The hot new social app has found success by replicating real-world social structures rather than exploding them
Clubhouse, the exclusive group-voice-chat app that launched last year to fanfare from the venture capital set, erupted into the headlines this week when Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped in for conversations with other tech luminaries. “Elon Musk’s Clubhouse banter with Robinhood CEO triggers stampede for Clubhouse app,” Reuters reported. “Clubhouse’s Moment Arrives,” Platformer’s Casey Newton declared. Both cameos strained the app’s capacity; Zuckerberg’s apparently broke it, at least briefly.
There was also backlash: The Information editor-in-chief Jessica Lessin pointed out that these events’ organizers blocked many journalists from attending; the New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz suggested they were excluding female journalists in particular.
Meanwhile, Twitter has been testing a rival feature called Spaces, in hopes that it will soon have a moment of its own. The stage is set for a showdown between two social media companies whose target audiences substantially overlap. But their founding ideas are fundamentally different, in ways that could shape how their respective products evolve.
Open vs. closed social networks
A decade ago, Twitter was hailed by some pundits as a democratizing force for its role in movements like the Arab Spring. That narrative has since been complicated, muddled, and contradicted many times over, and you’re more likely to hear today that Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms are destroying democracy rather than fomenting it. But there’s another, broader sense in which Twitter has always been at least somewhat democratic. The structure of Twitter’s platform is essentially flat and open, in the sense that pretty much anyone can join, tweet, reply to anyone else, and have at least a remote chance to reach a massive audience.
Twitter is also loosely democratic in the sense that the platform runs in large part on the wisdom of the crowd — or mob rule, to take the darker view. Twitter amplifies the tweets that get the most engagement, regardless of who wrote them, and regardless of who’s doing the retweeting or favoriting. That means that a relative unknown with 42 followers can tweet a snarky reply to an account with 42 million followers and get more favorites than the original, at least in theory. It means a grassroots movement like #MeToo or Black Lives Matter can break through to mainstream audiences without the approval of official gatekeepers — and, on the flip side, that bots and trolls with frog avatars can run rampant with messages of racism and misogyny.
Having power and high social status in real life — commanding respect, deference, special privilege wherever you go — does not necessarily earn one the same treatment on Twitter. Yes, you’ll probably have more followers than ordinary folk, and you’ll have sycophants who fave your bad jokes or shower you with flattery in pursuit of your good graces. But you’ll also have a target on your back. Any misstatement on your part is likely to be ruthlessly dissected and mocked by people you’ve never met. You can get ratioed or even become the butt of a trending topic on the basis of a bad tweet, and there’s very little you can do to stop it.
None of this is to say that Twitter is truly democratic or egalitarian — nor that it would be entirely a good thing even if it were. Blue checkmarks, follower counts, and various forms of platform manipulation and bias all reinforce power dynamics and inequalities. And some of the same dynamics that make it conducive to activists speaking truth to power, or comedians dunking on a blowhard’s hypocrisy, are also part of what make it a breeding ground for targeted harassment, misinformation, and state-backed influence campaigns, among other ills. On a quotidian level, they simply make Twitter a stressful and divisive place, with lots of rude assholes and posturing and infighting.
I frame Twitter this way as a lens through which to view its contrasts with Clubhouse. Along many of the same axes on which Twitter can be characterized as flat and open, Clubhouse is hierarchical and closed — more oligarchic than democratic. That is almost surely intentional, and indeed a big part of its appeal to some.
Exclusivity has been a theme of Clubhouse from the outset. The app launched in April 2020 in a private beta-test mode, courting tech investors and celebrities as early adopters partly on the promise that they’d be able to talk to each other without the chaos and din of Twitter and other platforms. It’s based around user-generated groups and discussion panels, which happen live and exclusively via voice chat, sometimes in front of an audience. Nearly a year after its launch, Clubhouse is big, fast-growing, and making continual headlines — and yet it’s still private: You have to be invited by an existing member to get in, so just being on it remains something of a status symbol in some circles. It’s also still only available on iOS.
There are valid reasons to limit the size of an app like Clubhouse in its early stages. It keeps things manageable and lets the company work out kinks and problems on a smaller stage, and on a single operating system before the product goes prime time.
But the exclusivity in this case is by no means an accident; it’s central to the platform’s dynamics. The app is built around “rooms,” which are group chats convened by specific users around a specific topic at specific times. There are also “clubs,” or private groups, whose founders are empowered to set and enforce membership terms. The rooms, in both concept and design, bear a striking resemblance to expert panels at an industry conference. (Too often, they’re all-male panels.) Clubhouse, at this juncture in its development, feels like the answer to the question, “What if SXSW, but an app?”
As with Discord, another fast-growing voice-based platform, this structure is conducive to conversation in a way that the leading social platforms — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter — aren’t. It guards against what danah boyd calls “context collapse,” in which you think you’re talking to a certain group of people with a shared set of assumptions, but you’re also reaching different people who might interpret your words in a very different way. The medium of live voice interaction also lends itself to the rote social courtesies of normal human interaction, unlike Twitter.
