Clubhouse mixes podcasts, Spotify, HouseParty, Zoom. But not all can check in


Illustration by Soham Sen | ThePrint


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At first, it appears to be a corporate haven for that god-awful thing called ‘fireside chats’. Then, it was casually christened by Elon Musk as the new ‘it’ place on the internet, and millions of downloads and unicorn status followed. Now it’s a darling app for entrepreneurs and fintech leaders — the echo of “Let’s do a Clubhouse” can be heard from tech bros in Silicon Valley, all the way to Bengaluru. What’s more, its current invite-only and iOS-exclusive features give off an air that the app is somehow too cool to entertain Android mortals.

After more than a decade of experiencing both content and discontent on public platforms like YouTube and Twitter/Facebook, people are finally ready to admit something they have always known: that they just love elite exclusivity.

And while all of this may be true for now, Clubhouse is so much more.

As one speaker pointed out during a discussion on the app — listening is the new reading, and the podcast boom India saw in 2020 is a testament to that. Clubhouse taps into that aspect, identifying with people’s fatigue over constantly having to read and watch their content. Tuning into the live-audio app is akin to listening to a podcast-lite, 24×7 community radio channel, and banter with strangers, all rolled into one.

Clubhouse is an interesting way to seamlessly plug into different cultures and conversations. The pandemic has brought an implicit need to be productive all the time. Lord knows how many webinars and live discussions I have registered to attend in hopes to have an educational Saturday afternoon, only actually logging into a small fraction. But Clubhouse definitely makes it easier, having it all in one place, through a steady stream of some conversation or the other.

With a click of a button, you could join ‘rooms’ for discussions like “Bitcoin is for everyone”, or “Chinese consumers in 2021: Beyond Obvious Insights”, or “The future of tech storytelling”. Besides on topics such as finance, retail, and media, there are also discussions on technology and social media itself — “The power of social media”, “Instagram is adding a rooms feature. Thoughts?”. Then there’s your self-help section: “The Art of Stopping Time: Lessons from a Monk”, “How to create mental wealth”.

Thankfully, it’s not all about talking shop and ‘growth’. Yesterday, I logged into a room called ‘Coop House: Good Vibes only’, which was filled with musicians and producers, one-by-one sharing samples and new beats they were working on. It felt like a private listening room of unheard, unreleased music. There are lots of random and casual conversations you can plug into — “Advice for singles from a celebrity matchmaker”, “Is monogamy the best relationship?”, “Should men pay on the first date?” — both as a listener and as a participant.

And for the politically active, Clubhouse is a safe space to have lengthy discussions because the conversations are not recorded and can “disappear”. This explains China’s affinity to the app. Reuters reported that Clubhouse invites are being sold like merchandise on platforms like Alibaba.

https://twitter.com/melissakchan/status/1357654516053798912


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Audio is the future

Clubhouse, launched in March 2020, seems to be a culmination of everything that we held dear in the pandemic-era of the internet — podcasts, Spotify, Houseparty, Zoom.

The absence of visual cues on Clubhouse — no videos, no text based comments or likes — feels refreshing. Most webinars that go on for a full hour feel like a heavy meal, any Instagram live that’s longer than half an hour feels like it’s gone on for too long. But the ability for some of Clubhouse’s discussions to carry on for so long — anything from one to five hours, from what I have witnessed — is a proof of the format’s success. You can tune into a conversation, slip out to check your texts and emails, or cook and eat dinner, and a discussion will still be playing. Like a podcast, it demands very little of you.

Webinars and Zoom-meets are a constant flux of sharing links, accepting participants, bad connections that especially get glitchy during screen-sharing and multiple screens coming on. But Clubhouse, even though it’s still in its beta version (which explains the iOS only caveat), has been fairly glitch-free and seamless. Although new, starting a new discussion and the etiquette of muting and unmuting while taking turns to talk seems pretty self-evident and easy to follow.

It also seems to be becoming a fast-growing favourite of the music industry. DJs’ are trying out new mixes, artists are coming together and taking turns to play their tracks, creating what feel like hours-long Spotify streams, and Indie artists, musicians, community radio hosts, music festival directors are joining for discussions too — on everything from “Is TikTok the new radio for Independents?”, to something as niche as the ‘music scene in the UAE’.


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Arms-wide-open for new formats

As much as the internet has been a lifesaver during the pandemic, providing a platform to communicate, work, and be entertained, it has also become a space that can often feel less or depleting. We may try to limit our screen time and stay present in the offline world, many of us (especially those who live alone) depend on social media for most of our social interaction, and even news. Which is why it’s so refreshing to find a new corner on the interweb that actually serves some sort of reprieve right now.

Today, Netflix-ing often feels like endless doom-scrolling, Instagram feels like a digital shopping mall that keeps giving you FOMO for not being in Goa or Mauritius. Twitter either makes you feel the world is ending, or draws you into a gloomy reflection where everyone but you has “personal news” to share about getting promoted to their dream job. But we still turn to the internet, because (we have been made to believe) we have nowhere else to go. So, we try new apps instead. We migrate to Signal and Telegram, hunt for cool obscure sites that few know about. We find new communities to share memes on chat-apps like Discord. And we open our arms to an app like Clubhouse.

The tricky popularity metrics associated with social media apps can also be found on Clubhouse — one can’t help but scan people’s profiles and, upon seeing their 2,000 followers, feel a sense of inadequacy, two seconds after feeling elated at your own follower count having reached 50. But that has more to do with the way we have been conditioned by these apps, than Clubhouse itself.

When the Covid-19 lockdown was first declared on 23 March 2020, the video-chatting app HouseParty witnessed a ridiculous amount of downloads overnight. The ease of getting into a “room” with many of your friends, with an interface that allowed you to while away time playing games, was literally all we needed after realising Covid-19 was a reality that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. But the interest fizzled out as dramatically as it had caught on in the first place.

Similarly, the novelty factor of an app like Clubhouse is definitely going to fade over time. But for now, we are intrigued.

Views are personal.

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