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swyx

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at swyx.io

Everything You Hate About Clubhouse Is Why It Will Win

You can listen to an audio version of this essay and read reactions on Twitter.

Trust me, I tried to make the Clubhouse bear case.

The original title of this post was "Everything Clubhouse Did Right — and Why It Will Fail Anyway". The exercise forced me to list the reasons why it wasn't worth $1 billion - why live conference calls are inferior to existing formats like podcasts and Discord.

When I was done, I went for a walk to think about it. By the time I came back, I had done a complete 180. (Note - this was even before I heard about the Elon event)

I still dislike the Clubhouse experience. I wouldn't recommend it to you. But all the reasons I dislike it are the same reasons it will work:

  • Clubhouse is exclusive. You have hoops to jump and gates to open every step of the way. It's iOS only. Invite only. Requires your phone number for no goddamn reason. And once you're through all of that you gain the privilege of being in the voiceless audience hoping senpai will notice your raised hand and puffed up bio.
  • Clubhouse is ephemeral. Conversations aren't recorded. Your work doesn't compound and isn't searchable. This is horrible for ROI on your time as a content creator.
  • Clubhouse is live-only. If all the convos are happening in Pacific Time and you live in Europe, tough luck. If you came in halfway and have no idea what was said, tough luck. The only way to be fully involved is to turn on mobile notifications and track scheduled chats. Causing more — not less — distraction and work for you.
  • Clubhouse enhances existing privilege. Because automated recommendations aren't possible, Clubhouse mostly relies on a Twitter-like follow graph. To gain a following you mostly already have to be famous off-platform or well-connected to people who will bring you up on stage ("second-degree famous"). Choosing a Status as a Service model (Twitter) over a Sorting Hat model (TikTok) sacrifices discovery for establishment.
  • Clubhouse is a terrible listening experience. There's no audience chat or polling. Obnoxious speakers can dominate the conversation. Trolls and harassment abound. You can't play at 2x or rewind an important part. Podcasts were trending towards better audio and editing, Clubhouse regresses to shitty phone mics with feedback and connection issues. Signal is scarce, noise is rampant.

In my original write up I listed the many better offerings in every dimension. Want to listen to interviews with great audio and show notes? Podcasts. Want ultrascalable livestreaming? Twitch. Want livestreamed audio with recording and submitted questions? Capiche. Want to do an audio webinar? Use Zoom with the camera off. Want voice with text chat? Discord. Just want a Clubhouse clone with less friction? Twitter Spaces.

When I was done listing the alternatives, I knew I had made a mistake. They checked more boxes on a feature comparison basis. But social media doesn't work like that. I was trying to be logical in a socio-logical domain.

I had conclusively PROVED, with my big brain and fancy words, how profoundly inferior Clubhouse was. No compounding creator should prefer it, and no self respecting listener should enjoy it, compared to alternatives.

But the majority of people don't work like that:

  • Some people are turned off by exclusivity and friction. But most people take it as social proof of something cool.
  • Some creators are turned off by ephemerality. But more people will start trying precisely because it's easy and doesn't matter. The Elon Musks and Vlad Tenevs of the world will be less guarded, despite clearly knowing anything they say will be recorded (EDIT: a16z is even publishing these now), because the medium is the message.
  • Some people are turned off by demands on their time. But most people leave mobile notifications on and the live nature of chats creates some of the most urgent notifications you'll get on your phone, second only to a call from your mother. The synchronicity creates an event — a clear Before and After where you can excitedly gossip and feel superior to people out of the loop. This is a rarity in an everything-async world.
  • Some people are turned off by stacked decks. But most people just want to follow celebrities and experts and aren't interested in the challenging, messy work of finding people on the way up.
  • Some people are turned off by the listening experience. But Clubhouse is Good Enough, especially if content is created sooner and in bigger quantity than available anywhere else.

Clubhouse should've died in July when the VC and Media abuse cases erupted. Instead it came back stronger than ever, standing at 2 million weekly active users. If any of these negatives mattered, the app should have seen extreme churn. Instead, Andrew Chen, Ryan Hoover, and Sahil Lavingia — who do this for a living and have insider knowledge of metrics — value it above $1 billion dollars, six months after it was valued at $100 million.

People. Aren't. Churning. No matter how much you may hate the app — usage is going up. This is scary and worth taking note. Clubhouse is already showing signs of successful expansion in Asia (read: non-English Clubhouses).