Within each room, there is a hierarchical division of roles. It is run by one or more moderators, who own the “stage” and get to control who can speak, and when. If you’re in the audience, you have to raise your hand and hope they call on you if you want to say anything. They don’t have to call on anyone they don’t want to hear from; if they hear from you and decide they don’t like you, they can mute your microphone or even boot you from the room. There is a hierarchy even within the audience: Those who are followed by one or more moderators appear at the top, the equivalent of a front-row seat, and tend to be more likely to get called on. (It’s also possible to have rooms that function more like a group chat, like Houseparty without the video, but those haven’t been Clubhouse’s main draw so far.)
This level of control over the conversation can make the app feel elitist, even discriminatory. In the past week, Clubhouse has made headlines with conversations involving such tech titans as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg — typically in conversation with other tech heavyweights, in rooms moderated by still other tech heavyweights. Both Musk and Zuckerberg, along with Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, made their appearances in a room called the Good Time Show, hosted by an industry veteran who was just hired by Clubhouse’s own lead investor, Andreessen Horowitz.
Andreessen Horowitz, not coincidentally, has built its reputation in part on the public personas of principals such as Marc Andreessen who are known for prolifically blocking their critics on Twitter, especially tech journalists. (I’m one of Andreessen’s many Twitter blockees.) Through that lens, it’s easy to view Clubhouse as a sort of “safe space” for the already comfortable, created by captains of industry who were tired of hearing from the peanut gallery on Twitter.
But that’s a little too simple. Clubhouse has also found a niche as a platform for people who feel marginalized in various ways, and who face harassment and abuse on platforms such as Twitter not so much for their views as for their identity. The same control that lets billionaires block journalists enables, say, Black creatives, or victims of spousal abuse, to feel safe sharing their views and experiences in ways that they never could elsewhere. It also just allows people to loosen up a bit and have, you know, fun. “If anyone can make Clubhouse work, it’s Black people,” my colleagues at LEVEL wrote in November.
It’s that virtuous side of controlled environments that Twitter appears to be trying to capture with its spin on the idea, Spaces, which launched in private beta in December. In contrast to Clubhouse, Twitter has explicitly positioned Spaces as a haven for discussions led by women and people from marginalized communities. That could go a long way — Clubhouse’s already-documented issues with harassment and anti-Semitism suggest that exclusivity alone is no guarantee that a platform will feel humane. Its founding ethos and the composition of its leaders and early adopters matters, too. Clubhouse’s early focus on mostly male tech insiders has done wonders for its initial growth, but could limit its long-term appeal, although there are signs it is quickly broadening. The app has caught on in China, and Friday night brought an appearance from the actress Zendaya and director Sam Levinson, doing publicity for their new Netflix movie Malcom & Marie. Twitter, meanwhile, could struggle to incorporate a hierarchical, conversation-based product into a platform whose core product is the opposite.
The battle between Spaces and Clubhouse will be interesting. Regardless of who wins, it seems safe to say that the idea underlying both products is one that should have staying power. The established social media platforms have succeeded at many things, but as venues for spontaneous, freewheeling, human conversations around topics of shared interest, they have largely failed until now.
The last wave of startups to try to address that vacuum focused on live video, with a one-to-many broadcast model. (Think Meerkat, Periscope, and to some extent Twitch.) But that did nothing to fix the conversation problem, and it was always going to limit the pool of content creators to those with the time, means, and charisma to be on-camera personalities. The potential pool of active participants for an app built around live voice conversations seems much larger.
The promise and peril of Twitter is that it can explode boundaries and social structures that exist offline — for example, the boundary between celebrity and fan, and perhaps even more than that, the boundary between celebrity and hater. In some ways, then, the promise and peril of Clubhouse is that it restores those offline boundaries and social structures, creating spaces that feel both more familiar and, ultimately, less disruptive — for better and worse.
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Speaking of that old canard about social media as a democratizing force, this week brought several reminders that clashes between U.S.-based platforms and regimes around the world are only intensifying. As India’s ruling party cracks down on dissent — see Vidya Krishnan’s Atlanticessay on the end of the Indian idea for big-picture context — the government has threatened Twitter with punishment if it doesn’t follow orders to block accounts and content related to the ongoing farmer protests there. Separately, Myanmar’s military rulers blocked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in the wake of a coup that ousted the country’s democratically elected leaders.
Private messaging apps such as Signal and Telegram are the new misinformation hotspot — and maybe that’s an improvement? That was at least one, perhaps counterintuitive, takeaway from a New York Times conversation between Brian X. Chen and Kevin Roose. Roose is known in part for exposing and criticizing the seedy underbelly of Facebook and other mainstream platforms. But he told Chen that he views misinformation on private messaging apps as less concerning, on the whole. “It’s obviously not great for public safety that neo-Nazis, far-right militias and other dangerous groups are finding ways to communicate and organize, and that those ways increasingly involve end-to-end encryption,” Roose said. “… At the same time, there’s a real benefit to getting these extremists off mainstream platforms, where they can find new sympathizers and take advantage of the broadcast mechanics of those platforms to spread their messages to millions of potential extremists.” I tend to agree.
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