San Francisco-based Clubhouse, an emerging audio social network, raised $100 million led by Andreessen Horowitz at a $1 billion post-money valuation. Silicon Valley’s latest unicorn, just under a year old, has digirati, influencers, industry experts and those seeking an coveted invitation to join the exclusive club abuzz.
Founded by Silicon Valley friends Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth in March 2020, Clubhouse set out to connect people in “meaningful conversations” via a drop-in audio platform. In June 2020, my friend Ben Parr suggested I give Clubhouse a try. Then, in extremely limited, private beta, I thought it would be next to impossible to make time for yet another social platform.
As a former member of private clubs such as Soho Hose and the Battery, I was wary of joining another “exclusive” club. Even in its early stages, the promise was clear. At the time, the finite set of users hosted audio rooms where conversations focused on startup and tech innovation, COVID-19, and Black Lives Matter (BLM).
Within weeks, I followed conversations led by an incredible array of successful entrepreneurs sharing their stories and advice such as Alexis Ohanian, Ev Williams, Scooter Braun, and Ashton Kutcher. I also followed along in conversations led by celebrities such as Wiz Khalifa, Ava DuVernay, Tiffany Haddish, and Kevin Hart, that weren’t about celebrity at all. This didn’t feel hierarchical. It felt like a community. And none of it was a waste of time. From the get-go, I was immersed in conversations that were deep, philosophical, and raw.
I couldn’t stop listening. Ask anyone who uses Clubhouse, and I’ll bet they say the same thing.
Unlike other social networks, I found myself sharing less and listening more, joining room after room across a variety of topics. I also actively participated in rooms dedicated to meta conversations about Clubhouse itself, how the platform could improve, and ways to grow while keeping conversations and engagement intimate. Co-Founder Paul Davidson often participates in these discussions to listen, learn, and share his ideas. I admire that in Paul.
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Does the World Need Another Social Network?
If you could plug into a live conversation about a topic, you’re passionate about, on demand, anywhere in the world, and have an opportunity to not only listen to some of the smartest people on the subject, but also participate with them, would you?
That’s the premise (and promise) of Clubhouse.
It’s reminiscent of the early days of Twitter. In 2006 or 2007, I said that news no longer breaks, it Tweets. It was exciting, and unprecedented, to be part of a human seismograph that represented the real-time trends, conversations, randomness, and events around the world. Twitter quickly became a real-time, virtual water cooler, a digital wild west of sorts, where the value of the platform was created by creators, curators, and consumers. It’s where the #hashtag was created! And, those conversations spilled over into the real world, igniting Tweet-ups, Twitter-focused conferences, movements, and revolutions.
Clubhouse feels like the early days of Twitter right now. Eventually, it will grow more than the current two million active users it houses now. Live video, podcasts, and conferences will feature Clubhouse panels or broadcast to the platform, and serious FOMO will attract people to participate online in ways that feel more productive and gratifying than in other networks.
Clubhouse is a Live Conversation, and Everyone Can Participate Their Way
At a time when live events are postponed, cancelled, or virtualized due to the global pandemic, Clubhouse came along and did what other networks or virtual events couldn’t, unite a group of enthusiastic, informed, curious, and open-minded people to talk about and collaborate around industry and societal trends.
Jeremiah Owyang, a well-known and highly regarded tech analyst, long-time friend and neighbor, and also my original guide on Clubhouse, noted that Clubhouse launched at the right time.
“Clubhouse Chat app is the perfect quarantine app,” he observed. “People, isolated and lonely, seek to connect, at a human level. With conferences, bars, and vacations cancelled, people can have meaningful conversations that enable more empathy than text-based social networks, yet don’t run the risk of video fatigue. The dead simple features make it easy for users to onboard, and also multi-task, clean the house, or make dinner.”
At a time when working from home has everyone coping with video fatigue and digital burnout, Clubhouse introduced a new experience that, like Twitter, captured its modern zeitgeist among early adopters.
