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Who gets cancelled on Clubhouse? The exclusive online platform is a Good Vibes Only cultural wasteland

Elon Musk's endorsement is ringing. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Elon Musk's endorsement is ringing. Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images


February 10, 2021   5 mins

Taylor Lorenz was among Clubhouse’s earliest adopters. As far back as April 2020, when the invite-only, audio-only, real-time social media app launched, the New York Times tech reporter got hooked, hard, spending three hours a day listening in on meetings between other Clubhousers (who talk in “rooms”, with “moderators” — imagine it as a live panel podcast, with an audience who can chip in). Since then, the company’s valuation has bloomed, from a paltry $100 million back in May 2020, to an almighty $1 billion now — unicorn status.

So it’s perhaps fitting that it was Lorenz who finally got to christen the ship last Saturday, by inducting the world of Clubhouse into the world of drive-by cancellation attempts. “[Marc Andressen] just used the r-slur on Clubhouse,” Lorenz wrote, safely back on Twitter. “And not one other person in the room said anything”.

Unfortunately for her, “the r-slur”, was disputed by everyone else in the room. Lorenz has since locked her own Twitter account. Clubhouse has had its first assassination attempt. It will have to wait a bit longer for a confirmed kill.

It’s poignant, because Clubhouse often feels as though it has been designed as a sophisticated response to just that kind of cancel culture; but, like many a social media redesign before it, it has mostly just exposed a paradox: an inevitable tension between what we want and what’s good for us. We all know the problem. More and more, those with something to say wouldn’t be caught dead saying it on social media. The professional blowhards have won; increasingly, the very best Twitter accounts are anonymous.

Would-be Zuckerbergs are hardly blind to this phenomenon. In purely commercial terms, ugly, fractious environments are lousy for business. Everyone would like to create the next Instagram. Filtered pictures of clean-eating Zoomers in yoga pants equals a place to advertise $1,000 handbags. No one wants to create the next reddit. Incels looking to hive-mind some new social Darwinism equals a space to advertise brain pills and male sex toys.

Clubhouse, then, seeks to address the main issues of the last decade’s social technology. For starters, it responds to what Twitter does badly: allowing aggression, of the “you’d never actually say that to someone’s face” variety, and tames it, by forcing you to actually say that to someone’s… voice, at least. The rooms are moderated, and at this stage moderators hold the power of life and death: not only can they boot you out, they are entitled to delete your entire profile.

In the same way, the fear of the offence archivists is supposed to be mitigated by the sense that the “rooms” operate under informal Chatham House-like rules. No recording is permitted — that’s in the terms and conditions — and it’s physically impossible to record within the app. This is the same system that allowed Snapchat to grab a younger generation, who sought intimacy without permanency.

Of course, what the Lorenz drama tells us is that nothing is ever truly chip paper. And Clubhouse is now finding out the same thing those too quick to send nudes through Snapchat discovered — you might not be able to screenshot them without alerting the user, but someone can almost as easily take a picture of those pictures with a camera. Last week, when a surprise appearance from memelord Elon Musk almost broke the site, someone simply picked up a microphone, and live-streamed his chat to YouTube. Problem unsolved.

In Clubhouse’s ideal world, we are all uncoupled from the almighty algorithm. In recent years, we’ve been taught to hate the algorithm as the font of all evil, from YouTube “radicalisation” to FaceBook election-thieving. It’s the thing that keeps us hooked, and it’s a red rag to our most cynical content providers, the ratchet effect by which the system gets gamed. A James Felton tweet, for instance, is a perennial high-earner, with its sickly confection of signalled outrage and midwit humour. But multiple James Felton tweets are the equivalent of eating a fried Mars Bar every 90 minutes: after a while, you want to kill yourself. Multiply this by The Internet, and you soon realise why our entire culture is melting.

Clubhouse, on the other hand, removes the poison hand of the algorithm from the system, by making rooms curated entities: a human creates one, and other humans join it. No upvotes involved.

But without a decent mechanism to pre-sift content, discovery is haphazard at best. Mostly, you’re left ambling the hallways, poking around groups called things like “Why do people fetishize wealth and the wealthy”, “We’re 35+ Why Aren’t We Allowed To Age Gracefully”, “Let Men Cheat I Don’t See The Problem”. It’s a bit like going behind the velvet rope at an exclusive VIP zone, only to find it peopled entirely by those with nothing to say.

