Clubhouse and Audio's Feature Not A Product Problem (And How It Might Possibly Be Meerkat 2)

Clubhouse, an app which allows you to join audio conversations with other people (a function unavailable in any other app or device), is now worth $4 billion. The user experience mostly involves joining a group chat where a few people are talking and listen to them go on in an unstructured rant about something, kind of like a live podcast that sucks. It immediately reminds me of the big rush to make mobile livestreaming apps in 2015 - remember how Meerkat “conquered SXSWthen shut down a year later? - which then disappeared because, get this, watching people walk around with their phones is actually not that fun?

Now, I’m not saying that Clubhouse is going to die in a similar fashion, but…

The comparison that people make to defend Clubhouse as a separate product is that Twitch took off as a livestreaming platform for people to watch other people play video games, and as a result people will have the same interest in hearing people talk all the time on Clubhouse.

The problem is this defense - and really I cannot think of any other defense for Clubhouse - is that it assumes that listening to people talk is fun, and that talking to people entirely on a mobile app is also fun.

Twitch succeeded because it created an actual social network that did something truly new, and enabled people to enjoy watching people play games, which is a thing that people do in person and really enjoy doing. What Clubhouse thinks they’re doing is recreating the experience of watching a live panel, or a fireside chat, or, indeed, listening to a podcast, when the actual general experience of Clubhouse is more akin to being at a weird party with too many conversations. And frankly, people enjoy watching someone play a game - there are lots of different games and lots of different people to play them. There are only so many voices, only so many subjects, and people only have so much patience to listen to them.

At its best, Clubhouse is a way to hear live panels at any given time with people that you might theoretically have interest in, but just like every conference you’ve ever been to there is mostly exhausting, repetitive and boring garbage. The exciting moments are when someone famous or someone big gets on the app and uses it to speak at a scheduled time, and even then that’s a magic trick that barely excites anyone anymore. Having Elon Musk interrogate the CEO of Robinhood may have seemed like a watershed moment for the company, but ultimately proved how utterly dull the whole thing is - an ephemeral audio conversation bereft of the body language that makes a good interview interesting, clearly set up by investors.

Their early desperation to attract creators suggests that they’re having issues retaining them - probably because the actual platform itself does nothing inherently different than other live platforms, other than removing the video part. And, frankly, it just isn’t that fun or interesting. Talk radio is popular, but I feel like Clubhouse is predicated on the idea that Talk Radio is a multi-billion dollar industry just waiting to get startupitized, despite the industry having real issues (also a great reminder that Rush Limbaugh died!), and also not necessarily being the most monetizable industry in the world for the audience that Clubhouse has.

Also…most startup people are not particularly good at talking. I know this sounds mean, but the burden of talking in an interesting manner for 30+ minutes is quite heavy, and even the most interesting people have trouble sustaining a conversation that’s built for listeners over that time. Podcasts are great for handling this problem because you can pre-brief, edit and, if necessary, re-record - but a bad Clubhouse experience is likely to make someone say “ah man, I don’t want to listen to people talk.”

This is all before I’ve got to the larger “how the hell does this make money?” side of the coin. Snapchat managed to build in advertisements and monetization features, as did Twitch, as did Discord - but all of them had significantly more viral and developed products. You can’t record and save a Clubhouse conversation, which may seem like a feature, but it’s actually a problem - someone can say to you they heard a really great conversation on Clubhouse, and then you just have to take their word for it. Twitch has a visual product, and thus can serve ads, and thus can have a person that people can connect with - and, indeed, said person can create a far more interesting thing visually than they ever could with audio.

I assume that some of the thinking around the mass-funding of Clubhouse is that podcasts are big, and thus live audio will be big, because people like listening to podcasts. People develop bizarre parasocial relationships with podcasts, and thus people will develop them with live audio…which…is not happening.

Are there any breakout Clubhouse influencers? Are there are any big moments in Clubhouse that people are romantically discussing? Is there a single thing on Clubhouse that is truly unique to the medium that really astonishes people, beyond the ability to hear someone talking the same crypto or personal branding or real estate shit over and over again?

How in the world does this even sustain a social network, let alone become a business? Who is going to pay for this, and how often?

There’s also the Feature Not A Product problem. Twitter Spaces and whatever Facebook builds are basically the same thing as Clubhouse, without the need to create an entire new app and do an entirely new thing. The ease in which Twitter has created an almost identical product on top of a social network people actually have a reason to use suggests that Clubhouse has a real problem - and the fact that they have to keep raising such insane amounts of money at huge valuations suggests they are spending it somewhere while making exactly zero dollars. The ability to do live audio streaming is something that has a use case, but as a company with a built-in social network I fail to see where it’s going to go.

