David Deal is a marketing executive, digital junkie, and pop culture lover.
On February 10, Clubhouse became unusually buggy. I don’t know why, but the app was slow and balky. Clubhouse members could not join Clubhouse chat rooms when we wanted to, and sometimes we could not leave them, either. We could not follow other members. We couldn’t keep our Clubhouse connections going.
Now, when most social apps such as Facebook or Instagram go down, the reaction is like losing power – annoyance and impatience. But on Clubhouse, I noticed a lot of people struggling emotionally. Their reactions speak volumes about the state of our collective well-being.
For the uninitiated, here’s some quick context about Clubhouse: it’s a social audio app, meaning that members communicate exclusively by talking on their mobile phones in group chats.
These group chats are known as Rooms. Members can organize a regularly scheduled Room for people with shared interests (I participate in a weekly Room for lovers of vinyl records). Many Rooms are organized spontaneously, too – for example, after Judas and the Black Messiah premiered on February 12, members set up Rooms on the fly to discuss critical reactions to the movie.
Still other rooms might be organized just for the express purpose of people wanting to spread good vibes, discuss their spiritual journeys, and meet each other. Really, there are chatrooms for about every conceivable purpose (for more insight, here’s a blog post I wrote).
Clubhouse members can get very, very engaged. One reason: Rooms are like talk radio shows. They can be free-wheeling, covering a lot of ground during a chat session. If the chats are moderated well by the host, participants feed off each other’s remarks and have lively, engaging conversations (but if they are not moderated well, “the chat sessions can come across as mind-numbingly dull or feel like a rambling TED talk” in the words of NPR’s Bobby Allyn).
Although hard numbers are difficult to come by, members have tweeted about spending anywhere from 11 to 40 hours a week on the app.
Which brings me to the Great Clubhouse Outage of February 10. As the app’s buggy behavior stretched into the evening, I noticed people setting up Rooms to talk about Clubhouse going down. I jumped into a few to listen. Room members shared some emotionally visceral reactions.
One woman said she felt like her lifeline to the outside world had been cut. She worried that her mom, not a Clubhouse member, would fail to understand how she was feeling. I heard more than a few people crying.
One Clubhouse member said, “I crave human interaction. I am so lonely. I can’t handle this.”
People also vented on Twitter (see #ClubhouseDown), but their reactions did not capture the real-time emotional reactions I witnessed. The pain. The sense of loss and disconnection.
A serious case of FOMO, you might ask? It’s a fair question. Clubhouse is just as suspectable to mass FOMO as any other app – and since it’s still operated on an invitation-only basis, probably even more so. Indeed, when Elon Musk appeared on a Clubhouse chat late in the evening California time January 31, the moment was accurately described as “FOMO-creating.”
And author Lacy Boggs recently argued that the entire existence of Clubhouse depends on FOMO.
But FOMO doesn’t explain the sense of loss and disconnection, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a heavy toll on our emotional and mental health amid widespread quarantine living.
Remember: solitary confinement is meant to be a punishment in the penal system, and that’s exactly the kind of life many people are leading right now, albeit with varying degrees of isolation.
More than 42 percent of people surveyed by the US Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December, compared to 11 percent who answered the same way in 2019. According to a February 14 New York Times article, experts say that as quarantine living drags on, younger generations especially are facing a “mental health pandemic” that should be treated as seriously as containing the coronavirus.
I am fortunate.
I am happily married. My wife and I, both self-employed, have worked from our home for years now. We’re used to spending a lot of time in our home, and neither of us lives in isolation. But we’re both inherently social people like everyone else we know. I’ve always spent a lot of time on Facebook staying connected. Clubhouse has been cannibalizing my Facebook time since I joined in January.
As I mentioned in a recent blog post, I hang out on Clubhouse partly to connect with people (especially those whose walks of life are different than my own) and partly to talk about topics of shared interest. I would argue that the chill-out factor also wields an enormous appeal for people on Clubouse.
One night, I was suffering from insomnia. I hung out in a room dedicated to sharing good vibes. We didn’t deconstruct the world’s problems or discuss the merits of using Instagram Reels although we did have a friendly debate about the best flavor of Hot Pockets to eat after hours.
Basically, we just chilled out.
It was a cold, snowy night. One guy in the room was driving from Minneapolis to Madison on slick roads. Clubhouse was keeping him company to manage the stress. Others, just like me, were up in the middle of the night social networking.
Clubhouse was something like his CB radio.
I’ve been part of some pretty heavy topics, too, covering everything from race to spirituality. I’ve been in chatrooms whose sole purpose is for people to pray for each other.
One night I hung out in a Room dedicated to storytellers looking to turn personal setbacks into creative stories. The conversation ended up focusing on personal testimonies, as members opened up about abusive relationships, lapses of faith, faith rediscovered, and personal empowerment.
No one critiqued each other’s stories or offered pointers on how to shape those testimonials into memoirs or monologues (which I thought they were going to do). I sensed that perhaps the moderator felt like people just needed to share something important about themselves.
FOMO? I don’t think so. More like fear of losing connection and support. Which raises the question: when the pandemic subsides, will Clubhouse lose its appeal? Thought leader Jeremiah Owyang predicts a 30 percent+ decline in activity on Clubhouse as pandemic-induced lockdowns begin to ease up. As he told NPR, “This is not a great experience when you’re out in the world and you have people in front of you who you want to speak to. But expect many variations on Clubhouse in all sorts of technology.”
He’s right about the variants.
More Clubhouses are coming.
Facebook is said to be working on a Clubhouse feature. And recently, Quilt, an audio social network focused on self-care, raised a $3.5 million seed round. Owyang also predicts that social audio will achieve rapid adoption due to quarantine during 2021 and beyond, eventually followed by a post-quarantine market pullback, shakeout, and normalization.
Why does social audio have lasting power? I think Owyang got it right when he called social audio the “Goldilocks” medium for the 2020s:
"Text is not enough, and video is too much; social audio is just right. It represents the opportunity for social connection and empathy without the downsides of video. Why is this use case taking off? – humans, stuck at home during quarantine; readily available smartphones and apps; cloud-based technology and easy integration platforms like Agora; the desire for human connection beyond text; and fatigue from too many video conference calls."
Put it this way: I’ve never heard anyone say how much they love video calls. They’re too obtrusive. You can’t multi-task easily, and you have to consider factors such as your appearance and your surroundings. Those factors actually distract us from socializing with people we don’t know very well – they make it harder to connect. But text-based social? Well, we know where that often leads when we cannot discern tone. And text can be just too anonymous.
The Goldilocks comparison suits Clubhouse in another way. In the story of Goldilocks, she walks in a forest before coming upon a house and finding comfort inside.
Clubhouse is like a comfortable shelter right now from the dark forest, and no one wants to leave.
I'm on Twitter @davidjdeal.
Note: I invest in Facebook.
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