Perhaps because of the strong network effects of an invite-only policy, the site’s early adopters seem to be the worst meeting of minds since Molotov shook hands with von Ribbentrop. They divide neatly into five categories: Bitcoin bros, Silicon Valley types, “digital nomads”. Online marketing ‘gurus’, wannabe influencers, failing musicians, pluggers. American women trading low-rent love advice (“What y’all getting ya men for V Day”). Empowerment ‘gurus’ (strong crossover with all three other groups), shilling bromides about believing in yourself (“Happiness Advice from HAPPY Millionaires”.) And Eric Weinstein.

For now, most rooms seem to be engaged in cargo cult behaviour. They’re an empty space marking out where a culture may one day emerge. The Bitcoin bros tell each other things they already know, or speculate wildly. The internet marketers merely instruct each other to hustle harder, and shout out for followbacks (“Fireman is giving away $500. All they gotta do is go to Instagram and blow up my latest picture!”). The low-rent love advisers’ issues clearly cannot be solved by yet more love advice from fellow romantic pygmies. No one actually learns anything, or develops a lasting connection. They simply network, to almost no effect.

In fact, diving into Clubhouse mainly recalls how the makework aspects of social media can often be its most addictive property. There is a kind of fake productivity to be had in constantly engaging, when in fact most of our content is meaningless noise, and we’re effectively playing a video game called ‘social media’. If Clubhouse is to flourish, it will have to find most of its fanbase by sucking users out of its competitors. Those users may be reborn on the platform, perhaps slightly higher up The Internet’s foodchain, but is value actually created? Or is it merely reordered?

Even the thing that the app gets really right, engineering-out conflict, comes with its own downsides. The conversation soon becomes blobby, obsequious: a hippy house party. It’s a Good Vibes Only cultural wasteland where everyone is ‘really feeling’ your latest thoughts on the chances for an African space programme. Rapidly, we arrive back at the fundamental unit currency of social media: what Dr Eric Berne called “strokes” when he invented Transactional Analysis in the 1970s, and what Twitter calls “likes”: low-level reciprocal grooming behaviours.

Again and again, it seems the question for would-be social engineers dissolves into a causation circle: did social media make us this way — or did it just reveal who we really are? On Saturday, at roughly the same moment that Taylor Lorenz was mishearing, I clicked into a room called “Can We Talk About What Just Happened”. A guy called David had done something bad in a previous room. It was never made clear what.

Cue: an entire new room consisting entirely of people therapy-talking their aural violation by the shadowy David and the unspeakable thing he did. Like an ectoplasm of the Very Online, the same craving for the centring of victimhood had re-formed itself in the mould of this wholly new medium.

By that reckoning, perhaps Clubhouse’s owners are on a hiding to nothing. Perhaps, as with Lorenz’s inability to adapt to a new mindset on a new platform, the whole dream of re-building our online social spaces without all the barbed edges is impossible, because we no longer know how to act within them. The wind changed, and now our faces are set in a pose of righteous indignation, all yas queen jazz hands and clapbacks. If so, at least it will help us self-segregate.


Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.

@gavhaynes

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Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

I’m pleased to say I haven’t a clue what any of this is about

Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Thank God. I thought it was only me.

Alex Delszsen
Alex Delszsen
3 years ago
Reply to  Jean Fothers

I was thinking a woman had written this, while I am listening to someone’s podcast with a guy with a voice that says I read gossip magazines and gossip avidly. Tone of voice, tone of writing style…men morphed. Young women might as well be gay.

Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Delszsen

I recognise that you have used English words, but, having taken all that time to type it, you could possibly write something that people may understand.

James Moss
James Moss
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

I was about to make the same comment. Treble uptick.

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Keep your innocence for your own sanity, Mr DĆ«rer!
On another note, would you be able to assist me? I’ve just come back to Unherd after a couple of weeks off and I can’t see where any answers to one’s comments etc. are to be found in this new format. Do you have any advice? Thanks.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago
Reply to  Dan Poynton

Hi Dan, I’m afraid Mr Durer has only just about come to terms with the printing press, and is not the person to ask about the diabolical doings of disqus. I hate the look of the new revamp, but is it also swallowing replies? Let’s see

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew D

Ah a noble era to be stuck in indeed, Herr D!
I seem to be feeling equally as reactionary about the revamp. Actually my replies seem to be appearing but formerly there was a notification tab (up at the top right next to the “Most voted” etc) which let you know if anyone had replied to your comment etc. Can’t see anything like that now, so I’m not sure how one is notified (how you were notified of my reply to you for example). Any ideas there?

dehavilland
dehavilland
3 years ago

What the fresh hell is “the r-slur”? First we had “the n-word” becoming the word with such magical power it cannot be spoken or even written, like the ineffable name G*d. So now we have “the r-slur”? The sheer absurdity of all this is an astonishing thing to behold

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  dehavilland

The “n-word” can be spoken and written-but only if you are of the approved victim class. Will someone from the acceptable “r” class come forth please and explain what “r” is?