Live entertainment needs to be really good to attract an audience long-term. Live video is interesting because there are lots of ways to keep people engaged. Podcasts have succeeded because, yes, it is interesting to hear people talk about stuff you’re interested in, but it’s much harder to make the case for people having to carve time out of their day to hear that - the content just needs to be so good, so reliably that it retains an audience that tells people that they must also carve out the time.

There’s also the medium. Livestreaming video off of your phone really lacked mainstream popularity because it was an awkward format, and I feel like live audio has the same issue - it’s not something that people will consume all day, and it’s not something that’s easy to produce en masse. It also is a challenge to get a userbase that will want to do it all the time in the same way that it’s exhausting to stream games, but it’s also more fun streaming games because, well, you’re streaming games.

The media’s excitement over Clubhouse I think is a function of how much pressure A16Z has put on their celebrity and startup founder personalities to get involved, and a situation where people are mixing up popularity with success. These may seem the very same thing, but the fact that user installs are dropping is an incredibly worrying sign of a pop and a drop - something that’s happened with a bunch of apps that have an initial buzzy investor-and-press driven campaign that dwindles because the actual experience isn’t particularly exciting.

AppAnnie says they’re at 23 in social networking as of writing - I opened up my iPhone and Clubhouse is at 25, below apps called “Tiya-Team Up! Time to play” and “BIGO LIVE-live stream, Go Live,” two very real and normal-sounding apps - it doesn’t even crack the top 200 free apps. In fact, according to Sensor Tower, the app is down to rank 395 in free apps, and in fact never seems to have cracked the top 20 in free apps even at the height of its popularity.

Perhaps another way to frame this is that it’s the world that exists inside and outside of the startup ecosystem. Where there may be enough sheer force of will within startups and fans of A16Z to buoy an app based on the initial hype, actual users sticking around and using it would mean that the app’s installs would level out (or grow), versus continually dropping as seems to be the case since around March 15.

The real world test of Clubhouse was (and is) in its exposure to users that aren’t doing so to keep up appearances, and the test appears to have failed - you are fighting for the time and mindshare occupied by Twitch, Twitter, Facebook, and every single online gaming channel. You are fighting their schedules, what podcasts they listen to, and if you can’t keep them for free, it’s hard to imagine how you keep them when things cost money.

Snapchat was a company that went through a similar situation after capturing the adoration of silicon valley, but they at the very least caught the attention of young people and how they like to communicate. And something about Clubhouse just feels so very old, so very awkward.

Opening up Twitter and reading what people say is interesting and easy to do - opening up Clubhouse requires you to actively listen to people and hope that what they’re saying is interesting. Consuming the content isn’t easy, nor is it particularly fun. Investing time on Twitter gives you a body of work, as does doing so on Twitch, but on Clubhouse it is just followers and nothing else. There is no profile to be had, no scale to show beyond saying you’re part of clubs, just a profile. Something about it feels so empty and generic - I just joined a group (club? I don’t know) called “under the influence” about influencers (absolutely no info beyond that!) that began with someone saying “to the audience - which brands do you think are doing a good job with influencer partnerships" - which is exactly the kind of generic content you find on Clubhouse every day as people try and force ideas out so they’re “doing something on Clubhouse.”

I just feel as if there is very little there to get people excited long-term, and I can only imagine this becoming yet another startup that stumbles and falls, purpose-built for people to write retrospectives about in a year.

I mean, this is their content discovery:

I hate to say it, but the number one company that can eat the current iteration of Clubhouse is LinkedIn - there is clearly a hunger for people who have become entirely focused on their work above all else, and it would be very easy for Microsoft to simply build their own version.

And maybe that’s the main problem of Clubhouse - a social network based on audio doesn’t really work as a flat discoverability portal, and can only really function like a radio station where people choose their content. The problem is that the radio industry makes about a billion dollars a year, and a live audio product is very much something another company can just go ahead and build without worrying about attracting a social network’s worth of users.

Maybe I’m terribly wrong, and Clubhouse will somehow be worth $4 billion. I can’t even type that without wondering why. I could sort of, if I squinted hard enough, see why Snap was worth so much, or Groupon, or Uber, as long as I blinded myself to the requirements of an actual business (make more money than you spend). I can’t see it with Clubhouse - the content is awful, the network is half-assed and the product is…a feature.