talking on the internet

the cool new thing online? talking

According to articles, the newest trend in internet things is talking on it. There’s an app called Clubhouse, where people get into a “room” (intangible digital space analogous to a small physical area) and talk to each other, using their voice.

Everyone’s going nuts for Clubhouse, and by everyone, I mean tech-industry adjacent people clamoring for an invite. The buzz around Clubhouse is similar to the buzz around Medium, a blogging platform. Two truths and a lie about Medium:

  1. invites to it were highly prized after it launched to a relatively small circle of tech workers

  2. because it was dominated by tech dorks early on, the quality of both the writing and ideas on Medium generally sucks

  3. everyone loves Medium, a successful business with a clear brand identity and decisive, committed leadership that doesn’t have a habit of spinning up in-house publications and then abruptly wiping the slate clean every two or three years

Can you spot the lie? Haha, no way Clubhouse could fail!

Running in parallel to the tech-guy bluster is a fun, better version of Clubhouse that reminds me of Black Twitter, a loose community of people who might typically be excluded from the establishment using a new platform to informally develop new styles of expression and presentation — and do goofy stuff (Pure Comedy: LaKeith Stanfield Explains What The Hell Was Happening That Time He Won $300 In Clubhouse Moan Room). If history is any indication, this part of Clubhouse’s userbase will be ignored by investors who care more about rubbing elbows with Elon Musk in a Space Humvee, which is very unfortunate.

(Stanfield admitted earlier this month that he just googled “male moan” and played that audio for the room.)

Other tech companies are building similar Clubhouse-type things. From the Wall Street Journal:

A Facebook spokesman said that it is exploring social-audio features, but that the company isn’t close to launching a competing product to Clubhouse. Meanwhile, Twitter Inc. has added a voice feature for tweeting and is testing a separate audio chat-room product, called Spaces, a spokeswoman said. Entrepreneur and investor Mark Cuban said he is involved with building an audio-focused social platform, called Fireside, which will compete with Clubhouse.

Again, Clubhouse is basically just a very sleek speakerphone app. People like ancient concepts presented in kinda new way, which I get. I’m merely trying to separate perception from reality. The upsides of services like Clubhouse are obvious: talking is way easier to do instantly than typing, or taking a photo or editing a video. It’s near frictionless. You talk and it’s there, done. Plus, one potential reason why companies are so drawn to audio-based social networking is that it gives them plausible deniability when it comes to things like content moderation: “Do you really want us recording users, huh?”

Aside from the inescapable feeling of tech industry executives puffing each other up with a devastatingly simple app, I am left wondering if Clubhouse doesn’t really understand how voice works on the internet. Voice on the internet is actually a very crowded field and absent “buzz” and FOMO, I don’t know why people are clamoring for Clubhouse in particular.

Part of it might have to do with the event-based nature of things. Clubhouse lets you listen to plenty of the worst TED Talks on earth, instantly. But I think this event-based conception fundamentally misunderstands how people use the internet to vocalize with each other. At the very least, it only caters to one specific type of usage.

Here’s an example: about a decade and a half ago, I used to hang out with people online using a program called Ventrilo. It was (is?) an app primarily used for in-game voice chat but people would just hang out in it all day, so you could log on and chat, or more often than not, people would also just leave it open and someone would occasionally pipe up with something. When I’d do pair projects for coding class, sometimes my partner and I would leave a Slack call open for hours at a time, occasionally bugging each other with a question or update. Voice channels on Discord also function the same way — you can jump from the text chat into the voice channel if you want an easy way to converse. I’ll browse servers I’m on and see a handful of people in the voice channels, working on a project, playing a game, or more often than not, shooting the shit.

If Clubhouse is everyone being herded into a meeting room, the open voice channels of Discord are like standing up from your desk to yell at someone a few cubicles over. Comparatively then, Clubhouse feels stilted and formal. An appointment, rather than ambient, if that makes any sense. Plenty of quasi-public voice-based chatrooms already exist, and they serve existing communities that converse in other ways as well. The spoken conversation is not the whole package, nor do I think it should be; it works better as an escalation.

Which again, leads me to ask who actually cares about what Clubhouse is doing? My gut feeling is anyone interested in voice chat is already using the plethora of existing voice chat options, on platforms where they’ve already established a solid community. In which case, Clubhouse conversations work as events, even though there are alreday plenty of livestreaming options, like Twitch and Facebook, where people can put on a show and interact with their audience. But then you have a video component, which speakers don’t have to worry about on Clubhouse, so you end up with a worse version of a podcast?

I don’t quite understand who Clubhouse satisfies, other than tech investors who want to get a pat on the back and to be told they’re breaking new ground. By all accounts, there are plenty of people using it and doing interesting things on it, and as history has shown, those types of platforms have their features cloned by larger players, and then get stamped out or sold for parts.

Hmm, maybe that’s a bummer note to end on. My main point is Clubhouse is introducing the concept of voice-only chat to people who might not otherwise be accustomed to it. Who knows what will happen when they discover basically every other app has similar capabilities.


Elsewhere…


Thank you for reading BNet. I wouldn’t join any Clubhouse that would have me as a member.