Can I Get a Witness on Clubhouse?

David Deal
Feb 14 · 7 min read

When I first heard of Clubhouse from technology writers on Twitter, I thought the invitation-only social app with a waiting list to join was a toy for elite Silicon Valley bros. But after making my way past the velvet rope (thank you Jeremiah Owyang), I quickly learned how wrong I was.

Clubhouse is a social audio app, meaning that people communicate exclusively via audio chat. What’s different about Clubhouse from other social apps is that members communicate only through talking with each other, which adds a completely different dimension to social interaction online. You cannot see the other people you are chatting with (with the exception of their photos that accompany their personal profiles). As a result, members don’t need to worry about how they look on Zoom. But because they can hear each other talking, participants can more readily detect important nuances in communication such as tone that oftentimes get lost when people post on Facebook.

After you set up a profile and tell Clubhouse something about your personal interests, the app suggests Clubs (groups of people who have of common interests), and Rooms. Rooms are conversations set up and moderated by Clubhouse members. Rooms are like online chat rooms, but we participate with our voices instead of our keystrokes. Some of the Rooms are regularly scheduled sessions organized around a topic, such as “Recordhouse: Vinyl Records and the Music That Makes Us,” which meets every Thursday. Other rooms are ad hoc — organized on the fly to cover anything from spirituality to current events such as the recent Reddit-versus-Wall Street Game Stop drama. You can jump into any public Room and either listen or comment (unless the Room is private). It’s up to the room moderator to let you comment, the way talk radio works. Moderators play important roles. Like radio talk show hosts, they ask good questions to encourage a lively conversation, keep the conversation moving along with their own insights without dominating the discussion, wrangle speakers if they veer off topic or interrupt each other, and so on. The quality of a Room conversation can vary widely depending on the skill of the moderator.

Good Vibes

One snowbound Saturday afternoon right after I signed up for Clubhouse, I noticed a Room dedicated to sharing good vibes. The Room name was adorned with a purple peace sign. Good vibes and a peace sign? That didn’t sound like a construct of elite Silicon Valley bros. I jumped in and checked out the Room.

I immediately noticed two things:

  • Everyone in the Room seemed like everyday folks just hanging out, meeting each other, sharing what was going on in their lives, and discussing how they were making it through Covid-19 quarantine living.
  • Mine was the only white face in the Room. Now aspect really made me interested in hanging out in the good vibes room. Where I live in suburban Chicago, I’m never the only white person in the room.

The moderator invited me to become a speaker, meaning I could talk instead of being in listen-only mode. I was asked about how I find photos for my Instagram (my Insta is linked to my Clubhouse profile), how I use social media, and my impressions of Clubhouse. The freewheeling conversation then moved to the topic of trusting strangers, such as when a homeless person asks you for money or a random stranger in an airport asks to borrow your mobile phone to text someone to pick them up at the baggage claim because their phone ran out of battery power.

You know — street trust. And here my education began.

My perspectives as a middle-class, white male living in the suburbs were very different from those of everyone else on the call. I thought of trust in terms of passing a panhandler on the street when I go downtown Chicago: an encounter that seldom happens and only when I leave the comfort of my neighborhood. But for a number of people in the conversation, they need to make split-second decisions about trust all the time. A few participants discussed what it’s like to work in a fast-food restaurant and experience intense guilt when a homeless person comes up to the counter and asks for food, which is an everyday occurrence. They know the rules prohibit their helping, and so they internalize the guilt. I’ve never worked in fast food. So I was ignorant of their experience until they told me. A woman discussed the fear she feels when a random person approaches her for money or to borrow her phone in an airport. She said that her immediate reaction inside is, “Are you a criminal targeting me because as a Black woman I look vulnerable?” This is obviously a question I’ve never had to consider.

Those different perspectives enriched the conversation and, I hope, will make me more empathetic.

