March 9, 2021

Back to the Stone Age: The History of Social Media Leading to Clubhouse

Chun Xia & Victoria Powell

Clubhouse. Everyone’s seen it. Everyone’s heard of it. Everyone knows what it is. And if not, then they’ve been living under a rock. The new, exclusive, invite-only social media audio room has been taking the professional world by storm. It is a club so exclusive that everyone wants to be a part of it. Global business leaders such as Elon Musk, tech revolutionaries like Mark Zuckerberg, and public figures like Oprah Winfrey have joined the movement, presenting top tips and sharing industry secrets. Secrets that people around the world can hear, provided they have an invitation. 


While its exclusive nature and inspiring content have been a big reason for its instantaneous success, it is evident that its simplicity is Clubhouse’s main drawcard. Accessible on your mobile (only Apple products though, much to the chagrin of Android users), the platform lends itself to multi-tasking. You don’t have to hold your phone, you just listen. Clubhouse has replaced time spent listening to podcasts or audiobooks, and is used during workouts, while driving, walking, and even doing chores. It has become the must-have way to liven up COVID-19-induced home time. 


Replacing event syndication platforms such as Meetup, we can now easily join and host events from the comfort of our daily lives. As a result, its convenience has already started to change our behaviors. It has begun creating a virtual cave. 


As a result of COVID-19 we have seen the rise of our dependence on remote social platforms such as Zoom. And even though Zoom’s success has been unparalleled - its brand name is now used as a noun in our everyday language - why is it not Zoom but Clubhouse that everyone is talking about? 


First and foremost, Zoom is a productivity tool. It was made for business with the intention of a specific goal in mind. While it is great for business meetings and educational purposes, it is fundamentally business-oriented. On the flip side, Clubhouse targets the professional demographic but is primarily a social media platform. It is a space for people who don’t know each other to gather together. It has a completely different purpose. 


The accelerated hype of Clubhouse has reminded us of past social media platforms, ones that changed the way we interacted with one another, and it has made us consider its characteristics and the future of its success. To evaluate where this platform might be leading us, we have asked the following questions: 


Will Clubhouse fade away? 

If not, what kind of social media will it be and what impact will it have?


To answer, let’s have a look at the history of social media. 


The disappearance of audio chatrooms


From 2003-2007, before smartphones were widely available, the era of social media began. Chronologically, communication online began first with text, then audio, and then video with the creation of Youtube in 2006. Most prominent at the time, however, was Myspace, which emerged in 2005. Myspace was the giant of the time and dominated the whole social media space. Myspace was positioned as a tool for self-expression, targeting a community around that. It was a space for people that didn’t know each other to get online and explore their interests. It was an online space for people to meet. A popular feature of Myspace was the audio chat tool, its popularity rivaled that of Clubhouse today. And just like with the text chatrooms, there were different rooms or channels that you could take part in if interested.  


However, with the rise of Facebook and the slow death of Myspace over a decade ago, audio chatrooms faded away as well. 


The fault of the audio chatrooms at the time was that they generated too much socially critical material and irrelevant content. They became a place to squander time and became renowned for lots of anti-social and rude language. There was no moderation and people were able to communicate about any and everything. At the time, it was new territory. This freedom of speech had never been available before and the darker, more negative sides of human online behavior were showing. It was like the Wild West, ruleless, ruthless, and with no boundaries. 


The downfall of audio chatrooms was also due to the fact that it was challenging to produce quality audio content and recordings. In terms of a talk show, it was ineffective. People who were seeking quality audio content then began looking into podcasts and audiobooks, two things that quickly rose in popularity with the creation of the iPod. 


And with that, audio chatrooms saw their swift demise. 


The mistakes of the last decade


With the success of Clubhouse, we are seeing the resurrection of these audio chatrooms. The big player Facebook and Twitter will soon be offering similar features for their users, but it remains questionable how long this trend will last. After having seen the rise and fall of these chatrooms over a decade ago, it is hard to not compare them.


So far it is obvious that Clubhouse is taking a different approach. One key lesson the company has learned from the past is to carefully control the growth of its users - done so by implementing limited invites. Additionally, Clubhouse is enforcing room moderation to try and control the content. But that is not enough. 


