Clubhouse And The Future Of Social Audio
Social audio looks set to grow in 2021. Unlike text-forward social media such as Twitter, or image-based platforms like Instagram, social audio platforms like Clubhouse put the human voice front and centre, with fascinating results.
For the past few weeks I’ve been exploring Clubhouse.
In some ways Clubhouse feels similar to other social media platforms. But it’s audio-based. There’s no direct messages, no photos, no text apart from bios and descriptions of events. You listen. You talk. And then you listen some more.
Audio plays a role in other social media platforms; usually alongside video on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. SoundCloud added some social media features to music sharing.
But Clubhouse makes live, real-time conversation possible among many users. It’s like social media radio. And the experience is surprisingly compelling.
The Social Audio Experience
Clubhouse feels familiar at first. You create a profile, follow people, and people follow you. But there’s no feed or timeline, as on Instagram or Twitter. Instead you see what Clubhouse calls the hallway. This is a list of rooms or spaces where conversations happen, some that are live and a few that are coming up soon. You can also check if the people you follow are online, and what rooms they might be in. And you can start or schedule your own rooms as well.
Some rooms are small, maybe a handful of folk, and some are huge, as in thousands of people. There could be a lot of people talking, maybe a panel taking questions, or it might be a simple interview. Some rooms have a musician or DJ performing to a listening audience.
Once you select a room you see a page with lots of circular avatars for all the people listening to that conversation.
Each user will be in one of three sections. The first is called the stage. That’s the people speaking and moderating the room.
Then there’s a section with listeners who are followed by the people on stage. It’s a bit like a VIP zone. And then a final section for everyone else.
You can mute and unmute yourself. Or raise a virtual hand to ask a question. And of course leave the room. Sometimes the features, like muting and hand-raising, are controlled by the moderators. All of which will be familiar to anyone who has used apps like Zoom or attended live webinars.
What’s interesting isn’t the tech but the way it seems to make people behave.
The Intimacy Of Voice
It’s striking how hospitable and respectful people are on Clubhouse. Hearing people’s voices feels more intimate than reading their words or seeing images. It slows down the exchange. It adds context. And it reminds you there’s a person behind the ideas and stories.
Years ago I wrote about how online forums can become so full of conflict. Any small comment could be taken out of context. The reply could be paragraph after paragraph of relentless vitriol. All totally out of proportion to whatever it was that was said. This is something we’ve increasingly seen take over forms of social media.
Clubhouse users seem well aware of this problem. This is a culture that, for now, prizes authenticity and kindness. It’s remarkable how generous many of the rooms are. It’s helped by a constant conversation that reinforces this culture of allowing people to speak and expecting courtesy. And a sign-up process that makes sure all users are verified.
But, as anyone who’s been yelled at over the phone will remember, the presence of voices is no guarantee of civility.
So far, Clubhouse is small. And spectacularly diverse. This is part of what makes it feel so different and fresh. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Twitter, when that young platform changed from being solely tech-focused to a place popular with creatives and people who worked in media.
Clubhouse now, like Twitter then, is a place to meet people and have interesting conversations.
The Social Audio Space
Right now clubhouse is growing fast. It’s still invitation-only but in just a few weeks it’s expanded to many new territories. How it will cope with an influx of new users, or competition from other apps, remains to be seen.
Spaces, Twitter’s answer to Clubhouse, is already in beta. It promises many of the same features. And because it’s built on Twitter’s platform and social graph it has the potential to be a lot more dynamic and immediate for Twitter users.
And there are already rumours that Facebook might be interested in either buying Clubhouse or rolling out its own version, maybe added to Instagram or WhatsApp.
It seems clear that social audio has arrived. I’m already part of a weekly panel discussing SciFi films on Clubhouse. And I’m experimenting with using the platform to share live music as well.
As long as we’re living with the pandemic, audio is a nice change from the pressure of being on video, while still feeling connected to other people.
I’m not sure if Clubhouse will succeed in making social audio the next big thing. It could be that social audio just becomes a feature we use in an existing platform. The list of apps and platforms that once felt vital but are now forgotten is long. Does anyone remember Meerkat for example, the video-sharing platform that once looked set to take over the internet?
Whatever happens I love hearing people’s voices, hearing the authenticity in their stories, and the kindness when listeners hold a space for those stories and reply with gratitude. Social audio feels like something we need right now.