Principal investor at early-stage fund SignalFire, former TechCrunch Editor-At-Large, and good friend Josh Constine described its rabid appeal this way, “Clubhouse was born out of the ‘Quarantine User Loan’ that helped it build its initial critical mass of concurrent listeners while everyone was stuck at home. But it’s snowballed big enough to survive paying that loan post-COVID.”
Indeed, Clubhouse was a boon when it launched at the beginning of shelter-in-place orders and, for better or worse, Clubhouse is still benefitting from COVID’s unwanted staying power.
Clubhouse Recreates the Magic of Your Favorite Conferences, on the Small Screen
When you find the right people in the right room, Clubhouse is as whimsical as it is invigorating. It can be refreshingly productive when other networks feel draining. It can be inspiring. It’s also rather nostalgic, in the best possible way. If you don’t like a room, you can quietly piece out.
For those who were on the front lines in the rise of social media, you’ll likely remember the excitement, the hope, and the eagerness to learn, share, and grow together. Like you, I voraciously attended the early days of user-generated conferences and unconferences such as BarCamp and “lobby cons” and even organized commercial events such as Web 2.0 Summit, South by Southwest, TED, LeWeb, and most of the overwhelming number of conferences that defined the rise of Web 2.0, the app economy, and beyond. Together they shaped the internet, our personal and professional relationships and career trajectories, and each, in their own way, captured their zeitgeist.
There was magic in the air and on the web. These connections were digital and social gravity.
Events such as SXSW, still carry this magic. Every year, people from all walks of life, at every level, submit panels and talks to become part of the geek Spring Break in Austin and will again once we defeat COVID. You know the drill. “Vote for my talk” requests populate social media, which then gives to, “attend my talk…” as the event drew closer. Lines still bend around convention center and hotel hallways, or around blocks for outside events, for those hoping be part of meaningful conversations.
What these early social platforms and live events share, is serendipity, connection, learning, and sharing.
This is what Clubhouse feels like, right now. It’s all of these things with the potential to be so much more.
Owyang helped explain why.
“Text-based social networks lack the human connection that we’re missing out on during isolation Live video is draining, the forced attention to scare into a lifeless camera, and two dimensions is taxing,” he expressed. “Clubhouse Chat app is in the ‘Goldilocks’ category during quarantine, the perfect mix of voice-based emotion, yet less taxing.”
Conversations and connections are currencies on Clubhouse.
Like Twitter’s interest graph or Facbook and Instagram’s social graph, Constine elaborated on Clubhouse’s unique value proposition, “The Clubhouse ‘Talk Graph’ as he explained, “represents a different set of people to follow than on Twitter or Instagram — people you want to hear having unscripted talks on their expertise — so those other apps can’t copy its experience even if they clone its features.”
Constine’s point is something Clubhouse has to already consider. Competition is inevitable.
For example, Twitter is working on Twitter Spaces, a Clubhouse-like feature that also allows groups to gather via voice conversations. While in limited beta, Twitter is making big moves. The company recently acquired Breaker, with the team, notably, friend and trail blazer Leah Culver, focusing exclusively on building out Twitter Spaces to compete head on with Clubhouse.
With vaccines rolling out around the world, the solitude of COVID-19, and the unique conditions driving Clubhouse’s growth, is finite in this phase. The world will re-open. The race for relevance post-pandemic really begins now.
This is something that Owyang has also considered.
“The future of Clubhouse remains unclear, while they will continue to have skyrocketing growth to match the funding expectations, expect user fall off, as the world starts to return to physical in-person events, warmer weather, and vacations resume,” he advised. “For now, Clubhouse, has our attention.”
And for now, it seems to have our attention, a lot of it, and also it represents an unquenchable thirst for meaningful community and engagement, especially in light of the chaos and devastation that played out in the forms of disinformation, political theater, and divisiveness across other social networks.
Clubhouse seems to be intently focused for now, using its newly infused investment to scale, open the door to more invitations, improve ranking and discovery, and also invest in a creator economy.
After all these years of social networking innovation, filters, augmented reality, live video, et al., it took an audio, drop-in audio chat app to remind us that meaningful connections and conversations online, beyond clout, really matter.