February 10, 2021

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.