I call this kind of Room a Witness room because everyday people are bearing witness to their life’s experiences. I’ve participated in a number of Witness rooms, and each time I’ve noticed a pattern: when everyone else in the Room is not like me, I learn a lot. One night I listened to several Blacks discuss the concept of grace and forgiveness toward white society. How long, many Room members asked, should Blacks continue to have the grace to forgive white people for ongoing racism? And what does it mean to possess grace and forgiveness while still actively fighting racism? During another conversation, a mom-to-be shared her sheer joy about the prospect of bringing a Black-skinned baby into the world. I’ve never heard a white mom-to-be talk about having a baby in context of their skin color. But every white mom-to-be I’ve ever known has come from a life of white privilege, where the color of their skin is not a liability. The young Black woman I was listening to on Clubhouse was defining her pregnancy as an occasion to celebrate her Black identity on her terms.

Voices of Authority

Clubhouse also offers plenty of Rooms where you can learn about topics that require some kind of domain expertise, such as the finer points of building your brand on TikTok. And as I noted, many others are organized around shared interests and current events. I call all these rooms Voices of Authority. Here, I gravitate to known authorities on the topics. If I do not know who the self-described authority is, I do some research to see how legit they are. But when, say, a known marketing subject matter expert such as Guy Kawasaki is talking about marketing on Clubhouse, you better believe I’m going to join in, no questions asked. The “Recordhouse: Vinyl Records and the Music That Makes Us” Room that meets weekly is co-hosted by Kevin Smokler, who is not only a vinyl enthusiast but also the co-director of a celebrated documentary about vinyl, . In a recent Recordhouse Room, we discussed our favorite cover versions of songs. Kevin contributed a deep knowledge of music history and culture that enriched the conversation in a way that a casual music listener could not.

Exploring all these rooms is like randomly adding and dropping classes in college until you settle on a topic that captivates your interest. On the day I was writing this blog, I could have joined a conversation about “Struggles of a First Time Author,” “Future of CISPR & BioTech Startups,” “Founders Helping Founders,” “LinkedIn Mastery: Building a Brand from Scratch,” “Travel Blogging Q&A,” “Game Designers Saturday Salon,” “Meet the Chicago Tech & Startup Community” — and many, many others.

It’s no wonder that engagement time on Clubhouse is so high: last week I spent an average of an hour a day on Clubhouse (and trust me — my engagement time is probably way lower than the most other Clubhouse members). For the next most popular app on my phone, Instagram, I spent an average of 18 minutes a day.

The Future of Clubhouse

As Clubhouse becomes more popular, public figures such as Elon Musk have joined the conversation, which has raised some fears that Clubhouse will become a place for people to gather and gawk at famous people without having any meaningful conversation. And how will Clubhouse change when Clubhouse figures out how to monetize the app with brands? For example, consider the likelihood of sponsored rooms, or “This Room Discussing Cloud Computing Is Brought to You by Salesforce.” Clubhouse has already become a rapidly expanding universe for influencers, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. This is the society we live in now, where life coaches, marital therapists, fitness instructors, and many other one-person entrepreneurs are trying to make it on their own during a recessionary time. They can’t do that without building influence. Indeed, Clubhouse recently introduced a program to help influencers monetize their presence on the app.

Many people on Clubhouse, whether influencers or not, are enduring the mental and emotional strain of quarantine life like everyone else. Clubhouse is a connection point for them. One recent night, Clubhouse experienced some service interruptions, and I noticed people forming ad-hoc rooms for the sole purpose of talking about Clubhouse going down. As one Clubhouse member said, “I crave human interaction. I am so lonely. I can’t handle this.”

Before the pandemic hit, you might have asked, But that kind of reaction reflects the stress and loneliness of people dealing with isolation. (I can easily see Clubhouse monetizing itself with a dating function although it would face considerable competition.) I believe that because Clubhouse meets a basic human need — connection — it will stay around long after the pandemic subsides. In fact, Clubhouse is not the only social audio app. Quilt, an audio social network focused on self-care, recently raised a $3.5 million seed round. Facebook is said to be developing its own version of Clubhouse — a sure sign that social audio is going mainstream.

Is Clubhouse for you? Assuming you can join, the only way to find out is to try it. While you are deciding, check out this insightful post by Jeremiah Owyang about the future of social audio. Meanwhile, in a recent Room conversation, I heard Clubhouse Cofounder Paul Davison say that diversity and community are the best things about Clubhouse. He is certainly speaking my truth. Thank you to the Clubhouse Witnesses who have enriched my life.

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