I think it’s safe to say that most of us started 2021 with a severe case of Zoom-poisoning (as my wife puts it). I would attribute this malaise not just to the social isolation we are experiencing during the pandemic, but to the monotonous design of Zoom, Skype, and their peers in the video meeting space. These checkerboard platforms trap us in little surveillance cubicles, making our virtual meetings feel even more emotionally isolated and fragmented, not less.
At this point, our expectations are so low that the “lipstick effect” is enough to set the Internet on fire. So, just when we needed an excuse to spend more time in online chatrooms, along comes Clubhouse. Is it the answer to our prayers or just another virtual waste of time, increasing (not decreasing) our sense of desperation for real, meaningful connections? Some recent data suggests the latter: After a spike of 9.6 million downloads in February, Clubhouse dipped to 900,000 downloads in April, as vaccination rates picked up and COVID-19 safety measures relaxed in many wealthier countries.
Still, it would be a shame if this time of radical change in our online (and offline) lives did not produce a new paradigm for how we stay (and feel) connected – and not just a polished up version of the same chat interfaces we’ve been trapped in for years. It is telling that Clubhouse, which launched in April 2020, is already inspiring clones from Twitter and Facebook. In this piece, I will look at the question from the perspective of a designer who has been crafting and studying online chat environments since the mid-1990s when I joined the Virtual Worlds Group at Microsoft Research as a design fellow (led by the amazing Lili Cheng): Does Clubhouse represent the paradigm shift we need to communicate effectively online, during the pandemic and beyond? With Facebook and Microsoft investing heavily in the next wave of “Clubhouse Killers,” how should brands think about showing up in these audio-first hangout spaces?
Still lost in Zoomland
I have already made my feelings known regarding the dearth of creativity in Zoomland, an interface paradigm that has been largely unchanged for 25 years – at least since the release of CuSeeMe back in the mid-1990s. To be fair to the folks at Zoom, 2020 was largely taken up fixing security holes and addressing scalability needs (traffic climbed 30 times in one month after we went into lockdown over a year ago). The good news is that a number of creative upstarts have emerged in the virtual chat and meeting space. Most of these environments recycle ideas that were tested and abandoned in the 1990s when graphical chat on the internet first emerged out of the lab with products like The Palace and V-Worlds (the precursor to Second Life). While it has been great to see a bit more risk taking and playfulness, these upstarts still feel like parlor tricks, decent options to mix things up at your next virtual happy hour, but not worth investing in.
One problem for the whole lot is that they all require quite a bit of visual setup. The one thing that Zoom got right from the beginning was the ease with which meetings could be organized and shared with a simple link. No more than that. At Dalberg, I lead a diverse team of designers on four continents (with studios in Dakar, London, Mumbai, Nairobi, New York and Seattle) and we are constantly looking for better ways to connect, collaborate, and socialize. We recently held a global retreat in which we spent an hour on a “walking tour” of these new environments. While it was a fun change of space, the visual tarting up of these virtual spaces felt largely irrelevant to our experience. We didn’t feel any more connected, whether we were chatting in front of an image of the Mos Eisley Cantina from Star Wars, wandering around a 3D version of a Japanese temple, or hopping through a PacMan style 2D grid. A few of these environments have built-in games and puzzles that provide a nice distraction, but the experience would probably have been pretty much the same if we had all been in a WhatsApp group while we played. We ended our tour with a “virtual dance party” in front of a billboard in a weird, empty 3D version of Burning Man. As if we had teleported back to Second Life.
Along comes Clubhouse
Like many people, I walked into my first Clubhouse “room” in early February. What a difference! While no one showed up to “walk me in,” I arranged to meet up with a few design colleagues to warm up (more about that later) and then began wandering between rooms to see what was going on. Wait…you can move freely between rooms to hang out with your friends? This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. It might not have occurred to you pre-pandemic, but at any given time at least 50% of my favorite people in the world (whether colleagues, friends, or family) are sitting in Zoom rooms just like me. Can I drop by for a quick sidechat? Send them a hug? Wave? An environment like Clubhouse is rich with such possibilities, enhanced by an overall sense of informality when compared to Zoom meetings. You can move in and out of rooms without needing to announce yourself awkwardly, fumble to turn on your video and wave (only to switch it off 5 minutes later), or apologize when life interrupts.
Naturally, this led me back to a design question: Is the informality of Clubhouse an intentional decision or a set of norms that emerged organically from community behavior? That is what is so fascinating about virtual worlds: It doesn’t really matter as long as the designers at Clubhouse notice and build on this emergent behavior. Often, designing these sorts of expectations from the beginning is a sure way to kill the fun. Instead, I give credit to the team at Clubhouse for making the experience dead simple. Other than the “walk in” ritual there is really nothing to it. You join and then immediately begin exploring.
When I speak with friends about what they miss most about our remote working lives, they often put spontaneity at the top of the list. Many other aspects of remote work suit them fine (particularly folks who are used to traveling as much as I am). But there are no chance encounters, like you might have in the hallways of an office, conference or food hall. As Avichal Garg, an investor at Electric Capital, a venture-capital firm, explained in the New York Times: “Creative problem solving requires looking at problems differently, and having serendipitous interactions with other people allows you to see problems and discover solutions in new ways.” Was this the inspiration for Clubhouse or did they just want to make an exclusive environment – a never-ending virtual cocktail party – where global digerati can let their guard down and rant with their friends without leaving a trace?
