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:

Tagged in: #reflections #product #startups

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