Clubhouse is the new voice only social media network that’s only existed for a year, but is already valued at over $1bn, and has rivals scrambling to create competitors.
The audio only social network has been described as a continual podcast that you drop in on, and can take part in. After access was tightly controlled over the last year, it’s now in its explosive growth phase and breaking through to mainstream awareness, with a flurry of articles in the media, some obligatory moral panic over ‘gatekeeping’, and a whole load of hype.
Is the hype justified? What are the downsides and likely failure conditions of this new media environment, and what light does the success of Clubhouse shed on some of the most consequential divisions in culture right now.
It’s a fascinating story, or set of stories with major consequences for all of us, including but not limited to a titanic battle between new tech and old media, the nature of ‘cancel culture’ dynamics on the app, and the potential for new forms of dialogue and sensemaking to develop.
As Rebel Wisdom has covered at length, and Tristan Harris raised the alarm more widely with The Social Dilemma, there is a growing awareness of the dangers of social media, and particularly how the attention economy works to capture, exploit and fragment our awareness, through emotional hijack and outrage, creating the “race to the bottom of the brain stem”.
The most optimistic read on Clubhouse is that the nature of the app starts to reverse that process. It rewards deep engagement rather than the drive by shootings of Twitter or Facebook. The use of voice rather than text allows for a much larger spectrum of communication. And it expands the potential for empathy with other perspectives, rather than siloing us in our respective camps.
In our series, “The Science and Psychology of Polarisation/Difficult Conversation” we covered how insights from trauma research demonstrate how we can either be in an exploratory, curious physiological state, or a defensive, closed one, and how that switch is controlled by the vagus nerve. The vagus links the brain to all our major organs and also the gut, and also controls the muscles of the voice box. We are transmitting our entire physiological and emotional state through the voice.
And this means that there is a natural screening process for authenticity, as we pick up artifice and bullshit in the vocal tone. Over the accelerated life cycle of the network, a number of high profile influencers have been “exposed” and called out, and effectively ejected from the conversation.
Dross and Diamonds
As Gavin Haynes amusingly outlines in the page of Unherd, there is a lot of dross on Clubhouse, with an abundance of life coaches and other grifters drumming up business. However, in amongst the garbage, there are some of the world’s most successful and influential people having influential conversations, addressing people directly and bypassing the legacy media gatekeepers.
Many people have observed that Clubhouse appears to be going through an accelerated learning curve, and many of the most contentious and explosive topics and dynamics of the current culture war are playing out on the app.
The most recent flashpoint happened last weekend when the evolutionary biologist and “Intellectual Dark Web” member Bret Weinstein was subjected to what could only be described as a live “struggle session”. The audio has to be heard to be believed. The irony is that the room this happened in was created on the app to discuss whether Clubhouse was too fixated on ‘wokeness’. The impression given is that Clubhouse is dominated by cancel culture and ‘woke signalling’.
However, in many ways this completely misunderstands the nature of the battle taking place between the new and old gatekeepers of big tech and the media, with Clubhouse as the main battleground. The outcome of the conflict is still in the balance.
The important part of the story starts not with the recent social justice explosions on Clubhouse but with the long and bitter game of power being played between the new tech overlords and the old media gatekeepers. Clubhouse is part of the long game being played by Silicon Valley to deliberately “route around” the old power structures. Social justice shaming is one of the main tactics *used by* the old media power structures to try and keep big tech in its place and maintain their position as trusted gatekeepers.
The main investors in Clubhouse are the hugely influential tech venture capitalists Andreessen Horowitz. The conflict between big tech and old media was unusually personalised in a spat between Marc Andreessen and New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz. She claimed on Twitter, incorrectly, that Andreessen had used “the r-word” in a Clubhouse chat. When she was corrected, she refused to apologise and locked her Twitter account. In the aftermath of this she co-published a piece in the New York Times that alleged that Clubhouse was a hotbed of racism and antisemitism: “[Clubhouse’s] growth has been accompanied by criticism that women and people of color are frequent targets of abuse and that discussions involving anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny are on the rise.”
Another more balanced article by tech journalist Kevin Roose in the New York Times outlined how Clubhouse seemed to be going through the full evolutionary arc of social media platforms in an accelerated timeframe: “Every successful social network has a life cycle that goes something like: Wow, this app sure is addictive! Look at all the funny and exciting ways people are using it! Oh, look, I can get my news and political commentary here, too! This is going to empower dissidents, promote free speech and topple authoritarian regimes! Hmm, why are trolls and racists getting millions of followers? And where did all these conspiracy theories come from? This platform should really hire some moderators and fix its algorithms. Wow, this place is a cesspool, I’m deleting my account.”
