Friday, February 26, 2021
Tech

Sound baths, self-help and teeth-grinding optimism: my strange, disorienting week on Clubhouse | Technology

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What to make of Clubhouse – the invitation-only, social media, audio app that’s hit the zeitgeist this month?

It’s like a LinkedIn that talks to you. It’s like attending a conference that never ends. Its spirit animal is the old-style chatrooms of the early internet where you could swap ideas and soak up expertise. It will chew up hours and hours and hours of your day that are not already chewed up by the other apps.

It’s a series of virtual campfires that you join while some guy with the mic, whose bio describes him as “TRADER, BITCOIN, ANGEL INVESTOR, ENTREPRENEUR”, tells you that in order to get rich you need to get up at 3:48am and jump in an ice bath.

I spent a week in/on Clubhouse – a strange, disorientating week. While in my home, on the bus, at the beach, walking, cooking and resting, I dropped into dozens and dozens of “rooms”. In these rooms, users can listen in to live discussions and interviews about, well, anything. I now know nothing about everything.

There were the Tony Robbins-style motivational speaker rooms with 5,000+ guests, the overflow rooms for someone called Mr Beast, the random rooms with MC Hammer, the rooms where you could get advice on pitches, startups, venture capital, angel investments and personal branding. Crypto rooms, the rooms hosting happy hour cocktails (Keeping it lit and happy!), an intimate (46 guests) chakra healing and sound bowl room, Valentine’s Day mixers and dating advice panels (“I’m in my early 40s, a founder, I work in tech, I want to meet someone. I went to Columbia.” “OK ladies, contact him, follow him – he’s on the right side of the tracks in Greenwich, Connecticut.”). I even attended one or two rooms that were completely silent (“guided meditation, consciousness observation”). It was all quite intense. Even the silent rooms.

From my week-long sample, I’ve observed the conversations are civil, sometimes interesting and informative, well-moderated and largely respectful. The tone is, in part, set by the use of real names. There are no weird handles on Clubhouse, which goes a long way to minimising trolling.

So what’s it like in there?

I spent the start of the week in the big, well-attended rooms that had a strong self-help, “get-rich-or-die-trying” vibe.

Speakers shared the secrets to success – which included getting up before 4am and doing all sort of Silicon Valley-esque biohacks like fasting and ice baths. They referred to Elon and Jack by their first names, and were mostly male and American. (They are also active in rooms like “Clubhouse is broken” that rail against the call-out culture they say is infecting other platforms, and threatens to be a feature of Clubhouse.)

Is this what people pay thousands of dollars to hear at a motivational speaking conference, I wondered, as I feverishly wrote notes (the sessions are not recorded or able to be recorded), including “you’re going to be part of the problem or part of the solution” and “your vibe attracts your tribe” and “I own everything from gas stations to liposuction clinics and I want to expand using debt.”

Being in a room is not like listening to a podcast. Even the most rambling podcasts have a recognisable arc or consistent tone.

But on Clubhouse, there are surprises. The guy that owns the lipo clinics and gas stations says he can’t expand to buy further companies because he’s black and that limits him because some banks won’t lend to him. And so a conversation about entrepreneurship here has the potential to swerve into a conversation about race.

This “live” aspect gives Clubhouse its intimacy. Some nights, trying to get to sleep, I lay my phone on my pillow as I listened to America wake up to a “Morning, muffins and motivation” seminar. It made me think about times when I was a kid and would have the radio on soft at night, close to my pillow, listening to some syndicated show from America that did love songs and dedications. People would call up and their voices would crack as they recounted their stories of love, or hardship or loss.

And so it is here – sometimes.

Sessions can be emotional but Clubhouse is rarely funny. Want laughs? Go to TikTok.

Weirdly, no one mentions Covid much, which surprises me. I guess it’s a bit of a buzzkill when people are trying to find their momentum or market or meaning or muffins. I discover one forum “Will life ever be normal again?” and people raise their digital hands and start crying when they speak. They are overwhelmed by parenting, job losses, illness, lockdowns, winter. There is – to use the words of the former US president Donald Trump – “a lot of death”.

But these gloomy rooms are the exception, not the rule.

There is a definite Clubhouse vibe, and it’s not gloomy. It’s libertarian, success-focused, forward-looking and relentlessly, teeth-grindingly optimistic. You’re only one meeting away from making it big. Really. You are. You just need to hustle. Harder. Hit me up with a DM. Let’s start a room. Check out my bio.

Maybe my algorithm is jammed but if this is the new world, there are no rooms that are truly revolutionary. Everyone wants to be a winner within the current system. A free-market spirit and prosperity gospel vibe runs through the app. How you can get rich. How you can find love. How you can self-optimise.

“I am manifesting success on all platforms. I am manifesting abundance on all platforms,” I find scrawled in my notebook when my week in Clubhouse is over.

This acceptance of the world and its systems as they are, and belief in the individual as the sole agent of change, means Clubhouse will never be a true disruptor in a political sense. It’s just replicating old ideas that don’t work for everyone, in a new technology.

In this way, it’s of its time and of America. This is the app where we metaphorically sit around the dumpster fire, singing Kumbaya at the party at the end of the world.



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