When you’re lost in a forest at night, it’s best not to call for help. You have no idea what might be lurking in the shadows. Similarly, saying the wrong thing online can get you shamed, blamed and burned. Yancey Strickler called this the Dark Forest theory of the internet in 2019, and suggested that people are increasingly retreating to private spaces to have genuine conversations.
Now, pockets of light are appearing in the darkness. These are the Digital Campfires: communities where people gather to have face to face interactions in real time, usually on platforms like Zoom, and often with the explicit intention of practicing new kinds of dialogue.
The newest Digital Campfire is Clubhouse — an audio-only app exploding in popularity. But does it mark a new era in how we communicate online, or is it just a passing fad?
To begin answering this, we need to draw on insights from cognitive science, psychology and the wisdom traditions to examine what’s happening when we engage in audio-only dialogue. In doing so, we may surface a more knotty question: as we start to leave the major social networks in search of something better, what is it we’re really looking for?
The growing popularity of Clubhouse can partly be explained by comparing it to the established social networks, particularly those that rely on text-based communication like Twitter and Facebook. This way of communicating is asynchronous; there’s a time lag between when I read your message and reply to you. And if it isn’t entirely anonymous, it often has a quality of anonymity. What’s lost in that is the embodied human connection you get in a realtime, synchronous conversation through video and voice.
This isn’t to say conversation can’t break down on Clubhouse — it can and does, quite spectacularly — but the app also offers the potential for more authentic, meaningful communication. Conversations I’ve had on Clubhouse are certainly more enjoyable than any I’ve had on Facebook. As Tristan Harris has pointed out, major social networks funded by advertising are taking us on ‘a race to the bottom of the brainstem’. Sophisticated algorithms try to keep us on the platforms by highjacking our limbic system, fuelling outrage and manipulating our dopamine responses.
In this complex and dangerous online ecosystem, or sympathetic nervous system doesn’t only ramp up into ‘fight’: it can also freeze, too. We feel choked; unsure of what we can say, what ideas we can express, who we can talk to without being attacked. The result is a significant decline in the quality of conversation and connection. On social media, we usally engage in a paltry simulation of connection. A surface-level, performative version of face-to-face dialogue.
The difficulty in imagining that the text we’re reading came from a person adds to the sense of anonymity, and it can bring out the worst in all of us. As I have argued recently and meme expert Chris Gabriel as explored in depth, the internet can be seen as an extension of our collective unconscious. All of our darkest fears, brightest hopes, unexpressed sexual energy and violent urges crash together into a chaotic universe. Our nastiest drives thrive on the anonymity of text communication, for those who wear masks in a dark forest are accountable to no one.
As soon as you’re talking in real-time to an actual person, something changes. Dr. Stephen Porges has pointed out that many of the same social engagement cues we subconsciously rely on in real life to regulate our nervous systems are present on Zoom. It’s not quite as good as being face to face, but it might mitigate many of the worst excesses of asynchronous communication and bring us into deeper human connection.
Why the Tech Matters
But Zoom has its drawbacks. A recent study from Stanford, led by Jeremy Bailenson, looked at a phenomenon many of us have experienced over the last year; Zoom fatigue. He argues that Zoom can be taxing on the nervous system, in particular leading to a state of stressed hyper-arousal spurred by close-up eye contact over long periods. It also points out the huge effect that interpersonal distance has on our emotional and cognitive processing, and how confronting it can be to be up close and personal with people in the way we are on Zoom. As this New Atlas article summarises:
“Bailenson says a person’s intimate space spans a radius of about 60 cm (23 in). Interactions inside this space are generally reserved for family or intimate friends, but depending on your monitor size and Zoom settings, large faces of strangers can often be presented in close proximity.”
This is where the features of Clubhouse become particularly interesting and perhaps surprising: when you focus on voice and take away the video, it may increase the depth and authenticity of the conversation. Personally, I feel far more relaxed speaking on Clubhouse than on Zoom.
I feel freer, more fluid and less exposed. And in much the same way that losing your sight enhances your other senses, fewer features enhance the salience of what’s left over. What’s being enhanced on Clubhouse is all the nuance of meaning we can hear in the cadence and tone of each others’ voices. It might also be enhancing our understanding of the content of what someone else is actually saying. And that matters quite a bit.
All Our Frames Are Broken
At the beginning of lockdown, at Rebel Wisdom we moved all of our events online. In the last year we’ve run hundreds of sessions and events, all designed to explore generative conversations and ways of being that takes us beyond the fixed assumptions and ideological fixations that fuel the culture wars. This has included everything from conversational practices like Authentic Relating and Inquiry to breathwork, Blues Idiom, Somatic Experiencing, and improv.
