Embracing Performance: Some Thoughts on Clubhouse

And now for something a little different. I’d been skeptical of the hype around Clubhouse, as I’m old enough to remember many waves of social media hype in my lifetime. The reality is invariably more prosaic.

That said, the reality in question has led me to many deep friendships and I dare say to community. I’m not so jaded as to think the way we shape our online interactions is unimportant. And as I took a closer look at Clubhouse, I began to notice some interesting things about it.

A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that Clubhouse is audio-only, making it the first among social media platforms that organize themselves around individual user feeds. But this wasn’t all that interesting to me. From my perspective, it is simply inconvenient; I have a day job, I have small kids, and I live in a two bedroom apartment. There are few opportunities for me to simply hang out and yak out loud where I’m not bothering someone. This is the main reason I have not been much involved in podcasting.

No, what interested me are threefold:

  • Users do not see a feed of posts, but a feed of “rooms” that are currently active and contain someone they follow or are run out of a “club” they follow.
  • The rooms are divided between the “stage” of people who can talk and the audience of people who cannot.
  • Some subset of the people on the stage have the authority to add people from the audience to the stage, or send people from the stage to the audience.

The tl;dr of my thoughts here are that this is a straightforward embrace of the nature of social media conversations as performance, and designing around that basic assumption is in fact a good thing. Letting any user create a room provides the basic openness of any other social media platform. Giving them a say over who gets to be on the “stage” empowers them to create the conditions for high quality performances.

Many current and previous iterations of social media play this game where you’re encouraged to act like you’re in some kind of small group setting where everyone knows one another and can be at ease. Twitter was just for posting about what you just had for breakfast, Facebook is just for your IRL friendships, and so on.

But to the extent that this ever approximated reality (it never did) it did not survive the massive scaling up of these platforms. Even platforms built with the assumption that moderation would be needed, like forums or closed Facebook groups or chat rooms, scale about as well as comment section moderation. Which is to say, not very well at all.

Clubhouse seems to have a model that could scale well. Of course, it does this by allowing for a stage that can’t really accommodate all that many speakers and connecting it to an audience that can grow bigger than the biggest forum.

That’s the tl;dr. The rest looks at the question of social media performance in a little more depth.

Fake intimacy

When I was in high school, a lot of my friends had LiveJournals. LJ was both my first blog and my first social media, unless one counted forums and chatrooms (which typically are not categorized that way these days).

The way LiveJournal (which, amazingly, still exists) worked is that you had the reverse-chronological feed of your own entries, but then you also had a tab with a reverse chronological feed of all the LJs you followed. For me at the time, this was almost entirely classmates.

There was this weird thing where we kind of pretended that it was an actual, private journal. It’s not like there was an explicit agreement that that was how one ought to write, in fact to have said it out loud would have invited mockery. But there’s no denying that that’s what everyone did, stylistically; they wrote like they were only writing for themselves. Only they very obviously were writing for other people, and the social aspect of LJ was baked right in.

What this meant was you got a lot of passive aggressive signaling and indirect reference, the subtweet before Twitter, the vaguebook before Facebook. With all the subtlety and grace that one would expect of a bunch of teenagers (not that adults have proven much better in this regard).

Posting on LiveJournal was a public act, inherently. You were writing for an audience, whether the one you had or the one that you wanted. You were absolutely not just writing for yourself, or else you’d just write in an actual paper, with actual ink, where no one would be able to access your private words from an Internet connected computer anywhere in the world.

Instead, the tantalizing experience a teen wished to replicate was the trope from fiction wherein someone, but usually the love interest, would discover the main character’s diary. The private thoughts contained therein revealed that someone nominally seemed superficial, or a jerk, or stoic, actually had a great depth of character and was acting from highly admirable motives.

But of course, this trope does not actually work if the main character wrote those things expecting that the diary would be found. Indeed, if they did, then far from being admirable, they would be contemptible, engaging in a kind of emotional manipulation.

Our teenage LJ antics did not rise to the level of emotional manipulation, because they were far too transparent, even to teenagers. But this dynamic, where we pretend that a public platform is anything but that, has remained pervasive as other forms have taken off.

I had an on again, off again relationship with Facebook for years, because I was convinced it was simply going to be high school LJ all over again. And who would deny that, to some extent, it has been? But what finally convinced me was being a groomsman in a friend’s wedding in 2008, after which the wedding party all friended one another (if we weren’t friends already) and shared pictures of the event. The event itself was a lot of fun and it was very fun to continue feeling that sense of a shared experience with people afterwards.

Nevertheless, people (and I’m no more innocent of this than anyone) still talk out of both sides of their mouths on these platforms. When someone jumps on something we post, we’re “just” tweeting or “just” saying something on Facebook, as if it were a private space, or even a small intimate gathering incapable and statements will not reach the ears of anyone outside of the physical room.