But something is different about Clubhouse, in that its initial starting point was by bringing together the influencers of silicon valley in one place. In a posting on Otherlife, Justin Murphy makes the argument that the Lorenz/Clubhouse spat should be seen as a symptom of “desperation in the face of an existential threat” on the part of the New York Times. He argues that it disrupts the crucial “opinion former” market that previously belonged to the legacy media and the New York Times. It’s also a conflict between journalists who largely gain their power from their platform (New York Times) versus largely self-made opinion formers who developed their platforms or followings themselves.
“The design of the Clubhouse app is surprisingly profound because it allows high-status individuals whose status is based on superior belief-calibration (successful founders and investors, by definition) to calibrate their beliefs privately, and also, paradoxically, to an audience”, Murphy writes. “On the other hand, for high-status individuals whose status is based on prestige institutions, their only raison d’être is the historical inability of other high-status people to calibrate and distribute their beliefs independently. Prestige opinion writers once solved a coordination problem for high-society; though not everyone would agree with any given prestige opinion writer, they provided a focal point and the basic premises which all high-society players could assume that all other high-society would respect.”
In the “Deep Code” film on Rebel Wisdom, tech entrepreneur and culture hacker Jordan Hall explains how one of the key coordinating functions of elite society, and particularly elite media is to orient people to “good opinion”, to coordinate a large group of people towards the “right” opinions to hold. This is the essential function of opinion writers and prominent columnists in places like the New York Times, to effectively map out the approved ways to think.
Performative wokeness has increasingly become an “elite signifier”, and dissent from it leads to ejection from legacy institutions in the US, as we saw recently with the sacking of Don McNeil from the New York Times. It is a hugely powerful weapon in the hands of those who decide to use it. The unexpected side effect of the tech platforms devouring the media world means that American culture war dynamics have now been exported worldwide, even though we’re all Americans in our media diet, as yet its institutions seem much more vulnerable to ideological capture.
Far from being a network dominated by wokeness, Clubhouse is actually a place where those who have been deemed beyond the pale, or “problematic” by legacy media have been able to build up traction and influence.
Murphy explains how he was able to witness a live interaction in real time where a gun rights activist, Kyle Kashuv, was confronted with racist messages he’d sent as a teenager.
“They talked it out, maturely on both sides. Kyle clarified his apologetic view of his past behavior, and a productive discussion was had about youth in the digital epoch. Kyle’s past use of racist language was never excused, but neither was it obsessed over with hours of collective self-flagellating virtue display. It was basically ideal reasonable human discourse, from a diverse cast of interesting personalities. Compared to what you’ll find in virtually any other public or semi-public sphere available today… I almost had to pinch myself.
In the above example, I got an immediate and direct view on this Kyle Kashuv kid, which doesn’t let me say too much about him but it does let me quickly and confidently reject any obviously false statements about him. For instance, if I read in the New York Times tomorrow that he is a “white supremacist,” it would be psychologically impossible for me to integrate that into my neural network, and the only possible result is that my respect for the New York Times decreases drastically.”
The recent New York Times hitpiece by tech reporter Cade Metz about the rationalist blog Slate Star Codex, which is hugely influential in Silicon Valley, was another example of this ongoing conflict. The entire tone of the piece was to try and link the author, Scott Alexander, to “problematic” figures such as Charles Murray, by borderline misrepresentation and slanted coverage.
While there are reasons to be concerned about moderation on Clubhouse, as with any social media platform, allegations of it being a hotbed of bigotry made by the likes of Taylor Lorenz at the New York Times should be seen in this light. Social justice concerns are being used as a weapon against places that try to bypass the legacy media’s gatekeeper role. Lorenz, Cade Metz and others are saying it’s “their job” to decide what is, and what isn’t “problematic”. The tech companies are saying, we’re going to route around your outdated power structures. The ‘social justice’ shaming is one of the most powerful tools in the armoury of the legacy media companies, and that’s why they are using it.
As what happened to Bret Weinstein showed, the cultural battle between wokeness and anti-wokeness is playing out full scale on Clubhouse, much as it is elsewhere in culture, you could even argue that Clubhouse is becoming the new ground zero for the conflict. However, it’s important not to overstate what happened in this one room. The structure of moderation on Clubhouse means that whoever is running, or moderating the rooms, has the power of shaping the conversation on them. In the room where this happened, the original moderator handed over control of the room to an activist, where they then kicked off dissenting voices and created what was in practice a virtual totalitarian state complete with struggle session.
There are multiple reasons why Clubhouse may fail, especially as it grows and dilutes the quality of the conversation, but it’s unlikely to be shamed to death by legacy media gatekeepers.
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