Clubhouse: The Great, the Bad, and the Very Worrisome

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Clubhouse audio appLike many of you, I’ve been experimenting with the scorchingly-buzzy new social app Clubhouse. As I write this, Clubhouse is only available on the iPhone (Android is coming) and is currently invitation-only, however millions of people are on the platform. While Clubhouse has awesomeness, I’m worried about a number of aspects of the app.


I love this new way to interact

Clubhouse UIClubhouse is a new kind of social networking app where you get together in an audio-only chat room where people discuss a specific topic chosen by the moderator who set up that room. Usually, rooms are divided into those who are “on stage” and able to talk and those who are “in the audience” and only listening in. People in the audience have the ability to “raise their hand” and the moderator can invite them on stage to ask a question or be part of the discussion.

Think of Clubhouse discussions as a weird mashup of radio call-in Q&A show, cocktail party discussion, and Zoom call (with the video off).

The audio-only aspect is what makes Clubhouse so different. There’s no text and no video, so it’s just people having a conversation. And like the original Snapchat feature, Clubhouse conversations are only available live, there is no replay available.

Sometimes chat rooms are planned in advance and promoted on other networks like Twitter and sometimes they form spontaneously. Like Twitter, users have followers and can follow others so you can be alerted when somebody in your network is in a room. You can just pop into a room when you want, hang for a while, and (quietly) leave if it’s boring.


I’ve had some wonderful discussions in Clubhouse

Clubhouse has sparked some wonderful discussions I wouldn’t have otherwise participated in. For example, my friend Scott Kirsner who writes about innovation for the Boston Globe and has a wonderful new book just released called Innovation Economy: True Stories of Start-Ups, Flame-Outs, and Inventing the Future in New England hosted me and several others to discuss “one new thing we learned this week”. It was the perfect jumping off point for some interesting discussions on random things like AI algorithms and the vaccine rollout in Massachusetts.

On Friday afternoon, my buddy Mitch Jackson (Trial lawyer/Founder of LegalMinds) invited me and Kate Chernis Bradley (cofounder & CEO of LatelyAI) to participate in a discussion and Q&A. Mitch invited audience members onstage to ask questions and it was a great way to end my workweek just prior to settling into a nice glass of red wine.

These sorts of conversations are chock full of wonderful serendipity which is lacking in our Covid world of mostly staying home. Perhaps that’s why Clubhouse is so popular – it’s kind of like the spontaneous encounters you might have at the networking party on the final evening of an in-person conference.

So far, Clubhouse feels a lot like Twitter did in 2008 – hanging out with friends, meeting new people, and no pollution (yet) from sales messages, paid advertising, and hucksters. I have no doubt that will change as the underbelly of the Web learns how to manipulate the app.


Clubhouse is synchronous communications

Clubhouse appBecause Clubhouse happens in real time, you have to log on at the appointed moment if you want to participate in a chosen conversation. Unlike the asynchronous communications of, say, Twitter, where you can reply to a tweet at any time, Clubhouse is about right now.

Of course, you can always just scroll through the app to see who’s active or browse for something interesting, but if you want to participate in a pre-planned discussion, it requires yet another appointment in the calendar.

I’m fine with the real-time aspects. However, because Clubhouse is an audio app, it takes tons of time if you pay attention. The conversations I’ve participated in have averaged more than an hour. I’ve found that I enjoy popping into a Clubhouse conversation late in the day when my work is done so the time commitment works for me. But I don’t see participating in more than a handful of conversations a week.

Others tell me they multi-task on Clubhouse, listening to a conversation while they do something else such as answer emails. I’m not sure I can do that and be able to have a meaningful conversation, I’d be afraid if a moderator asked me a question and I wasn’t paying attention! (Whoops!)


Danger! Beware of Clubhouse

I have a few concerns about the app, particularly around the (lack of) privacy embedded in the way the app works.

When you first set up the app, you will be asked to grant access to your contacts. All of your contacts! Yes, Clubhouse will know who your friends and colleagues are, but also your kids’ mobile phone numbers, the name and phone number of your doctor, and, well, everyone in your address book. It knows you are connected to those people.

As we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica, it’s a massive problem when a company has access to this kind of data. There is a temptation to misuse it for financial gain. And the data is sitting there waiting to be stolen by hackers. More on this worrisome idea from John Naughton in Why hot new social app Clubhouse spells nothing but trouble. (H/T Dr. Patrick Patridge for sharing Naughton's piece with me.)

I’m also concerned for people who build large audiences on Clubhouse. What happens when it’s no longer the hot app? Facebook and Twitter are both working on audio chat social networks, so what happens when there are competing apps from the big social players?

Remember Vine, the short form video social app? It’s gone. And so is Google Plus - gone, kaput, dead. I feel sorry for people who built authority on Vine or G+ only to have those apps disappear. Focusing a ton of attention on building a presence on a new app can certainly be rewarding, but it has risks.

Bottom line is that Clubhouse has provided me with some excellent conversations. For me, so far, it is worth the risk.

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