During the Rebel Wisdom Festival, one of the attendees made an offhand comment that ‘this is the new Netflix’. It made me smile, and it also got me thinking. When there’s so much entertainment available to us, why do we choose to spend our time in digital campfires having conversations with strangers?
The theory I’ve been developing since then is that it has to do with the way in which we contextualise and form our reality through language. Somehow these conversations provide a level of connection and authenticity that help us see the world, and one another, more clearly. The main inspiration for this idea is Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a notoriously complex theory of linguistics of which I’ve developed a rudimentary understanding over lockdown.
As psychologist Courtney E Ackerman explains, ‘it is based on the idea that relating one concept to another is the foundation of all human language.’ As humans, we build highly complex webs of interrelated referents that create an overall frame that we overlay onto our experience. A dog isn’t just a dog: it relates to thousands of other concepts that in turn relate to one another. This web is so far reaching and complex that trying to change one contextual relation at a time one at a time doesn’t work. If I’m trying to change the relation of dog = scary, I’m only tackling one of many connections that might be relevant to my fear of dogs.
One could argue that the text-based internet is a gigantic relational frame — full of hyperlinked concepts — that cannot break free from its own connections. While much more research would be needed on this, my sense is that something in the design of the synchronous, text-based social media platforms traps us in ever-tighter frames. It certainly has a tendency to make conversations increasingly narrow and polarised, as many of us who’ve had a vicious political argument on Facebook can attest to.
A key insight from both RFT and many schools of meditation is that you can’t fix the problems you’ve created for yourself using language just by using more language.
So how do we break free from frames that aren’t good for us? We have to zoom out and see them objectively — an aspect of mindfulness called ‘decentering’. This is why Relational Frame Theory forms the basis of the 3rd wave cognitive behavioural therapies like ACT — Acceptance and Commitment Therapy– which use mindfulness to help clients observe and thereby transform their relational frames.
So how does all this relate to Clubhouse? We’re almost there…
Expanding your frame of reality can be really difficult. It requires engaging in practices that use language to take you beyond language. Cognitive scientist John Vervaeke calls this Dialogos— and it’s at the heart of Western philosophy. Socratic dialogue is perhaps the most shining example, but practices like Inquiry and Circling also engage in a kind of ‘talking meditation’ that allow us to talk our way to new ways of seeing ourselves, one another and the world.
In his series Awakening from the Meaning Crisis, Vervaeke draws on the work of neuroscientist Mark Lewis to argue that our minds can get caught in ‘reciprocal narrowing’, a cognitive spiral where our frames become more and more narrow. It becomes impossible to ‘think outside the box’. Anonymous, asynchronous communication often selects for this effect.
Vervaeke also suggests that if there’s reciprocal narrowing, there must also be reciprocal opening. This is a process whereby our frame gets wider and more inclusive. He argues that practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, meditation or those listed above can help us zoom in and out of our frames, like taking off a dirty pair of glasses for closer inspection. Only then can we see the cracks and dirt on the glass and adjust them — fixing our faulty assumptions, our shadow projections, our cognitive biases.
This is one way we can have a conversation that truly changes us as individuals and the cultural game we’re playing. It’s a conversation that transcends itself — and it’s far easier to do this in real-time, voice to voice.
Clubhouse as a platform allows for this, but doesn’t necessarily lead to it — there are plenty of conversations happening on the app that rival the worst Twitter spats. However, if a room is designed well and provides a solid container for these kinds of conversation, magic can happen.
The conditions have to be right; you have to have some level of trust that the people you’re doing it with are human beings with their own flaws, hopes, dreams and hang-ups just like you. You have to be able to hear that tiny fluctuation in someone’s voice as they share something that scares them. The smile they’re speaking through as they have a big realisation. It requires honesty, courage, presence and a love of the truth.
Clubhouse could be the place where generative conversation hits the mainstream; a new container for an ancient form of dialogue.
Flames for Frames
This is, I believe, the true potential of an app like Clubhouse. It is a digital campfire that can mainstream a new kind of conversation. But that isn’t to say it will necessarily go that way. At Rebel Wisdom we’ve been experimenting with bringing the practices and conversational formats we’ve been developing at our retreats and more recently on Zoom. Others are doing the same, including The Stoa and Dent.
If more and more people come come onto the platform with the intention of exploring this kind of Dialogos, perhaps we can light a digital fire that burns so bright it lights up the whole forest. And fires doesn’t just illuminate, it also burns. What if we choose to be burned? To have our old ideas and frames destroyed and reformed until we’re left with a new culture fit for the challenges we face? That might not be something that happens on Clubhouse, but it’s something worth striving for.