Give Clubhouse founder Paul Davison some credit here. His first attempt to launch a startup, Highlight, used your smartphone’s location to create serendipitous meetups IRL. I imagine that there was a fun moment, early on, when CH might have felt like those internet meetups when the digital scene first started developing in NYC. All you needed to do was show up at the next Razorfish party or ITP physical computing show and you might run into Esther Dyson or Jarron Lanier or Nicholas Negroponte wandering the halls, happy to chat. Those early days of the Internet are long gone. But they are also vanishing pretty quickly on CH as more and more people flock onto the platforms. When will CH finally drop the “invitation only” pretense?
Can Clubhouse move beyond its roots as an invitation-only party for tech insiders like Elon Musk?
I met up in CH with Art Chang, a NYC mayoral candidate and active user to get his take. As a tech entrepreneur and founder of Tipping Point Partners, Chang is better suited than most candidates to take full advantage of the opportunities that come with running a virtual campaign, and yet he found Zoom deeply limiting. When he launched his candidacy, he filled his evenings with Zoom events for 20 to 30 to 40 people. But he found that the participants were too tired by 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. and needed a break from endless video chat. The majority wouldn’t show, even if they had already paid to participate.
Chang also found that it was “hard to gauge emotion and attention, weigh the empathy in the room and clue in on audience response” with groups of more than 5 to 10 people on Zoom, which is something which he has a boundless talent for with large groups IRL. As the host he found it “visually and cognitively exhausting.” So he started shifting his energies to Clubhouse in the evening hours, joining some discussion rooms and hosting others. In CH, he feels he can be much more “generous with the stage” bringing in different voices to the conversation” and not worrying too much when participants flow in and out of the discussion. Clubhouse opened up new networks for him in just the sort of impromptu way that a live political event might. By speaking in a Clubhouse room, Chang found that he would immediately “gain 20+ new followers, three to five of whom would then reach out on Twitter or ‘Gram.” He believes that his time on Clubhouse “always generates positive returns” with a much higher ROI when compared with pre-arranged Zoom events (which he still does).
Chang described his experience as a host in Clubhouse as “one degree of inclusiveness greater than The Brian Lehrer show.” Was he onto something? Is a call-in radio show a better way to understand what is happening on CH than an exclusive cocktail party or endless conference – and one that could be much more inclusive? If that is the case, what does that mean for how brands and businesses might think about showing up on the platform?
In order to better understand what that might look like, I spoke with Justin Bank who has led some of NPR’s early experiments on CH (as well as Twitter Spaces). He confirmed that Clubhouse has felt like a “natural” environment for NPR to engage with their listeners. Rooms in CH “feel like call-in shows, which are really familiar to us. But we have almost more control. We can see the profiles of the participants and chat them up ahead of time.”
With some behind-the-scenes support, he was proud to report that CH sessions with hosts like Guy Raz and Lulu Garcia-Navarro turned out quite close to “a composed radio program” even by NPR standards, given how well their hosts understand how to facilitate a show. He noted that “even with well known podcasters there are often frequent umms (in Clubhouse) but it felt so professional with a host like Guy.” Based on these early experiments he sees CH as a natural extension for a media brand like NPR, in which audiences will feel like they have “found public media” no matter the platform. For example, on public radio, they may get an exclusive interview with the Mayor of Boulder after the recent mass shooting. On CH maybe the Mayor may not join the discussion room, but the reporter who spoke with him will.
So, is it time for your business to have a CH engagement strategy?
I checked in with marketing expert Alice Huang to get her take on how other brands might consider “showing up” in CH. She underscored that most brands don’t have the permission to participate the way NPR does. NPR has earned permission as a host, and is expected and trusted to be objective and authentic. But this doesn’t mean that businesses should ignore CH. She feels that CH provides a critical opportunity for companies to listen and learn. According to Huang, “brands should absolutely pay attention to some of these rooms. They provide a place to listen to authentic views. And people really put themselves out (on CH). These viewpoints are very valuable to brands.”
At least she has found this to be true in the more intimate rooms she has participated in. For example, she participated in an active discussion on CH in which Disney’s responsibility as the creator and promoter of many of life’s narratives including the princess narrative to little girls (and boys) was debated. The “listen and learn” sentiment was echoed by Justin from NPR who views CH as a place where media platforms can “get outside of the algorithm.”
This would suggest that CH be cautious about grafting any sort of overt business model onto the platform, particularly one pulled from the Facebook/ Youtube digital marketing playbook or it will lose the sense of authenticity that is core to its appeal. While it is encouraging that CH has held the line on any sort of overt marketing schemes for generating revenue, the founders have come under increasing criticism for capturing a $4+ billion valuation (and counting) on the backs of hosts, like Art Chang, who create all of their live content for free.
The recent launch of a modest payments system seems like a bandaid, as CH grapples with how to retain its growing audience without descending into Reddit-style, toxic chat rooms that might scare newcomers off (particularly given the challenges of moderating these discussions in real time). CH is grappling with a host of design challenges that will only get worse now that it has finally arrived on Android, the dominant global mobile platform. This will likely result in a further explosion of audiences across numerous markets that the company is poorly prepared to understand, much less support through their critical onboarding experience. Our user research into the barriers to internet adoption throughout Asia and Africa (which we presented to Facebook all the way back in 2015) has long suggested a massive opportunity for an audio-first environment as the best on-ramp for billions of people on the other side of the digital divide. But, who will “walk” these users in? How will they find anyone or anything of interest with so few visual cues and nothing to search on?
In my next piece in this series, I will dive a bit deeper in the design challenges ahead and how CH might address its “interestingness problem,” before looking at the broader landscape of audio experiences and how they will continue to shape our online habits in the coming decade.