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The Clubhouse Effect: Is Live Audio Just Live Video 2.0?

Remember back in 2015, when live video was going to be a thing? Twitter had bought Periscope, Facebook had launched Facebook Live, which Zuckerberg assured us was going to be the future of the platform, and everyone from influencers to actual celebrities were all doing live streams. There was much noise too at the time about a future filled with live streaming TV channels and of a nascent corporate market for live video for everything from training to product launches to customer service.

And then it all sort of faded away as quickly as it started and when you say “live video” to someone in 2021, they likely think of lawyer cats on Zoom.

What Went Wrong

Seems no one really had the time or patience for live video. It was long. It was messy. It required you to stop whatever you were doing at a specific time to watch it and the payoff was pretty weak, especially since a big part of the experience was watching dozens of other randos interacting with the hosts, either live or via Facebook chat.

The rise and fall of live video is exactly what’s been coming to mind the more I try and wrap my head around Clubhouse, the new interactive audio app that’s all the buzz with the Silicon Valley crew.

Which should be a warning flag in and of itself: apps that are popular with teenagers tend to grow up to be Snapchat or TikTok. Apps that are popular with Silicon Valley types tend to grow up to be the answer to trivia questions. 

What Clubhouse is, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an app that allows for the creation of audio chat rooms that users start around whatever topic their hearts desire. The host(s) can tap other participants to speak (e.g., they can take questions or comments) but otherwise you’re just there to listen.

If that sounds a whole lot like the last online industry conference you went to, you are not alone, as many people have described it as such, and given the subjects being discussed–everything from “Culture and Code: Understanding Generation Z” to “Digital Networking Dos and Don’ts”, the description seems quite apt.

Different Medium, Same Issues

Right now, the thing Clubhouse and its lookalike (soundalike?) competitors need to grapple with is that these live audio apps seem to suffer from many of the issues that plagued the live video bubble a few years back:

  • The sessions are frequently far too long, well over the 60 or even 90 minute mark.
  • Coming in late means you often have no idea what’s going on and the chat is rarely loose and unstructured in a talk radio kind of way.
  • Questions and comments from random people don’t necessarily enhance the experience.
  • Elon Musk has better things to do than show up regularly on the app. (Though his appearance a few weeks back did get Clubhouse a whole lot more buzz.)
  • There’s a whole world of content with superior production value around similar topics available on demand that users can listen to at their leisure.

Distilling all those bullets down in an Axiosesque manner, the “One Big Thing” is that being an audience member in these live sessions can feel like a whole lot of work for not a whole lot of reward.

Product May Not Be Habit Forming

If I look back at the live video boom, the key thing that prevented it from really catching on is that it did not become a habit. People would watch a live video here or there, but few of them ever got into the groove of watching it on the regular.

That is likely to be the biggest hurdle that Clubhouse and its Wannabes face: taking something that right now seems like a novelty act and turning it into a habitual behavior when so many more professional (albeit less interactive) on demand alternatives exist (e.g., podcasts), all of them aimed at a similar audience.

Which is not to say it’s impossible, but it’s far from a slam dunk. 

What To Look For Next

Remember that YouTube started as a way to share baby videos with family members, Twitter was a fancier version of a group text chat, and Snapchat was a way to ensure that deep thoughts you had freshman year of high school didn’t follow you all the way to college.

Apps tend to morph as more users get on board and see value in them, or in a specific use case for them that the founders may not have intended or even thought possible. 

Right now, much of the content on Clubhouse is pretty “conferencey” but it’s easy to see it being used as a way to say promote a popular TV series by having a session with some of the show’s actors and showrunners.

Which is exactly what we said about live video, only after the second or third “live sneak peak backstage” event, everyone realized it was easier just to pre-record such things, that the fan base wasn’t particularly chuffed at not being able to shout unanswered questions at the stars and a good editor could still make the whole thing seem raw and unedited.

So there’s that.

On a macro level, we (the collective “we”) are still figuring out when and how we want to use text and audio and video and if there’s any value to real time conversations with strangers or if we’ve all gotten way too used to the asynchronous format of social media to converse with people we don’t know.

We’ll find out soon enough I suspect.

And one more thing: two words about invite-only social platforms. Google Plus.

Like I said, trivia questions.