The clubhouse may fade away. Group voice chat is here to stay
OBORN OF SILICON VALLEY’S most successful inventions is the hype. It usually disappoints. In 2015, live streaming from smartphones became all the rage. But Meerkat, an app that launched it, closed the following year. On April 1, Periscope, his most successful rival, did it too (no kidding). Clubhouse, a bustling app that hosts live audio gabfests, will suffer the same fate?
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Launched at the start of the pandemic last March, Clubhouse has quickly become Silicon Valley’s most talked about app and a favorite scene for rock star entrepreneurs. Elon Musk has offered his take on Mars colonization and brain rewiring to thousands of listeners. Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz, co-founders of a large venture capital firm, speak regularly. More Valleyite mortals are discussing everything from the future of San Francisco to the difficult relationship between technology and media. This year, the Clubhouse craze has gone global, providing a place for candid conversations in locations ranging from Saudi Arabia to South Korea.
In the midst of the buzz, problems emerge. You still need an invitation from an existing user, but these are easy to get. As newcomers flood the app, the quality of the debate has diminished. Without systematic moderation, chats titled “How to Discipline and Train Your Women” or worse appear. Despite lower barriers to entry, downloads of the app fell to 2.7 million in March, from 9.6 million in February, according to Sensor Tower, a data provider.
On the business side, Clubhouse has yet to figure out how to make money (ideas include tips and membership fees for virtual clubs). And, as you might expect, big tech companies are hitting the bandwagon. Twitter is testing a similar feature (and reportedly considered purchasing Clubhouse). Facebook is expected to launch a clone soon. On March 30, Spotify acquired Locker Room, a sports-themed group chat app. Even LinkedIn and Slack, two business-oriented services, are following suit.
It is too early to count Clubhouse. It is recognized and could remain the go-to place for virtual talk shows, as is Twitter for instant opinions. It is led by Paul Davison, an experienced social media entrepreneur. He’s got a lot of money: in December he raised $ 100 million, much of it from Andreessen Horowitz. He is said to be looking for new financing with a valuation of $ 4 billion. And it has yet to release a version of its app for Android, Google’s popular mobile operating system. Optimists point to Snapchat, a social network beloved by teenagers, which has found a lucrative niche in a market dominated by Facebook.
This suggests that even if Clubhouse looks periscopic a year from now, group chats are likely to remain a feature of social media after the pandemic recedes. Meerkat and Periscope may be dead, but live streaming is alive and well, albeit as a service within larger social media platforms. The tech hype can be squeaky, but it serves a purpose. Buzz inspires consumers to try new things, venture capitalists to put in the money, and entrepreneurs to experiment, although more often than not the pioneers end up in the digital trash. ■
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the title “Hype club”