Kurt Schrader, the CEO and cofounder of Clubhouse, knew that Clubhouse had become Silicon Valley’s idée fixe when, in early May, his Twitter mentions became flooded with people desperate to get on the app.
But Schrader’s Clubhouse, a project management tool, is not the Clubhouse that’s suddenly in demand. That would be Clubhouse, a new social network more exclusive than Berghain. That Clubhouse is still in beta, and invitation only. Schrader, who has been tagged in numerous posts requesting said invites, eventually clarified on Twitter that he could not grant them: “At this point I might as well just spend my Saturday building a Twitter bot that automatically corrects all of the people that say Clubhouse but mean Clubhouse, and also the other people that say Clubhouse but actually mean Clubhouse …”
Fads come and go. Exclusive apps for everything from email (Superhuman) to dating (Raya) get christened by investors, and then are mostly forgotten. Clubhouse—a sort of voice-based chat room—is the furor du jour. In a matter of weeks, it has become the talk of Silicon Valley. Jack Dorsey and Hannibal Buress have been said to hang out there. The other day, E-40 hopped on Clubhouse to share thoughts about the future of rap, and MC Hammer joined a conversation about how the new coronavirus has affected prison populations. Marc Andreessen, who spends a great deal of time on the app, is known to talk shop with anyone in the room. His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, won a bidding war this week to invest $10 million in the app, plus $2 million in secondary shares. That’s a big bet that Clubhouse’s formula can last longer than the boredom of the pandemic, and its current buzz.
For the few thousand who have scored early invites, spending hours on Clubhouse has become a source of bragging rights—due to the app’s appeal, surely, but maybe also because everyone has been homebound in a monthslong pandemic. Some have attributed their time spent in the app to being lonely, isolated, or simply “single.” Entering one of Clubhouse’s “rooms” feels like dropping into a house party, if you close your eyes. Or at least, Clubhouse fans say, it’s a much closer approximation to real-world socializing than Twitter or TikTok.
Austen Allred, the cofounder of the coding bootcamp Lambda School, says an audio-based network has a very different feel than text-based ones, like Twitter. On Clubhouse, he says, “you hear people’s voices and talk to them in real time. It’s very humanizing.”
Allred was among the first few hundred users to join, in early April, and got hooked right away. “I think Twitter is the closest analogy because you find, get to know, and follow people that you don’t know,” he says. “But the audio format is fascinating because you can have it on in the background, it’s not a permanent record, it’s multi-way. People have actual conversations, which is something that doesn’t happen much right now.” Soon after he joined, he sent a message to Paul Davidson, the cofounder, asking if he could invest. (Allred is not yet an investor. Davidson and Andreessen Horowitz declined to be interviewed for this article.)
By the end of April, Nikolas Huebecker was spending upward of 36 hours a week on Clubhouse. Huebecker, who at 17 may be one of the platform’s youngest members, says Clubhouse feels different than the other social apps on his phone, like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter. “You might be in this giant room and people are listening,” he says, but then “you can go off and have a conversation in a corner—start your own room—and talk to someone one-on-one.” Each room determines its own speaking privileges, which range from intimate conversations among friends to conference-like gatherings with a few “speakers” and a large “audience” listening in.
One night, Huebecker described joining a room where everyone had speaking privileges, and everyone answered the 36 questions that lead to love. It was shockingly intimate, especially for a group of strangers. Another night, he chatted with Ryan Hoover, the founder of Product Hunt, for over an hour. “He’s someone I’ve looked up to for a while,” adds Huebecker. “I got to have a great discussion with Marc Andreessen and some other VCs last week.”
Others were less impressed after joining. Michelle Tandler, a former VC and startup founder, scored an invite after she tweeted that she hadn’t “felt this left out since fourth grade.” Her Twitter feed was filled with VCs raving about their “magical experiences” on the app, and she wanted in. Once she made it onto the app, though, she estimates that 75 percent of conversations she heard were venture capitalists talking about Clubhouse. Perhaps that explained all the hype from other VCs. Then again, she jokes, “there’s never been a social app that’s started with the venture community and took off.”
Narendra Rocherolle, who runs an incubator called the Start Project, was also initially turned off after joining Clubhouse a few weeks ago. Every conversation, he says, seemed to revolve around Clubhouse, venture capital, the pandemic, or some combination of the three. But once he found the late-night crowd—a group that calls themselves the Magic School Bus—something clicked. The conversations were sometimes light, sometimes intimate, sometimes funny, and never about tech. (The Magic School Bus was formerly called Back of the Bus, but rebranded after someone pointed out that it sounded vaguely racist.)
“I’ve tried on VR gear, but this was the first time I was like: Oh, wait. I feel like I am being transported into this different place,” says Rocherolle. “It’s all of the moment. If there was an amazing Clubhouse conversation last night and I missed it, I will never hear it. It’s about if you’re in the room or you’re not in the room.”
The FOMO that Clubhouse inspires, whether intentionally or not, seems to be part of its appeal: Those on the outside—or at least a certain segment of them—want in, and those already inside don’t want to miss out. Clubhouse isn’t the only app betting that social platforms are about to get chattier. There’s Cuppa, a “virtual coffee shop,” and Stationhead, a radio station for you and your friends. TTYL, “the audio social network,” lets users hang out in chat rooms with up to seven other friends. High Fidelity, built by the creator of Second Life, is a voice-based virtual event platform for those who yearn to experience the joys of wandering between festival DJ sets without camping out in a desert. Slashtalk is for spontaneous audio-based meetings at work. (Yes, like a phone call.)
Now that Clubhouse has venture backing, it will have to aim for venture-scale growth, even as the initial hype wears off. That might mean opening up to the masses, even if it means sacrificing its exclusive, clubby air. Or Clubhouse might to position itself, like so many startups before, for acquisition by one of Silicon Valley’s giants—Big Tech companies will likely want a piece of the audio future, too.
First, though, it has to launch.
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