Finding intimacy in the infinity of Clubhouse

Clubhouse is, as they say, a thing right now.

A self-styled drop-in audio app, it’s moving from beyond just the darling of the dilettante set of Valley media hobbyists, spiralling outwards past the long lines of social media specialists, and into that hot new space of brand opportunity.

There is a deliberate queasiness to that definition, of course, but fairly I think.

A cursory glance down the Explore section of the app, breezing past the bitcoin bunfights (“Hyperbitcoinization Underway! Are you a Lord, or a Serf?”) and delusional despotism (“Building an empire through your brand”) invites comparison to the Hunter S. Thompson misquote

[Clubhouse] is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.
There’s also a negative side.

Yet rather than writing about it before really using it meaningfully, I wanted to feel what is what actually like to run a room, rather than just skulk at the back.

So Anjali Ramachandran, Zoe Scaman, Mark Earls and myself got together yesterday to talk about what even the hell this thing is on the platform itself.

What follows below is a collection of quick thoughts, captured during and afterwards, all products of the conversation we had together, and the questions from some of those listening too.

A format free-for-all

Because it is in its infancy, there are no standard rules of engagement here. In in listening around to various rooms beforehand, we noticed that there are various different formats people are trying out. Is it like morning talk-show radio? A panel in a massive conference? A professionally scripted podcast? A chat between friends?

All of these bring different cues for a Clubhouse room to follow, but the underlying infrastructure (e.g. moving people between ‘stage’ and ‘audience’), creates opportunities for different formats to emerge over time, and might allow/encourage for rapidly switching between modes in sessions.

Structuring unstructured conversations

We’d prepped a little beforehand, structured loosely around a tool I’ve iterated over the years called The Obliquiscope (part of TENETS). It encourages you to think about the social and material construction around something over different time periods.

Whilst we didn’t need to reference it at all in the session, thankfully (try describing that on an audio platform…). It helped frame some questions and thoughts around the thing we were looking out. Also, it felt that we had a centre of gravity for the conversation, which allowed us to explore ideas in different ways.

Enjoy the silence

Beforehand, we’d come up with a little ‘card’ that all of us could play at any point, which we called A Question To Sit With. At any point in the conversation, when we felt it was important we could ask a specific question. This would be followed by thirty seconds of silence as people considered answers.

This turned out to be a really valuable thing which helped turn the conversation in different directions, and helped create necessary space for a little thought and reflection. Clubhouse seems very, very noisy as times, in part because…

Media is a place to dwell, not a place to sell

We were talking about the tendency a lot of speakers have in rooms to grab the mic and never let go. It’s like they’re playing a round of Just A Minute, and need to speak ‘without hesitation, repetition, or deviation…’

People are trying to grab the space to sell themselves, their past achievements, their current activities. It feels like the scene at the job fair at the end of The Big Short, a desperate, endless hustle.

Yet people are coming to rooms to give you their time, hang out, listen awhile, maybe learn, maybe reflect, maybe contribute. Formats and structures need to be better thought through to reflect this, perhaps, particularly by hosts.

Built for bad behaviour

There is something obviously problematic in building a social technology where there’s no proof of what went on in a room. For all the community guidelines and the like which are being built in from the start, it’s hard to see what genuine tools to identify, report and act on abuse exist on Clubhouse.

Come out and play?

“We know some people from your company. They’re pretty cool online. Do you have any more like that you’re hiding? Can they come out and play?”

The Cluetrain Manifesto

There’s something really nice about how close it brings you to people in a room. Hanging with Elon Musk is one thing (and it’s not mine), but imagine companies start using this as a platform to talk directly to fans and customers. No agencies, no branding, no celebs… it might deliver well on a promise seldom kept in the social web.

The tension of Intimacy versus Scale

Finally, as we completed our little experiment in Clubhouse, it felt like we’d done something that was just the *right* size. Yet so many rooms are chasing numbers, and the platform itself will chase more numbers… more people, bigger rooms, more paid-for tickets, higher revenue…

There’s an interesting paradox here. It might feel best when it’s intimate. Being one of fifty folk listening to your favourite artist as an example. But those fifty tickets won’t support the artists, they’ll need to do that fifty times…

It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds.

More thoughts soon, perhaps. See you at the back of the room.

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