makes sense is to exclude the people who don’t add value to the stage. But nobody likes to be excluded. And when, as an adult among friends, who are actually kind and inclusive by nature, you feel a sense of exclusion, you start to wonder: what will this feel like to teenagers. Who are exclusive and exclusionary by nature. And for whom exclusion is truly heartbreaking.

What happens when this app entrenches those who are invited and those who aren’t. Is that the next social network we want to gift to our children?

Even the name, while brilliant, is also unfortunate. It’s just a bit snobby — the only time you expect to find Joe the Plumber in the Clubhouse is when he’s fixing it (though their may force the name to be reconsidered). And to add insult to injury, at the time of writing, Clubhouse also has a hefty joining fee — an iPhone. If you don’t own an iPhone you’re not allowed in. I know that it was done to get an MVP to the market fast, I know it wasn’t done with that intent, but but, like so many Clubhouses, it takes money to join.

And I’ve got a feeling that that that socio-economic advantage is going to compound. It’s pretty clear that there are real, first-mover advantages in Clubhouse. People are busy building followings and joining speaker networks as fast as they can. I have several friends who are dedicating themselves to this and who are attracting thousands of new followers a week. There’s no other social network where you can build a following so organically (any more), and I doubt that the Clubhouse window will stay open long. Those who arrive late to the party will be find it very hard to catch up. But to join the party you need an iPhone. And of course an invitation.

I don’t imagine for a moment that any of this is being done with malice. I’m quite certain that the founders want the best for the platform and for its participants. I would imagine they abhor the idea of building so many cliques. And when Michael Birch added a “whiteboard” to Bebo he didn’t intend to build The World’s Largest Cock ‘n Balls Repository. . Small product decisions can have big consequences.

For all of their other faults, the other social networks are at least superficially meritocratic. If you put in the time, post regularly and pay for advertising, you can gradually clamber your way up. I’ve a feeling that the Clubhouse speaker circuit is going to be harder to break into. The ratio of audience to stage will be overwhelming and make it very hard to transition between the two. A small layer of speakers and mods will quickly come to have an outsize influence. And those speakers know it too — that’s why they’re in there, now, 24/7 building their followings.

Of course this could all be overcooking things. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it won’t matter. It’s the way the real speaker circuit works today. The dynamics of a social network are about as easy to predict as those of the stock market. But if you look at the engineering, it seems to support the theory. It’s binary: stage /audience, and most people will end up being in the silent audience, cut off from the stage, and, as we saw in the extreme with Elon’s conversation, maybe even cut off from the rooms altogether, standing outside the building, looking up at a big YouTube screen.

So how could the founders avoid this? In abstract, I suspect the answer may be to assigning serious engineering budget to promoting social mobility within the app. I suspect it means de-emphasising the importance of those on stage and boosting the importance of those in the audience.

And promoting social mobility means measuring it. Social networks are such complex, AI-optimised beasts that what you choose to build is arguably less important than what you choose to measure. I’d guess that Clubhouse’s current top KPIs are average listener-hours and userbase-engaged. If, however those were supplemented or balanced with measures of social-mobility and, dare I say it, compassion, then I have no doubt it will end up being a more compassionate and socially mobile experience.

It all sounds a bit woo-woo and socialist doesn’t it? Maybe. But maybe we should have social standards for our social networks. We’re supplementing and rebuilding society online. Facebook is arguably a more powerful nation-unit than many countries. We’ve created online infrastructure that’s lead to real-world events like Brexit and Trump. Maybe it’s woo-woo and anti-capitalist to suggest that we think apply these sort of constraints at this stage. But maybe it’s woo-woo in the same way as it’s woo-woo to constrain new-build factories from polluting the land they’re built on. At some point, woo-woo becomes common sense.

So how could you make Clubhouse more inclusive? Well for a start the founders would need to measure inclusion — perhaps by way of the median floor:stage ratio of each listener. It would probably need to be more subtle as not everyone wants the floor but for those who do, the app should support them.

And what features could the app have that would actually move the needle on that number? Off the top of my head they might be:

  • use the top of the room to display a rotating marquee of audience-member-profiles so you can see who’s there and they can get mindshare-airtime too
  • instead of the audience all sitting together, split them into randomly assigned groups of 8 with their own backchannel so they can get to meet and know each other, to chat and socialise during the show. Use the speakers as a catalyst to bring the audience together rather than vice-versa
  • Remove the concept of a stage — I can’t even imagine how you’d do this and it sounds crazy but it’s worth a consideration. Is there a way to remove the binary nature of participation?

I almost shudder as I write some of these things — remove the stage?!It sounds so socialist! But I think they’re worth considering. And, let’s be honest, if there’s anywhere that is likely to benefit from socialist views then surely it’s a social network.

I’m also quite certain that it will be fiendishly difficult to optimise for making Clubhouse feel “inclusive” or “compassionate”. I personally believe that Facebook always wanted to do the right thing but social networks are dominated by the law of unintended consequences, and, if they are ad-driven, they’re dominated by the pressures that come with that. Fingers crossed that Clubhouse monetises a different way.

And of course, optimising for these things, may come at the expense of growth. That’s a gamble and maybe not one that Clubhouse is willing to take. Clubhouse looks to be the aural-heir-apparent but things can change quickly. Historically, the advantage usually goes to the second mover, not the first so nothing is certain. I’m not sure how much the investors will be willing to gamble growth against trying to do the “better” thing.

I love the potential of Clubhouse. I really think it’s going to go be huge. But successful social networks have global political, and mental-health ramifications. And we are old enough and wise enough to know that the smallest differences will have the biggest effects.

We’re past the Wild West, anything-goes-days, naiveté of social-network construction. We know that they have consequences, that they can pollute as well as produce. And just as modern factories are expected to be built within tight, ecological and public-health constraints, so we might consider expecting the same of our social networks.

Many thanks to Katy Turner and Daniel Land for reading first drafts of this

Founder of , developer, entrepreneur, YC Alum and occasional investor

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