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

R is for ret ard..the space is intentional because, well, you know, it’s the r-slur.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

This “Clubhouse” must be a refined space of delicate sensibilities…

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

the NYT seems desperate to infiltrate, for no reason than hoping to catch someone saying something that could be somehow construed as offensive. It’s the same paper whose editor has decided context regarding words is irrelevant. Apparently no one has told the editor that he is editor of a newspaper, where words and context are the medium of exchange.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Context became obsolete with “deconstruction” theory.

Dorothy Slater
Dorothy Slater
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Strikes me that Groucho Marx had it right: I refuse to join any club that will let me in.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Am I the only one bewildered at why people chose to immediately silence those that pronounce all these “forbidden” words, before even having a chance to detect WHY those words were uttered?
There might be value in learning the logic that drove someone to insult someone else – and society these days is unceremoniously throwing it away before looking at the contents!

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

It was the journalist who snuck in under a fake name who had the delicate sensibilities. So delicate in fact that even people who did not use the term she found so offensive had to be reported.

Dorothy Slater
Dorothy Slater
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

R stands for the word I apply to myself when I confront algebra.

Robert Hochbaum
Robert Hochbaum
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

I’m hoping I’m not from this particular approved victim class but it’s my understanding it’s “retard”.

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Actually, an African American guy, Marlon Anderson, a security guard at Wisconsin West High School was n-bombed by an African American student. He told the student not to call him that and said the word out loud. Upshot: he was fired under the school’s zero tolerance policy for using the n-word. This was in Autumn 2019. In Autumn 2020 the University of Southern California replaced a Business Communication professor because he uttered a Chinese sentence that sounded a bit like the n-word!

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic Rudman

The Washington D.C. city council had a major problem when a councilman (councilperson?) used the word “niggardly”-it is now disallowed.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

I remember that. My was that amusing.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar, had a beautiful Black Labrador Retriever with the wrong name. A name I cannot mention in case the UnHerd Censor has a seizure.

The RAF, as we used to call it recently desecrated the dog’s grave at RAF Scampton, Lincs, in order to be “inclusive ” or some such piffle.

“Never in human history have so many been so badly let down by so few”.
Apologies to WSC.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  dehavilland

Is it calling someone a racist?

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  dehavilland

Childish, basically…

Ian Wigg
Ian Wigg
3 years ago
Reply to  dehavilland

I believe it is a discriminatory reference to yokels as in Ooo R. Alternatively it could be a reference to the paramilitary wing of the Cornish Independence Party – The Ooh R A.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

Clubhouse has had its first assassination attempt. It will have to wait a bit longer for a confirmed kill.
everything you ever wanted to know about today’s media and how it has been infected with wokeltarian culture in two neat little sentences.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

I struggled to understand a word of this because it is another world entirely and one that I want nothing to do with. Then I remembered that Bret Weinstein talked about having tried out Clubhouse a few months ago. One would have thought Bret Weinstein had better things to do, but he was looking for places where he could discuss his Unity 2020 initiative. Whatever, better to read a book.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I’ve heard Weinstein say that in some circles he’s considered a heretic, maybe even a member of the dreaded alt-right, for daring to buck some of today’s leftist orthodoxy. He’s an old school liberal, the sort you may disagree with but have an adult conversation with despite that.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I am very aware of that, having watched all his Dark Horse podcasts, and the follow-up Q&As for some months now. And, of course, I have watched his appearances on Joe Rogan and his talks with Douglas Murray and others.

He is, as you say, the original woolly liberal.

croftyass
croftyass
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Glad it wasn’t just me-plus other than a few obvious names I haven’t heard of any of these people-who the f … is Jamed Felton?
I got lost at “the r-slur” -I falsely assumed it would be explained later but obviously its as a common as a preposition in this world!
As you say-back to a good book!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  croftyass

I think it must mean calling someone a racist.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

a six letter word for delayed, sometimes applied to individuals with limited cognitive function. It was also not said by the accused, not that this apparently matters to the NYT. Racist, meanwhile, remains standard fare, especially when applied to right wingers. Over time, that word has become diluted by overuse; hence, the attempt to institutionalize ‘white supremacists’ as the substitute term.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Thanks, I reckon you’re right.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

“White supremacists'” was a change that had to be made, as so many of the racial “victim” class are clearly racists themselves.

