Clubhouse is engineering itself to fail

Unless they can refloat the ship in time

Opinion Piece. Scroll for TL;DR. You might be familiar with Clubhouse by now: it’s that seemingly mythological promised land where storied thought leaders and icons gather to share their knowledge—a space so coveted that you’d resort to begging for an invitation—a space where all voices can be elevated and equal—a space that is on its way to becoming the Internet’s next ghost town.

Admittedly when I wrote about Clubhouse back in February, I didn’t give it very high marks. I had high expectations from the feedback I was hearing from others in my field. Once I landed an invitation and explored the app for a few days, it didn’t quite live up to its hype.

Instead of uninstalling the app, I decided to keep it in my phone’s social media folder to be wowed by the experience at a later date. Unfortunately that is not the post that I have written. Instead, I’ve outlined a few fundamental reasons why I believe Clubhouse can’t possibly compete with existing social media ecosystems:

1. Accessibility still seems pretty far off in the distance

By design, the app makes no affordances for people with visual and hearing deficiencies. Clubhouse currently doesn’t support text resizing and also doesn’t make use of Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader.1 Alpha Exploration Co. has only just mentioned accessibility days prior to this post as part of a scalability promise having secured a new round of funding.2 Antithetically, Clubhouse banned a person for providing transcriptions of chats for the hearing impaired while Twitter invited hearing-impaired users to try out the auto-captioning technology already available in Twitter Spaces. It’s not perfect, but progress rarely is.

2. Voice, its strongest differentiator, is being cloned like mad

It’s no mistake that Facebook’s predatory feature copying has proven to be an effective tactic in staying off start-ups and challenger brands—to the point where they have honed their internal organization toward spotting innovation with ever-increasing precision.3

Back in February we learned that the big social media hitters were getting set to deploy their own iterations of real-time audio with Facebook’s Live Audio Rooms and Twitter Spaces. What took me by surprise, however, were the sheer number of other platforms aggressively eating at the Clubhouse value proposition: LinkedIn Creator mode, Spotify's Locker Room acquisition, Telegram Voice Chat 2.0, and Reddit Talk… to name a few.

The current players are making it clear that any new challenger should not be entering the market with only one way for users to interface with the service and within its service.

3. Schrödinger’s chat

Several months ago I mentioned how weird it felt to try to cultivate communities in Clubhouse. In order to flourish, you need to come with clout and an established audience.

Certainly there are plenty of events to listen to, but personal discoverability is relatively difficult. Hosts still resort to promoting their events in other social spaces such as Facebook and Twitter to try and pad their audience count. This isn’t an abnormal tactic (cross-promotion is done all the time), but when I asked several about it they said that without cross-promotion they transform into the digital version of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment: neither alive nor dead until someone enters the room to observe the chat.

3. It’s still a very niche app with inconsistent growth

Clubhouse is still only available to iOS. About 61% of people in the U.S. are iOS users4, and the app remains an access-by-invite platform to this day. Downloads peaked in February at 9.6 million, but the number sloped down in March by 72% to 2.7 million—about the same level as January.5 With roughly 215 million iOS devices in the U.S., there is clearly room to grow, but it seems that end users are quickly losing interest. I would be excited to see what growth could look like for the app once it becomes available to Android, and by opening the user registration gate.

4. What’s beyond the didactic moderator-panel format?

Clubhouse needs creators to help find ways to best use the platform. The moderator-panel format is tired—especially when there are hundreds going on at the same time with not much variation in topics. Content quality is a mixed bag. There are some gems, but there’s also a lot of self-promotion, waffling, and advice that is just… bad. “It’s easy: open an LLC and get to work,” is one example that sticks with me; the host’s guest never once suggested consulting a tax accountant, getting the right insurance coverage, or explaining the financial implications.

5. ????????????????????

“What do I even do, here?” is a question my spouse asked me when I showed the app to her, and it’s a question that sums up the overall experience succinctly. Most people are going to have a hard time figuring out how the app works, how to find their people, and realize the purpose of the platform.

I have a feeling that I hold an unpopular opinion. There are many who believe Clubhouse is still the next big thing—take a look at the continued investment activity as an example. Despite the seemingly insurmountable competition, people are expecting Clubhouse to succeed. Truthfully, I do want Clubhouse to succeed; we also need to consider the present obstacles and the company’s capacity to address them. If they’re as invested in scaling their team as they say, then perhaps they will.

But the proof is in the pudding. Only time will tell.

TL;DR: Clubhouse needs to do more for accessibility right now instead of later, the company needs to find a differentiator that social media big hitters can’t copy, and they need to encourage more variation in content. Clubhouse downloads dropped big time month-over-month, but the interactive voice features it pioneered won’t be ghosting any time soon.

1

Aquino, S. (2021, Feb. 8). Clubhouse is a club so exclusive, it excludes disabled people by design. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenaquino/2021/02/08/clubhouse-is-a-club-so-exclusive-it-excludes-disabled-people-by-design/

2

Alpha Exploration Co. (n.d.). Blog - Clubhouse. Ret. Mar. 22, 2021. https://www.joinclubhouse.com/blog

3

Dwoskin, E. (2017, Aug. 10). Facebook’s willingness to copy rivals’ apps seen as hurting innovation. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/facebooks-willingness-to-copy-rivals-apps-seen-as-hurting-innovation/2017/08/10/ea7188ea-7df6-11e7-a669-b400c5c7e1cc_story.html

4

DataReportal. (2021). Share of web traffic by mobile OS. Digital 2021 The United States of America, 64. https://datareportal.com/digital-in-the-united-states-of-america

5

Burch, S. (2021, Apr. 19). Clubhouse’s monthly downloads plunged 72% last month. The Wrap News, Inc. https://www.thewrap.com/clubhouse-monthly-downloads-plunge-72-percent/