clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The race to become a Clubhouse influencer

Did you miss Twitter’s early days? TikTok’s too? Clubhouse is your new chance.

Marc Andreessen.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

You are reading this, so you weren’t around to help America settle the West. You probably weren’t around to help man land on the moon. And you’ll probably have to wait quite a long time to help colonize Mars.

So here’s a consolation prize: You might still have a chance to claim virtual territory on Clubhouse, the very buzzy social network dedicated to live audio, before everyone else gets there. Hurry up, though: There are a lot of people trying to do the exact same thing.

Clubhouse is a frothy mix of AM talk radio and a really good tech conference, and it lets you set up or attend online chats featuring famous people or your friends, or anyone in between. A few weeks ago, for example, Katie Couric, Paris Hilton, and reality-star-turned-entrepreneur Bethenny Frenkel got together in a virtual “room” that had more than 1,000 people listening to their conversation; at some point later in the evening, the same venue turned into a discussion about the merits of bitcoin featuring CNBC’s Andrew Ross Sorkin, Cheddar CEO Jon Steinberg, and John Legere, the former CEO of T-Mobile.

Clubhouse launched less than a year ago, and immediately drew attention from Silicon Valley and other tech types. It has grown rapidly since, expanding its user base to include everyone from French speakers to Black activists.

But there’s a particular kind of Clubhouse user that you’ll find on Clubhouse quite often: The Speculative Clubhouse User. That’s someone who wants to be on Clubhouse because maybe Clubhouse is going to be a Big Deal, and they want to get in before that happens.

“You’re looking at clay being molded right now. What you see happening on Clubhouse right now is going to turn into something else,” says Laurel Touby, who succeeded in the first internet boom by building and eventually selling MediaBistro, a job board and events company.

Touby is now an investor at Supernode Ventures, and says she tried out Clubhouse last year when other investors were first fascinated with the service. She wasn’t blown away, but eventually saw enough hints that it might be a social network with staying power. She says she decided to “drop [her] drawers and go for it” by investing time hosting Clubhouse rooms.

“I admit it. I wasn’t early enough on Twitter. I wasn’t early enough to get on TikTok or other platforms. But this is a chance to get in early here.”

Caveat: Like other social networks, Clubhouse isn’t a single thing. And the bigger it gets — the company recently announced it now has 10 million weekly users — the more things it can or will become.

But it’s striking right now to hear and see how many Clubhouse users spend their time on Clubhouse talking about Clubhouse: What’s Clubhouse going to be? How do people become power users on Clubhouse? What existing company or industry will Clubhouse blow up?

It’s the kind of discussion you weren’t likely to see on early social networks. That’s because people who joined networks like YouTube or Twitter or Facebook early on weren’t likely thinking about how they could turn their presence on the platform into clout or cash or a career. That’s not true now, and now all of the big networks are clogged with would-be influencers. The platforms still don’t have formal gatekeepers — but by letting anyone and everyone in, the gates are getting clogged up anyway.

Which is quite obviously part of Clubhouse’s appeal — maybe it’s YouTube in 2006, and you can get famous just for showing up. Or, alternately, you can show up with a very clear idea about what you think you can do on a new platform. We’re in a very wised-up era of social media.

“If I was starting a podcast today — I wouldn’t start a podcast, I would just come right here,” Guy Raz, the very successful host of the How I Built This podcast, told a Clubhouse room about … the future of Clubhouse.

Clubhouse itself actively courts the Clubhouse-obsessed user by providing Clubhouse users ample opportunities to talk to CEO Paul Davison, who holds a live weekly onboarding presentation for new users, where he walks them through the basics of Clubhouse features and etiquette (it’s not okay to be racist or anti-Semitic; it is okay to leave a Clubhouse room quietly without announcing your departure).

Davison also hosts another live weekly meeting for all Clubhouse users, where he updates them on product roadmaps and lets them sound off about their gripes (which include some very real concerns about privacy). Davison, a 44-year-old who had made multiple attempts to create a social startup before hitting the jackpot last year, is a chatty and gregarious brand ambassador — almost a polar opposite of the taciturn, gnomic Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey model.

Even more important: Davison has been explicit about the idea that Clubhouse could become a useful, or even profitable, place for users to set up shop.

Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube started out without any concerted effort to help users develop their presence — and they definitely weren’t sketching out a way for early users to make money on their platforms. But when Davison announced a $100 million funding round for Clubhouse in January, he made a point of spelling out ways users might make money down the road — maybe they will sell tickets or subscriptions to rooms they host, for instance — and announcing that some of the money the company just raised would go to a “Creator Grant Program,” to be dispersed to some power users who host popular rooms. That program hasn’t started yet, but it will be interesting to see the kinds of people Clubhouse officially endorses with its cash.

One thing you won’t find much of on Clubhouse: the young users who flocked early on to Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. That’s likely a result of the company’s growth strategy — which, for now, is to require new users to have an invitation from existing users, which means you’re more likely to see people who look and sound like the early tech and culture influencers Clubhouse first brought on, and less like their kids. That could change down the road, or maybe Clubhouse will remain a social network for olds who like talking and listening instead of texting and swiping. In any case, the relative lack of youth on Clubhouse hasn’t gone unnoticed by its current base.

“[Clubhouse users] feel like they missed the boat on breaking through on Instagram,” says comedian and activist Baratunde Thurston, who said he signed on to the network last May — “to claim my name” — and then bailed out after finding the platform populated primarily with venture capitalists. Late last year, though, he came back, and found a new group of users who were “savvy, skeptical, cautious, as well as hungry, all at once. You’ve got a group of relatively savvy social users who have good questions,” he said.

There’s also a very special subset of Clubhouse-obsessed users: The venture capitalists at Andreessen Horowitz, one of the most powerful and high-profile Silicon Valley investment shops. They like the app so much they sank millions of dollars into it by leading that $100 million funding round, and are using it as their own personal … clubhouse.

A16Z, as the company is known in Silicon Valley, is prominently and unapologetically all over Clubhouse. Founders Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz host a recurring interview show dedicated to “unfettered conversations” between themselves and other tech leaders. (There is some fettering: Andreessen blocks lots of users — often reporters he has also blocked on Twitter — from listening into any conversation he hosts on the app.) Horowitz’s wife Felicia hosts a weekly “dinner party” that includes guests like Oprah Winfrey. And new A16Z partner Sriram Krishnan co-hosts another recurring talk show that featured Elon Musk interviewing Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev as the GameStop saga unfolded. It’s also supposed to host a conversation between Musk and Kanye West, someday.

A16Z is active behind the scenes, as well: People familiar with Clubhouse say the venture firm has played a prominent role in inviting celebrities to try out the app, and that Chris Lyons, who runs an A16Z fund aimed specifically boosting Black participation in the tech industry, has made a point of using his social network to get prominent Black celebrities like Kevin Hart to try out the app.

Clubhouse’s newest investment round already values the company at $1 billion. So Clubhouse would have to get really, really big — like, Twitter or Pinterest big — for A16Z to have a home run return on its money. But owning a big chunk of a popular platform, where you can summon an audience whenever you have thoughts you want to share? That’s worth something, too.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.