This is very silly. Even a private Twitter account and a friends-only Facebook post are speaking to publics. We need to have more acceptance of this basic fact, of the basic role of performance has in our lives in general, on and off social media.

Structuring the stage

There are, of course, intimate conversations, even on the Internet. DMs, mobile messaging services, emails, a chats can all be done on a one-to-one, or few-to-few basis.

At the other end you get extreme one-to-many scenarios; an article at a popular publication or a post at a popular blog, perhaps without a comment section. A recorded video or audio segment disseminated over Netflix or YouTube or a podcast app.

The thing that is both tricky and interesting about modern social media platforms is that they can be anywhere on this spectrum, for any one person, and change very suddenly. You may go to Twitter mainly for the 20 or so people you follow and who mostly follow you back. Or you may go to Twitter to read or reply to accounts who have millions of followers. Or you may have millions of followers yourself and treat the account as mostly a broadcast platform.

Moreover, you may have a small to midsized follower base and yet have one of your tweets go massively viral, resulting in millions of views and hundreds of replies. In other words, you might expect your public to be relatively intimate or at least predictable, and then find that you’re broadcasting to an enormous audience.

I think that most people who tweet, whatever their follower count, are aware of the possibility of a viral tweet. The style of their writing reflects this just as the style of those old LJ entries reflected the awareness that someone was or could be reading.

While we all like having our spaces that aren’t going to suddenly become broadcast platforms on a dime, there isn’t actually a shortage of those; as I mentioned, there are plenty of ways to engage in one to one or few to few communication these days. The fact that Twitter and similar platforms cannot really give you that isn’t a knock against them per se, it’s just something to take into account. If the particular niche that Twitter fills is not for you, then best stay off it or only tweet anodyne things.

The problem isn’t the virality of Twitter. The problem is that the user experience of going viral or having a large audience sucks. This isn’t meant to elicit sympathy, it’s an observation about Twitter’s design: once a large number of people like, retweet, and reply to your tweets, the notifications tab becomes essentially unusable. As someone with only a modest follower base myself I only see this on the occasional tweet of mine that gets a bit more attention, and each time I’m left wondering how the big accounts manage that kind of engagement on a regular basis. How do you not simply end up precluding any kind of two-way communication at all, tweeting only to broadcast some statement to an audience and little else? And yet I talk to people with accounts that size all the time; they somehow seem to manage it.

That they manage it doesn’t make the design good, though. The notification tab is fundamentally designed for the median tweet by the median user of Twitter, who has a low follow count and low engagement. But by definition this means that it’s not designed for the users who are the biggest draw to the platform for most users.

I don’t think Twitter set out to be a platform that had to balance one-to-one and one-to-many all in the same interface. Its founders had the vague idea that people just liked passively sharing what they had for breakfast with their friends, and went from there. They’ve made an enormous number of changes to adapt the platform to how it is actually used but none of them address the usability problem described above.

Clubhouse, on the other hand, seems better designed to strike this balance. Users with small follower counts can start rooms that their friends join and have relatively few-to-few conversations. Like closed Facebook groups, they can even create closed, invite-only rooms. But there’s never going to be a situation where their room goes massively viral and they’re unable to manage it, because going viral just means that the audience balloons but the stage does not. The number of people talking, in other words, remains the same, unless the person who created the room (or the people they gave mod authority to) consciously choose to add more.

In the spectrum from one-to-one, few-to-few, and few-to-many, a user’s Clubhouse feed is kind of like a social media feed of Skype group calls mixed in with podcasts and conference panels that have live audiences. But I think this works better at managing all ends of the audience size spectrum than other social media platforms currently do. No matter how big your audience balloons into being, it isn’t going to impact the usability of the app for you, nor is it going to interrupt the conversation you’re having in any way.

And I think there’s more that they can do within this framework. There’s a hard ceiling on how many people you can have on stage and still hope to have a meaningful conversation. However, I think this could be extended somewhat by giving moderators more tools. For example, allowing a moderate to set a queue for who speaks when, as well as time limits before someone is automatically muted so the next person can go. And just as members of the audience can “raise their hand” to ask to be added onto the stage now (a feature that can be turned off in a given room), people on stage might be able to raise their hand to ask the moderator to let them jump their position in the queue, based on something that was just said.

Little things like that can go a long way. But of course you need a skilled moderator to be able to run a large stage that way, so in most cases I expect small stages would still dominate over large ones.

But note that all of this is only possible by dividing rooms into speakers and listeners, stages and audiences. This is an explicit acknowledgement, right in the design, of the fact that these platforms are used for performing to publics. It’s not hard to design for small group conversations. The challenge is designing a platform that can handle both, the way modern social media platforms have to be able to. Clubhouse does this by building around the few-to-many scenario in a way that doesn’t make it hard to use for few-to-few scenarios.

I expect we’ll see more of this in the near future, and not confined to audio-only mediums. And I take it as a good sign, a sign of maturation in the ecosystem.

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Adam Gurri

Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time.