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The Enduring Legacy of Clubhouse’s Chatty Revolution

Sight isolates, sound incorporates. This was the signature insight of Walter Ong, the tech philosopher who considered spoken language superior to written language and a greater stimulus to intimacy and imagination. A proud phonocentrist, Ong further believed that heroism lives almost exclusively in speech. This rings true. There are many heroic calls to arms—think of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky defying the Russian invasion—but heroic emails are few.

Social media has long pitched its tent in the domain of logos—the word. Twitter and Facebook may seem rambunctious, but they're mostly made of silent symbols. Such written language, in Ong's analysis, will always engender the arrogance of “the last word”; distraction; disengagement from the shared human struggle to make meaning; and neurotic repetitiveness—backing and filling, skimming, rereading, parsing, sharing, screenshotting.

By contrast, Clubhouse is an online joint that Ong, who died in 2003, might have appreciated. Along with its copycats in “social audio,” Clubhouse has managed to bring the immediacy of spoken exchanges to the internet. These days, the app is widely disparaged as a vibe-shift victim, but I'm not so sure. Even as the hype has faded and celebs have decamped, Clubhouse continues to convene dialogs that are everything Twitter exchanges are not: both substantial and tender, trusting and challenging, candid and incorporative. In the right rooms, you might even hear conversations worthy of being called “civil discourse.”

Clubhouse launched in the spring of 2020, the thick of the pandemic, with a white-nationalist insurgency in the offing. It was the worst of times. It was the worst of times. With great fanfare and even greater capital, Paul Davison (Stanford, Google) and Rohan Seth (Stanford, Google) opened the app's doors on March 17. Having hoped to create a platform that would let people listen to podcasts in groups, Davison and Seth were suddenly sure that locked-down people were suffering a new kind of loneliness, one not addressed by existing forms of social media. As a remedy, they proposed a revival of the old telephonic party lines, channels where you forfeit privacy for conviviality—or bickering. To mark the ribbon-cutting, investor Marc Andreessen called Clubhouse “the Athenian agora come to life.” (An agora for the agoraphobic, maybe.)

But were we in that first Covid year underserved by social media, or feeling alone in some new way? It seemed self-evident at the time, but it's been hard to verify in all the rushed sociology spun up to define the plague years. It seems more likely that Clubhouse responded to a desire that predated the pandemic—a longing for spoken human conversation, the kind that comes with flights of eloquence, slips of the tongue, audible emotion, and overlapping voices of support or dissent.

After all, by 2020, the extraordinary proliferation of podcasts had already showcased the pleasures of speech: regional accents, idiosyncratic cadences, improvised exchanges. On Clubhouse, a spatial audio effect now simulates the acoustics of a concert hall. Even when no one is talking, this soundscape evokes the living presence of others. Several rooms take advantage of the effect, including the talk-free meditation rooms. One I like is a writing room that prohibits talking for 50 minutes per hour, and holds a discussion for the balance. You write together, in companionable silence.

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Clubhouse at the start was not just invite-only; it was iOS-only. Chic voices would touch chic brains via AirPods Pro. In issuing invitations, the hope was that Clubhouse would skim the creamiest cream off the social milk—Drake, Oprah—and gain a reputation for being 100 percent rabble-free.

To this end, the interface faintly conjures a nightclub, with gestures at velvet ropes, bouncers, hallways, and corner banquettes. In each chat room, circle-shaped headshots come up like tokens on a game board. When one of the circles speaks, it gets a kind of halo that flashes while they hold the floor—and those who interrupt with amens or points of order borrow the flashing. The sound of the voices is rich, pure, and immediate.

Sarah Szalavitz, the extraordinarily well-connected technologist, brought me to Clubhouse and gave me a backstage tour and guidance for avoiding the right-wing bores of the Intellectual Dark Web, with their never-ending jeremiads against pronouns and wokeness. Sarah also gave me stern advice: I'd have to quickly unfriend most of the 52 people I'd be forced to follow on signing up. Many of the forced follows, the dread Suggested User List, were notorious shit-stirrers for whom the deck of influence on the app was apparently stacked. Of those on the Suggested User List, only two in that summer of 2020 seemed to have come by their followers honestly: Meek Mill and 21 Savage. I still follow them.

For a time, Clubhouse caught on, and throughout the summer there were ambitious and fruitful conferences by Black Lives Matter writers and activists. There was also a lot of blather about that season's philosophical earworms, from cancel culture to gender essentialism. In September, the US attorney general labeled Portland, Seattle, and New York City “anarchist jurisdictions,” and the Clubhouse rooms refracted the apocalyptic hyperrealism of the wider world. In May 2021 the app opened to Android users, and a few months later users stopped having to be invited. The big weekly parties shrank and turned uncool. Debates turned into so-called drama rooms—shouting matches on catnip subjects like vaccines. Many precincts of the app turned monotonous.

Along the way, imitations thundered in: Discord Stage Channels, Slack Huddles, Twitter Spaces, Reddit Talk, Facebook Live Audio Rooms, Spotify Greenroom, and Telegram Voice Chats. The valuation of Clubhouse fell, and many prominent hosts took their shows to Spaces, which integrated well with Twitter. Other social media apps serve specific groups. Coworkers use Huddles, and Discord serves gamers and teens.

Though blockbuster social media remains logocentric, social audio hums along, and Clubhouse, in particular, seems unbothered not to be the belle of anyone's VC ball anymore. It still lives on 28 million devices, and its regular users, many of them international, remain loyal. They speak in a wide range of accents and dialects, and many join groups just to practice new languages. For weeks, rooms have proliferated in which people inside and outside Ukraine trade urgent information about the Russian attacks. These conversations take place alternately in Ukrainian, Russian, English, and several other languages.

Current Clubhouse users now get sentimental when they talk about the app. In a recent room called What's Your Favorite Clubhouse Story? one user described the time Snoop Dogg entered his room to whoops of “Snoop,” and a second spoke of hearing the ancient groans of a friend who gave birth on the app. (That really happened.) As these two spoke, those present made deeply human murmurs of surprise, squeamishness, and wonder. Then a third piped up. He said simply, and quietly, that Clubhouse had taught him to listen.

This article appears in the April 2022 issue. Subscribe now.

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