Clubhouse is Dying. It's Reminding Us What Social Media Should Be | Opinion

Clubhouse has reminded us what the internet originally promised us: collaboration and community, not arguments and alienation.

I hope that Clubhouse can show the big social media platforms—which Clubhouse itself is on the way to become—what we really want from social media. But I doubt that the exclusivity and trust that Clubhouse is built on can scale, unless the way we use social media completely changes.

I've been on Clubhouse since October—I was invited by an early member who was the face of the app (the app periodically changes its icon by displaying a user's headshot). But even in those four months, I felt the slow creep of internet trolls seeping into the platform.

If Clubhouse and others want to preserve and scale the magic of the early days, they should start treating online spaces more like physical ones: creating some filter over what people and behaviors are acceptable, and allowing the community to hold itself accountable.

Clubhouse's founders will be as keen as anyone to hold onto what makes it special. Less than a year after launching, it is currently valued at $100 million. After its latest funding round, it is predicted to be worth almost $1 billion, making it one of the big players in social media.

Those big players have all benefited from the isolation of lockdown, but it is Clubhouse's sense of community and authenticity, fueled by real time audio conversations, that has stood out. By allowing users to derive meaning from the intonation and rhythm of speech, and to feel that they are part of a fireside chat—rather than a town hall—it has uniquely captured the moment.

But how big can the fire get before the fireside chat becomes a scattering of strangers? With invites in some territories being sold for up to $77 many want to join—but some of those may not be a true part of the "community."

Clubhouse hasn't needed to make money yet—it is still existing solely on venture capital cash. When it is forced to take the training wheels off and make its own money, it will struggle to maintain its special appeal—and could end up being an audio-enabled Twitter clone (Twitter has launched Twitter Spaces to pre-empt this).

Clubhouse app
The Clubhouse app on a smartphone. ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images

This scalability problem is already breaking Clubhouse. The more I use it, the more I see people ejected from rooms for either spurting out racist or sexist comments, or for shameless self-promotion.

So how can all social media platforms—new and old—have some "Clubhousiness," so we can enjoy them more?

Simply, we need to demand the same standards of behavior online that we would expect in brick-and-mortar locations. Blocking an anonymous user isn't enough—they can just create another account. Maybe we need to block the person who recommended them too. This would help to get around the pay-for-invite model.

Getting your friends, as well as yourself, barred would add extra social pressure to stay classy. This works in real life and it can work online: If your plus one at an exclusive club started a fight, you would probably expect to be kicked out with them.

Another solution is to increase accountability. We can end the trolling that anonymity creates by doing something else that an exclusive club does: asking for ID. To address privacy concerns, this could be held centrally by a trusted third party, and not by each platform (Clubhouse is already the subject of privacy concerns).

This ID requirement already applies to certain types of online behavior, like running political ads on Facebook. Maybe if it applied to everything, social media would be so much better.

A final option is to remember that no exclusive club is free. Paying for entry is part of a night out; maybe online clubs can be the same. The assumption that social media should be free is breaking it.

Clubhouse could either be a blip in social media's current trajectory, or a teachable moment that allows the whole industry to change course and show us all what we really want from social media.

I hope it is the latter.

Ronjini Joshua is the founder of tech communications firm The Silver Telegram. She has written for Foreign Policy, Newsweek and Scientific American.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.

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