Opinion

Clubhouse, Spotify, and the invention of talking

Silicon Valley does it again

It was only a short while after Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876 that people started to wonder if the whole "talking to each other" thing was really such a good idea. "It is my heart-warmed and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage … may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss," Mark Twain wrote in an 1890, "except the inventor of the telephone."

Nearly 150 years later, speaking to people who aren't in the same room as you continues to be a deeply annoying expectation of modern life. Blessedly, we've made great strides to remedy this over the years: Text messaging enables us to basically never use our phones as actual phones, and many of us carry out the majority of our workplace conversations through Slack emojis. We can pick the "chat" button when we're trying to reach customer service. We can even IM our doctors.

Which is why it is absolutely infuriating that the hottest thing in tech right now is inventing new ways to talk orally to each other.

I don't mean Zoom or Skype or Google Hangouts, all of which are video services that have served as janky replacements for speaking to each other in person throughout the pandemic. I really have nothing against Zoom at all, aside from the fact that it makes it difficult to make meaningful eye-contact with your friends when someone on the call says something wild, without everyone else immediately catching on. No, my bone to pick is with Clubhouse — the newish audio-based social media app that essentially functions like a massive conference call of strangers — and its assorted and increasingly abundant imitators, including Slack, LinkedIn, Fireside, Spotify, and potentially Facebook.

Tech companies and Elon Musk are constantly inventing things that already exist, including, but not limited to, buses, bus stops, subways, food, roommates, and vending machines. Clubhouse more or less "invented" old-fashion party lines by allowing users to consensually eavesdrop on conversations between famous people, celebrities, and other minor personalities, and occasionally also contribute by virtually "raising their hand" to speak. John Durham Peters, an expert on the history of communication, told the great Silicon Valley observer Anna Wiener for The New Yorker this week that Clubhouse's "chief affordance is to dangle the promise of Davos pixie dust in an online platform. It gives you the fantasy of hobnobbing with the movers and shakers."

Though other audio-based alternatives obviously predated the app — digital telephones aren't exactly revolutionary — there's a particular pointlessness to Clubhouse's existence that makes it extra obnoxious when it's being used by venture capitalists rather than, say, mainland Chinese dissidents. Ryan Broderick, who recently touched on the recent proliferation of live-audio apps in his newsletter Garbage Day, pointed out that in contrast, Discord — another popular communication app — has "audio features [that] do solve a real problem, how can you and your friends communicate while playing video games together." Clubhouse, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a specific purpose for existing: "I'm not so sure," Broderick went on, that "an app that simulates a conference call will be able figure out how to create something like Serial or Welcome To Night Vale." Nevertheless, even Discord has now updated to be more like Clubhouse.

Clubhouse's knock-offs vary in how much they enable audience participation, admittedly, and thus range in odiousness. Mark Cuban's Fireside (a live conversation broadcasting platform) and Spotify's acquisition of Locker Room (a "live experience" that started with sports commentary and is expected to expand to include live podcasts and concerts) both prioritize a handful of speakers, rather than additional commentary from listeners — that is to say, they've invented radio.

Meanwhile, Slack and LinkedIn are working on Clubhouse rivals that essentially center your voice, basically creating a situation not so unlike when you were in college and your professor told you during your midterm review that you need to "participate" more in class. LinkedIn is branding their knock-off as "audio networking," which is truly the most terrifying pair of words I can think of, while Slack's approach is more like "let's take everything people hated about meetings that was resolved by Slack and get rid of it by making them use their mouths to communicate with each other again."

But forums and salons and glorified group phone calls are exhausting, because talking is exhausting. There's a reason people choose to communicate with each other via text message, a medium where it is totally acceptable to take two hours to respond with "lol."

I'll be the first person, though, to agree that there is nothing more life-affirming than an energizing, organic conversation, the type of which usually happens around 2 a.m. after all the people you don't want to talk to have left the party or stopped calling your phone. So yes, I almost get why Clubhouse sounded like a good idea.

But the rash of live, oral apps will serve truly no purpose when, post-pandemic, you can talk to people you want to talk to in the normal, sane, old-fashioned way again. Hey, it's worked for two million years, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it! At the very least, don't try to replace authentic conversation with circular avatars, awkward mic hand-offs, and the embarrassment of "raising your hand" in a chat room to get called on by whoever's moderating the room "Are YOU worthy of a SIX+ figure man!?"

Call me a Luddite, but I'll wait for the world to reopen to have a stranger talk my ear off. Until then, I'm letting this one go to voicemail.

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