Clubhouse defined a format — now it has to defend it

Illustration by Grayson Blackmon / The Verge

Clubhouse had an incredible year in one most of us would rather forget. The live audio app launched during a pandemic; gained more than 10 million downloads for an invite-only, iOS-only app; and succeeded to the point that most every social platform wants to copy it. Congrats to Clubhouse.

The company now faces its biggest challenges yet, however. For one, the pandemic is waning, and people might be more interested in real-life socializing instead of conversations facilitated through their phone. Anyone advertising their backyard as the next great Clubhouse competitor has a point. But for the people who do end up wanting to talk to each other online, they’ll soon have a lot more places to do so. In case you haven’t kept up: Twitter, Facebook (reportedly), LinkedIn, Discord, Spotify, Mark Cuban, and Slack have all launched or are working on their own attempts at social audio — the space is about to get busy.

The great concern for Clubhouse is that, as I postulated in February, social audio could follow the same trajectory as Snapchat’s Stories function: a brilliant social media-altering idea that goes on to live in every app to the detriment of the upstart that pioneered the format. And social audio is shaping up to go that way. With the threat growing, it’s worth looking at where Clubhouse is most likely to run into problems.

But first: what does Clubhouse have going for it? It was the first to social audio, and that’s something. Already, it counts millions of users who come to Clubhouse solely for social audio content, and that includes headline-grabbing names like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and other celebrities. Tech CEOs are even making announcements in Clubhouse, including Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, who announced his company’s own copycat product in the app. The app generates news and discussions — that’s something much trickier for other companies to clone.

People have also built habits around Clubhouse, which is a positive sign for user retention. The team also plans to launch a creators program in the near future that’ll reward its most dedicated users with revenue and resources to beef up their shows.

And critically, the app has staffed up in just the past month. The company recently poached Fadia Kader from Instagram to lead its media partnerships and creators. At Instagram, she worked with musicians to help them optimize their work on the platform. Presumably, she’ll be doing something similar at Clubhouse. Already, I’ve seen her in a room with Justin Bieber talking about his most recent album. Clubhouse also hired Maya Watson from Netflix to become its head of global marketing, meaning it’ll soon dedicate resources to promoting Clubhouse rather than relying primarily on word of mouth. These are all important steps to keeping Clubhouse interesting and thriving.

But the app now faces competition from some of the world’s biggest platforms, which already have years of moderation experience, are available on iOS and Android, and have massive, loyal user bases to whom they can push social audio. Some companies, like Twitter and Discord, already pushed social audio features live to their millions of users with effectively the same interface as Clubhouse. Anyone who didn’t have an invite to Clubhouse, or an iPhone, now can access the magic of social audio with no association to Clubhouse whatsoever.

Maybe the most dangerous possibility for Clubhouse, however, is how easily it could lose the big names on its platform to challengers. Spotify, which announced this week that it acquired Betty Labs, the maker of the sports-centric social audio app Locker Room, plans to bring the app to Android, change its name, and broaden its coverage to music, culture, and sports. It could directly compete with Clubhouse for talent. Joe Rogan, for example, recently joined a Clubhouse chat, and although Spotify’s head of R&D tells me the company won’t restrict its podcasters from using other social audio apps, it’s easy to imagine the company encouraging the use of its own. Musicians, like Bieber, who maybe came to Clubhouse to debut music, might turn to Spotify’s app instead to maintain relationships with the streaming giant. As a point of reference, when Kylie Jenner tweeted that she barely opened Snapchat anymore, the company’s stock lost $1.3 billion. If stars like Tiffany Haddish decide to spend their time elsewhere, Clubhouse will falter, too.

At the same time, a few of these competitors are specifically interested in building native recording into their app, possibly to fuel the podcasting ecosystem and on-demand listening. Clubhouse has yet to do this. Fireside, which was co-founded by Mark Cuban, allows people to input sound effects, like music, and record their shows for distribution across podcasting platforms, as well as later playback on the app itself. Spotify will likely do the same with its app and rely on its Anchor software to handle hosting and distribution. Twitter’s head of consumer product told The Verge that it, too, would let people natively record their Spaces. Clubhouse hasn’t built that functionality, limiting its users to only live conversations, which can be hard to follow if they join them midway through. Context collapse will challenge every platform that focuses on live, but some of Clubhouse’s competitors are already working to solve that.

Stories made Snapchat a success. It pioneered the idea of ephemeral content and brought some semblance of authenticity back to social media. But it didn’t take long for the functionality to come to the same competitors Clubhouse now faces. To make its business work, Snapchat doubled down on its Android app, made the app more approachable to new users through a redesign, and aggressively pursued content partnerships with media and entertainment companies. It now pays users to make content for its TikTok competitor Spotlight and supports a growing ad business, but Instagram ultimately came away with the crown for Stories. Clubhouse hasn’t yet pursued ads or subscriptions, but that’ll be the next step to make it a self-supported platform. (Notably, though, its competitors, like Facebook, already rule ad targeting, possibly making Clubhouse’s job of selling ads or access to the platform itself tougher.)

None of this is to say Clubhouse won’t survive or build a strong business in the coming months and years. It just needs to stay in the conversation.


For one, the pandemic is waning

With a frightfully high number of Americans not seeking vaccination (negating heard immunity), three main troubling variants that are more virulent, deadly, have the ability to reinfect previously immune people, and resistant to vaccines, I fear we’re at the precipice of a relapse that could be as bad as the original surge. Especially, with so many states prematurely rolling back mask and social distancing requirements.

