Will Clubhouse change social media
It was about time that we returned to conversational audio
Benedict Evans in a recent essay made an interesting connection. He suggests that misinformation in today’s social media is akin to desktop malware - from back when we ran desktop applications on our Windows machines. Windows was an operating system not designed with the internet in mind. When the internet exploded it provided an easy vector for malware to spread using many of the APIs that Windows had made available so software developers could develop for its platform. While anti-virus programs like McAfee and Norton rose to provide some level of comfort, the real solution, according to Evans, was a new computing model that shifted computing from desktops to the cloud and mobile devices. These devices have native sandbox environments where apps, expected to be downloaded from untrustworthy internet locations, would by definition be at arms-length with the operating system. This was enabled by lightweight apps that outsourced heavy computing to the cloud. Similarly, Evans reckons, that fighting misinformation using an army of moderators, will not solve the problem, but a shift in the model will.
Misinformation on the internet often reminds me of Raktabija - a demon from Hindu mythology - who was able to replicate himself with every drop of his blood that would fall on the ground. Similarly, misinformation spreads and entangles moderators, politicians, civil rights defenders, and trolls in an epic battle where each decision to censor spawns its own response of misinformation about the decision.
While I do not know if Clubhouse itself will succeed (how many of us still remember Hi-5 or Friendster?), the idea of live, ephemeral, audio conversations has something quaintly human about it.
We have evolved through casual conversations that are half forgotten by the time we are finished and where context, body language, double meaning, and the audience contribute to the understanding as much as the words and grammar. When Twitter arrived with its 140 character limit it seemed to provide a platform for us to converse and we did, and moments like the Arab Spring, suggested big things to come.
But the notion that my spur of the moment tweet at 3 am can have the same permanence as the Bible and can henceforth be used to judge me even a decade after the original tweet, is both startling and unsettling. As misinformation spreads, and tweets and social media fuel cancel culture, it would suggest further that slowly folks will leave these platforms. The novelty has worn off, I have connected with friends from 20 years ago, and definitely don’t need Facebook anymore to stay in touch.
Apps like Clubhouse provide an alternative - we can connect and chat. We can speak, and while body language is still missing, context and tone can be conveyed. Sarcasm is a lot easier over audio. More importantly, the conversation is ephemeral, which means context can be preserved much better. Even a recorded audio would still imply a conversation, while a tweet, even if in response to current events, exists on its own.
But what happened to Meerkat and Periscope?
Meerkat and Periscope were both live video streaming apps, which eventually shut down. Live streaming still exists but only within the confines of a walled social media garden (i.e. Facebook, Twitter etc.).
There is nuance to live streaming. While a picture of your lunch may garner some likes, live streaming you eating your lunch would probably result in more unfollows than likes. Live events need to be like NFL football games and those do not come cheap (Amazon paid billions to stream just a few games over a decade). There needs to be a sense of shared experience which is lost once the event is over - you can watch an old football game, but knowing the end result changes the experience.
Live audio also works better than live video. While live panels can be effective over zoom, it is still somewhat jarring to see people’s faces for an hour as they look aimlessly into a void. Audio only seems more natural and allows for more effective consuming. More than anything, I’d imagine, depending on the business model, this will further erode the power of radio by taking a share out of talk radio. It would be fairly easy to pay attention to, and participate on, Clubhouse, while driving a car for example. What’s more you can connect with other participants allowing you to build new relationships among folks and start your own club - which is not possible with talk radio.
I don’t know if Socrates ever employed the eponymous method or if it was just a literary device Plato developed, but Clubhouse, and apps like it, suggest that we could potentially return to a place of having civilized conversations similar to the fabled Socratic dialogues.
With live audio, trolling is harder, insulting is harder, but asking meaningful questions is much easier.