March 1, 2021 - 3:00pm

Clubhouse, an iPhone app that allows users to create and join virtual ‘rooms’ for audio conversation, has caused considerable stir in the 11 months since its founding, attracting two million weekly active users and a $1 billion January valuation.

Under the social constraints of Covid, an app enabling relatively free-flowing and spontaneous social interaction has generated intense interest. Between the longing to connect and the sense of exclusivity fostered by its invite-only nature, Clubhouse’s user base is swelling, skewed heavily towards an internationalist, broadly libertarian, tech and investment outlook.

Events this weekend suggest the honeymoon phase may already be over. There was blood on the virtual streets of Clubhouse last Friday, as a room created to discuss ‘wokeism’ experienced its own ‘woke coup’. Aficionados of arcane internet drama can listen to a recording of the whole thing here; the struggle session starts around the 2-hour mark and gets madder from there.

Around 2:45 the new moderators spotted Intellectual Dark Web luminary Bret Weinstein in the audience, called him onto the stage and proceeded to lay into him. “Are you anti-racist? Are you transphobic? Are you anti-black? Give us the answers now”.

The section that follows is an object lesson in the naïveté of that strand of optimistic rationalism that continues to imagine that all we need do in order to foster social harmony is just talk to one another. Weinstein and his interrogators agree on next to no fundamental premises, and those questioning him are hostile to his viewpoint. There is no ‘constructive dialogue’ under those conditions, and the outcome is as brutal and futile as you’d expect: a kind of toxic anti-conversation.

There is also no avoiding these situations except via social gatekeeping. This in turn illustrates a structural problem for Clubhouse, and by extension all social media platforms that purport to increase connection between people.

The appeal of Clubhouse is the addictive feeling it gives of participating in serious and thoughtful conversation between interesting people in an atmosphere of conviviality and trust. But conversational quality, and convivial trust, can only be fostered by constraining who can participate. This serves to keep the speakers interesting and safeguard a measure of shared adherence to conversational norms.

It’s also a safe bet that Clubhouse’s $1bn January valuation is predicated on its user base continuing to grow. This growth will, inescapably, come into tension with the elitism that provides Clubhouse’s appeal. If you sell free-flowing, high-quality and convivial conversation but then invite the entire world to weigh in, you’re more likely to end up with Babel. Which is, in fact, exactly what happened on Friday.

All of this points to an uncomfortable possibility: that our political discourse is growing more fractured not despite our increased ability to communicate inclusively on mass platforms, but because of this fact. That in turn suggests that if we want political discourse to become more civilised, we’ll need to find ways of making it more exclusionary, less transparent, and better at excluding troublemakers.

This in turn raises the question of who it’s legitimate to exclude, and why. And the Friday night Clubhouse debacle illustrates the fact that this will be a matter not of reasoned debate, but political power.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.