Agree a lot of people are in for a nasty surprise with these hot takes about the end of the pandemic. An awful lot of countries around the world (say, Brazil, India, a lot of Africa) won’t be close to a critical mass of vaccinations for years, and variants are gonna be around forever… the world has changed. It’s a worry how many in the US think we’ll be back to ‘normal’ this year… We’re still heading to a strange new world of international isolation and normal is gone forever.

India has huge vaccine manufacturing capability actually. They will end up being one of the first large developing countries to vaccinate a large percentage of their population. They had been exporting their production until recently.

Africa and most of Central/South America are bigger concerns.

Interesting… I surely hope your vision comes to fruition.

None of the current variants stop the 3 vaccines used in the US. While some concerning initial data showed they did avoid some antibodies produced by those vaccines, subsequent testing has showed they do NOT avoid the t-cells produced by those vaccines, and real world testing just released by Pfizer shows that its vaccine is just as effective against the variants as against the original wild strain coronavirus.

Also, the FDA has now said that the mRNA vaccines do not require trials for updates, and as per Pfizer/Moderna, they can be updated in about 6 weeks total to match any new variant.

I think what’s going to end up happening is that we enter a horrible dystopian future where the richer countries with large vaccine manufacturing capability (of which the US is definitely one) are able to stay ahead of the variants and life returns mostly to normal there, while there are never enough vaccines for the developing world, which devolves into an endless cycle of disease and death.

It’s horrible.

As to vaccine hesitancy in the US, it has already waned. It initially started at something like 50% of people said they wouldn’t get the vaccine, and it’s now down to around 30%. I assume/hope It’ll continue to fall over time as people see that they work and are safe.

I don’t really understand the appeal of this. It’s like text messaging and audio messages. Everyone I know hates audio messages.You have to listen to everything, you can’t skip content.. it’s horrible.
Audio just isn’t sexy. And sex would sell. I can’t imagine many people find audio content as appealing, as say, a young girl’s instagram bikini photo shoots. And Christiano Ronaldo posting a photo of a goal of his surely gets more followers than him talking?

Clubhouse is the worst parts of podcasting combined with the worst parts of a conference calling. I can’t for the life of me understand what it is that people enjoy about it.

One word: exclusivity.

Is it really even exclusive anymore? I have like 10 invites that I can’t give away because people either already have it or aren’t interested.

Exactly, it really isn’t. But still the majority of initial hype came from that. It’s also one of the reasons the hype died down so quickly.

That and the fact that the damn thing isn’t even practical, right away people faced the problem of wanting to listen to multiple broadcasts happening at the same time. Not being able to listen to a recording later is dumb and not gonna fly in 2021.

It’s because it’s the next big Silicon Valley circlejerk. All of the wealthy and connected are promoting it to be the next big thing so their friends can cash out on the next over-inflated IPO on a zero revenue company.

The only part I see useful in Clubhouse like featue is in podcasting where podcast host can do live Q&A or interview with live listeners and listeners can rope in for participation. Spotify and other podcast platform can use such featue. Other than that I find it not that appealing. Slack CEO says it’s better than conference call like much better than traditional conference call.

The animation with ‘sharks circling Clubhouse’ is superb. Huge kudos to the designer!

I tried desperately to understand why this isn’t just a place people listen to podcasts with a fancy name and their snooty Apple elitism but I don’t see it. Podcasts are unappealing, and this seems no different. Founders would be wise to cash out soon.

I think that it’s already to late to cash out. The hype is over and there is no innovation in the app so the future doesn’t seem to bright.

Podcasts are unappealing

Couldn’t disagree more. I listen to podcasts much more than music. The great thing about podcasts (listen to it when I want) is why I don’t find Clubhouse appealing though.

Clubhouse mostly makes sense as an incentive for Patreon subscriptions to a podcast. I think that’s why Spotify is copying it. They want everything in house for their podcast play.

For Twitter it makes some sense, considering everyone on there thinks they’re thought leaders. Letting the egos believe they’re changing the world through seminars is probably a great way to milk the cow.

Twitter Spaces makes the most sense to me since everyone goes on Twitter to tell people about their Clubhouse rooms to begin with.

Clubhouse in Europe is dead. The hype is completely gone and most of the younger audience didn’t even care. I thought in the states the situation wouldn’t be any different.

Youth in Europe is a lot less iPhone.

That’s true.

Meh, I have no desire to talk on the phone with my own family and friends, let alone in a larger setting or with strangers, this app and concept really makes no sense…our phones can already do this, by CALLING PEOPLE, and I stopped doing that around when SMS became free or when ICQ and AIM became popular in high school…

It’s a useful presentation format, not a movement. Clubhouse doesn’t have much to defend in my opinion.

Just used the "Spaces" feature on twitter and don’t really know what purpose Clubhouse even serves anymore. Might’ve tried it if they released an Android version at the same time. The Apple exclusivity was dumb af and would be one of the major reasons of the death of this app. Saying this as a Mac user.

Yeah the iPhone exclusivity was what made it a thing but they did take too long to bring up the Android app. Also they may not even have the infrastructure to open it up in the first place otherwise it wouldn’t be invite only.

The other thing to think about is the fact that they need to get all the safe guards in place to make sure their social media platform is not abused. These guys are new to the game after all

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