I believe that the platform could be successful long-term if it stays focused on the business “meetup” track. It would need to continue to provide value solely as a platform for users to network and share valuable industry insights and knowledge with fellow professionals. If it moves in the direction of entertainment and self-expression, such as what happened in the past, then it could become uncontrollable. As a result, history would repeat itself and Clubhouse would generate too much social waste, likely resulting in its downfall. 


Clubhouse and our cultural shift


According to Marshall McLuhan’s media theory, the key driver in our cultural shifts is media technology. In the 60s, McLuhan did a study on media tech (TV at the time) and culture. He concluded that “we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us”. Even in the 60s, when technology was nowhere near as advanced as it is today, it was evident that technology was already having an unprecedented impact on our culture and how we interacted with one another. This has only become more evident with the rise of social media platforms. 


To begin to understand what sort of cultural shift Clubhouse will cause, we need to start by identifying the key milestones of media tech - writing; printing; radio; TV; the Internet and the web; and lastly, social media. 


If we look at these media tech attributes from a purely technological point of view, it is possible to categorize them and understand the differences between them. For instance, you can differentiate them by realtime (eg. Clubhouse) or delayed (eg. email); one-way broadcast (eg. TV) or interactive (eg. Clubhouse); recorded (eg. podcast) or transient (eg. Clubhouse); and lastly, local (eg. Meetup) or remote (eg. Clubhouse). Lastly, we can distinguish the media tech forms through sensory categorization - visual, signs (text), audio, smell, and touch (not invented yet). 


If we categorize Clubhouse this way, the platform is a real-time, interactive (although moderated), transient, audio, and remote tool. All of these attributes, bar remote, match the communication media of inside a dark cave in the stone age. Thus, Clubhouse users are contemporary, virtual cave people. The only difference that distinguishes them from their stone age pendants is the aspect of remote interaction. 


Clubhouse as the new cave


It can be reasoned that the cultural shift activated because of COVID-19 has turned everyone into cave people living in a virtual cave. The theory is that the evolution of the human being is much slower biologically than our technological advancement. Technology is racing ahead but our brains and our ways of living have not yet evolved enough to keep pace with it. When it comes to communication, our DNA is still programmed with the communication strategies of cavemen - audio-only, some visual (through the observation of body language), interactive, transient, and local. Therefore, Clubhouse is much more closely linked to the human nature of communication compared to other social media platforms.


In his book, “Tribes”, Seth Gordin analyzes the web 2.0 movement and the cultural impact of social media, looking specifically at how the “cave lifestyle” would enhance tribal life. In this sense, the possible big success of Clubhouse is that it is an effective platform to host a vast amount of social tribes. The moderators are the tribe “chiefs”, there are people consistently dwelling in the tribe, and there are also visitors. 


The tribal effect has previously been proven with the early online forums and the news and internet periodical newsrooms. The forums where social interaction was the main focus were the most successful. However, it is clear that the audio and transient nature of Clubhouse is significantly more efficient and more adhesive than the sign (text) media form that makes up a forum.


Additionally, it is the tribal life that makes the social bonding within Clubhouse much stronger than through Meetup and most other popular social media platforms. And this is only exemplified through the convenience of Clubhouse and users’ ability to be there and spend time as often as they want. 


However, the aspect of social bonding through tribal life could become diluted with Clubhouses’ radio talk-show feature. Through this feature, users are able to hop into any Clubhouse “room”, and as a result, the tribes become zoo-like, visible for observation by anybody who is interested. This public human zoo landscape has previously existed in social media, predominantly in radio talk-shows and in KOL frenzies on platforms such as YouTube. However, touring a “zoo” in this format would not be a sustainable experience. Not all tribes would feel comfortable being public, and Clubhouse itself would lose its aura of exclusivity.  Hence, the core value of Clubhouse should remain on building a community focused on the cornerstones of tribal life for contemporary cave people. 


COVID-19 has catapulted a cultural shift, forcing us to rely solely on online methods of connection and social interaction, and Clubhouse has resonated with our human nature. It has filled a gap in our lives that we were unaware existed. In the end, history may repeat itself, but its longevity and success will come down solely on how effectively it can replicate and function as the social media platform for tribal life. To not disappear like the audio chatrooms of the previous decade, Clubhouse must be a place where people can explore their interests, gain intellectual value and connect with like-minded people. 


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