Instagram had 30 million MAUs when Facebook bought it for $1 billion. Whatsapp had 450m for $19 billion. By Whatsapp metrics, Clubhouse is wildly overvalued (lets say it has 10m MAU right now). But audio isn't text. Alex Danco says that texting is a cold medium, while audio is the hottest medium of all. He was mildly wrong — podcasting is still kinda lukewarm — but live, ephemeral audio is so hot you will literally drop everything and stay up late and ignore your partner to go listen to Elon.

Worse is better. The exact reasons you hate Clubhouse — the kind of thing that drives you to read an article like this to the end — are the exact same reasons it is going to win.


if you're interested - here was my initial negative conclusion.

Other takes:

Discussion (10)

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

Hehe I feel basically the same way. I personally can't find myself liking much about it, but also find myself wanting to recommend it to folks.

I find it somewhat anxiety-inducing and frustrating, but the FOMO is real and powerful. I could see myself private/personal rooms I stay in touch with more consistently.

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ben profile image
Ben Halpern

One more thought, an interesting corollary for how tech is thinking about it:

Remember when every VC was on Snapchat? Snap code pictures were everyone's Twitter links, etc. They eventually got tired of it, and when Instagram cloned stories people got bored and moved off. Maybe a few stayed, but it became much less mainstream in tech.

Snapchat, however, was never buoyed by tech itself, it was young people, and tech/celeb was latching on. And even still, it had a huge drop off when competitors came up (before eventually finding its feet again). Clubhouse doesn't quite have the same grassroots appeal (to say the least) and it's possible that the novelty wears off.

Not saying I'd bet against Clubhouse, but it's not without precedent for this kind of sticky appeal to fade.

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swyx profile image
swyx Author

idk, i do see grassrootes appeal in clubhouse. ive seen the spontaneous rooms when the protesters breached the Capitol. I see the Lion King musical being put on in Clubhouse. this thing takes on a life of its own because people can form subgroups easily. So it scales at Reed's Law instead of Metcalfe.

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aspittel profile image
Ali Spittel

Honestly, I like it because I feel like it lowers the barrier to entry of content creation. Sites like DEV and Twitter make it easier to write. There hasn't really been that for podcasting. It's hard to grow a podcast and invest in all the things you need. Clubhouse is less pressure, less work, and less centralized. There also is some type of recommendation algorithm which there really isn't with podcasting.

I also think the ability to invite people up who raise their hand makes it feel less top down than podcasting and most social media. I agree that the invite only/iOS only is exclusive, and I hope that fades soon. I also hope they add auto-captions for a11y purposes.

Also honestly, the move away from video is a really welcome change, we've chatted about how much work video content is, especially for women getting ready lol. I like the discussion without video aspect of it, though it does make it harder for code-heavy stuff.

I think Twitter spaces may honestly be the answer here, we'll see.

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loujaybee profile image
Lou (🚀 Open Up The Cloud ☁️)

You make a really good point. I think that the lower barrier to get on there is really cool, and I like that it's just talking/riffing ad-hoc. I know lots of people who went out and bought lighting rigs just to give meetup talks over this past year! 😂

It's interesting what you say about being less top-down, I must say I have heard quite a few complaints about the selection of speakers for rooms and how they're managed. I've not spent enough time on there to really form a strong opinion myself.

Kinda wild though that new platforms come out which take away aspects (in this case video) and that's the secret sauce...

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swyx profile image
swyx Author

i did talk about the lower barrier to entry at the end! i agree. and yes turns out video is a bug, not a feature.

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danawoodman profile image
Dana Woodman

Excellent post and insightful perspective. I've felt a similar set of reactions to Clubhouse as the Twitterverse seems all googoo over it and I keep trying it again and again and just can't find myself giving a shit about it. Of course, I felt the same about Snapchat and Tiktok, so maybe I'm just a miserly old bear at this point... who knows. But anyways, thanks for your $0.2! 🙇‍♂️

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styfle profile image
Steven • Edited on

I have been using Clubhouse for a month and couldn’t articulate why I didn’t like. I keep thinking I’m doing it wrong—I just need to invite people I want to talk to. Clubhouse is a stripped down version of audio chat, which is not that different than Twitter being a stripped down blog platform.

I like Twitter, something about being concise makes it a great way to express ideas.

But I don’t like Clubhouse. I think this blog post really hit the nail on the head. Although I might disagree with the conclusion that Clubhouse will eventually be successful 😉

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olgagalikua profile image
Olga Galik

I think Clubhouse proved that there is still room for social media apps to become popular. uptech.team/blog/how-to-make-a-spo...