I’ve been thinking a lot about the social network, Clubhouse, lately. I’m a new user, having been on the app for about a month now, which isn’t saying much. While the invite-only app has grown from 1,500 to a million-plus members since May (boosted by $12 million in funding) many people, as denoted by a party hat in the app, are fairly new.
Having worked in social media for more than 25 years, I’ve been an early user on many social networks, and have had a range of experiences. I have a pretty good record for choosing the winners from the losers (I’m looking at you, Second Life). I also hold a master’s degree in media with a focus in social media, so I view social media through a theory-based lens in addition to one of personal experience.
Which has gotten me thinking, why is Clubhouse so successful, and why now? I think there are three main reasons.
First, from a media theory standpoint, we’ve been waiting 3,000 years for this.
According to media ecology theory, communication technologies—from the alphabet to the Internet—influence the way we think. The theory defines three key phases of communication and thus ways of thinking:
- Prior to the alphabet was the aural phase, which was ruled by the ear, sound and verbal communication and promoted non-linear thinking (that’s because sound comes from everywhere). It required people to be together to communicate.
- The literate phase, introduced by the adoption of the alphabet. This phase started about 3,000 years ago and was ruled by the eye. It promoted linear thinking due to the way reading requires linearity. While it promoted science and independent thinking, it moved us away from strong community structures due to the fact that communication did not require presence.
- The electronic communication, which started with the invention of the telegraph and is ruled by the nervous system. It is also non-linear in nature. This last phase, which we are currently living in, has witnessed the deconstruction of many linear systems and moved us to a hybrid aural/visual way of communicating. You can see this through abstract art, the Internet and social media which has, the theory suggests, returned us to a more tribal state—and with it a return to aural based communication.
While we’ve heard a lot about the “visual web” over the past decade, it really is the “aural web” that’s next. And we see that taking hold in numerous way—from the growth of smart home speakers, which are expected to be in 75 percent of U.S. households by 2025  to the rise of podcasts, of which half of Americans have listened.
So when Clubhouse, an audio-only experience is introduced, it seems to make a great deal of sense.
Which leads me to reason number two. There is true presence and an instant feedback loop, which, during a global pandemic, could not have had better timing.
Would Clubhouse be popular without the pandemic? Probably, But would it be this popular? If there was ever a time when people needed connection, it’s now, and Clubhouse offers that 24×7. And it’s not like the connection you get on Facebook or Instagram or even TikTok, where you post something and you’re not sure if someone is actually there. Clubhouse is a synchronous connection — and you can feel it.
Technology has always offered the promise of presence of course, from the first emails sent 50 years ago to the first social network in the 1980s, The Well. My first tech job in 1994 had me moderating Usenet boards. But as technology has progressed, our desire — or perhaps our demand — for presence has grown stronger. By the early 2000’s, researchers studying Japanese teenagers noted that the worst “taboo” was forgetting your phone or “letting the battery die”  because then you were no longer present.
But Clubhouse? Clubhouse is always there. Someone is always talking. And now, especially, that provides a great deal of comfort.
Third, and finally, it just simply feels brand new.
And thus, it makes every other social network feel old. Even TikTok seems out of sync. But Facebook, well it feels kind of ancient. Instagram? Dated.
I’ve been waiting to see what new social network would come along and have that impact, and I believe Clubhouse could be that game changer. No, it doesn’t have 2.6 billions users, yet, but it’s introduced us to an entirely new way of being connected.
As the days pass, I see more and more of my network joining Clubhouse and I see the room topics becoming more and more diverse in nature. And I’m excited to see where it goes.
What do you think of Clubhouse?
 Rheingold, Howard. Smart Mobs, p. 5