Chuck Burns
Chuck Burns
3 years ago

I am not familiar with “Clubhouse”. This is the first I’ve heard of it. My opinion is that the article was well written. Can’t say that about much of what is published nowadays. If Clubhouse is supposed to be a way to exchange ideas in real time it seems to miss the mark. Who has the time to engage in extemporaneous conversation with strangers in a moderated arena about random topics? My feeling is the best approach is just to allow free speech in the forums that already exist. A free speech YouTube for instance. I guess it is be too late that. The Techno-Capitalist-Left has already decide to ignore the Constitution. The former United States is no longer a Nation of laws. What is discussed will be what is approved, what is allowed, what supports the “approved” agenda of the day.

Peter Williams
Peter Williams
3 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

Totally agree. I can’t fathom why so many commentators seem at a loss about what this is about.

Peter Williams
Peter Williams
3 years ago
Reply to  Chuck Burns

Totally agree. I can’t fathom why so many commentators seem at a loss about what this is about. If you don’t understand something research it or not depends on your motivation.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

I’ve never heard of Clubhouse, or any of the people mentioned in this article, and don’t understand what the article is about.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Actually, I have heard of Weinstein. I think he was one of those sane professors who got caught up in one of those liberal arts college race meltdowns a couple of years ago.

Mirco
Mirco
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

The Professor from evergreen is Eric Weinstein’s brother, Brett Weinstein. Both are worth listening to, at least outside of Clubhouse.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Mirco

Aha, thanks.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Mirco

Yes, Eric is probably the smartest man in America, and Bret (there is only one ‘t) is probably the nicest man in America. Their parents must be very proud.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago

So amused at Taylor Lorenz’ self-own. Clubhouse actually blocked her and then she snuck in using a burner account. Then bragged about it on Twitter. Media doesn’t have a right to join Clubhouse, nor should they be allowed to if they are going to lie about what is said.

Jean Fothers
Jean Fothers
3 years ago

This modern world we are galloping into, is a load of total BS. Makes me glad I’m getting old.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Jean Fothers

It’s the modern world that’s getting old…

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

It’s the modern world that is boring us all to death #tedious : )

Dominic Rudman
Dominic Rudman
3 years ago

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
3 years ago

Correction: Dr. Eric Berne published the scientific papers that were the basus for his system of Transactional Analysis in the late 1950s, not 1970s. Games People Play — which is still well worth reading, by the way — was published in 1964. The examples he draws, based on what he had been observing in the world and among his own patients understandably reflect the behaviour of middle class North Americans in the 1950s, but some of them — Let’s You and Him Fight comes to mind — are thriving in modern times as well. And, of course, we have invented a whole host of new dysfunctional interpersonal games.

Kiran Grimm
Kiran Grimm
3 years ago

Bern’s idea of the “stroke” as a currency of social interaction is a valuable concept which has universal application ““ not just among “middle class North Americans in the 1950s”. In Bern’s view the “stroke” plays to recognition hunger which he defines as a basic human need. So much so, that those denied positive, affirming, strokes will settle for (or actively seek) negative strokes ““ any acknowledgement, good or bad, is better than none. Which brings to mind Oscar Wilde’s well known remark in regard to being talked about: “The only thing worse is…”.

Good that Gavin Haynes sees the link to Berne’s pop-psychology but on social media the craving for recognition goes beyond merely angling for likes or upticks. In the Transactional Analysis system, games almost always begin with the provocation (or hook) of a put-down. This triggers a response and the game is on. You can see that playing out on social media in the behaviour of so-called trolls.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago

Is this a satirical piece? I feel suddenly very old and out of touch. And I know what Twitter is.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

I would say that it’s a brilliant combination of satire, farce, comedy and tragedy. And that is quite an achievement.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It’s Greek to me…

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
3 years ago

My kids (29 and 29) have mentioned Clubhouse recently. One has a friend who’s a fashionable caterer in LA who’s participating in foodie discussions. The other is a budding nutritionist (almost graduated MS Columbia) who’s doing likewise. The nutritionist says so far the conversations are really dull, but she’s willing to give it another go. Not sure this will compete with the totally corrupt & censorious TWITTER app, but in general these things are just ‘time sucks’ – even the youngsters agree on that and perhaps this is a rare point that all generations can agree on, ie. get off of social media and live-your-life.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
3 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Are there exciting nutritionist discussions? I don’t mean to be dismissive of the field which helps so many people, but it isn’t exactly scintillating, is it?

Totally agree on the time suck point.

Karen Lindquist
Karen Lindquist
3 years ago

I think it’s hilarious that more people were just scratching their heads at the coy euphemism for retard.
There. I said it. Now we will all probably go to SJW hell.
Sorry, not sorry.