Image credit: CNET

Clubhouse could change the global conversation

I joined the new Clubhouse app last week; what is happening there is quite unusual.

Clubhouse is a “social audio” app that is a cross between a live audio podcast, Facebook, and Twitter. This social audio platform has the potential to change the nature of spontaneous open conversations at scale.

On my first day on the app, a virtual “room” appeared that was being hosted by a former colleague, Jonathan Gheller. The room had a completely meaningless title: “free opinions from the current to the esoteric.” How useless does that sound? Who wants someone else’s free opinions on nothing in particular?

I joined the room because I knew Jonathan. It was just him and a buddy plus 2 others and I appeared as one of two audience members. He saw me and “invited me on stage” to join the conversation (when you’re in the “audience” you can’t speak).

At the time, Jonathan was opining on how people decide what to do next in their life. This topic had been prompted by the recent news that Jeff Bezos was stepping down as the CEO of Amazon. Why do people leave a gig that seems great? How do people decide what to do next with their time? It is a rich topic.

When this topic ran out of steam, it was time for the next question. But where do you go next with a prompt as vague as “free opinions”? Jonathan joked: “we could talk about anything, even aliens.” Pretty soon, we started talking about extraterrestrial intelligence. That took us to topics of intelligence, consciousness, and philosophy of mind, which are areas I’ve explored from the perspective of neuroscience. A fan of philosophy showed up and joined our conversation.

When Jonathan had to leave for dinner, he made me a moderator and the conversation moved to philosophy and consciousness while the room filled to 30 folks, including some folks from Europe who had woken up early to join. Then I had to leave, so I passed the moderator torch to philosopher. That was at 8pm.

The next morning, over 12 hours later, I checked in and the room was still going! By now the room had grown to 100 people and the discussion had segued to parenting strategies. Apparently the topic, “free opinions”, was enough of a blank canvas that the actual conversation topic kept changing subjects, moderators, and participants as daytime moved around the planet and people from different time zones signed on and signed off.

It is now 1 week later and that room is probably still going somewhere with an ever-changing cast of new moderators answer questions from new audience members. People joining members rotate through a cycle of “just joining” to “on stage” asking questions, to taking over as “moderators” to signing off.

This is just one example, and that was just my first day.

On day 2, I joined a room on machine learning with PhD researchers and shared some information on AI and neuroscience. Pretty soon I was made a moderator of that room while it grew to 200 people. The room ended up going for 5 hours.

On day 6, I decided to host my own room with the topic “AI, neuroscience, and consciousness — intersecting themes.” That topic launched with 10 audience members and within 2 hours had hit a peak of 400 in the audience and 20 “on stage”. This topic had surprisingly struck a chord with discovered common interest, we all decided to do it again.

You would think that these topics would be quite esoteric.

What I learned is that many people have the same esoteric interests, and this new medium has created a way for those people to find each other for live conversations. There is something about the live conversation format with identified moderators that channels the potential craziness into something coherent. Other “rooms” are doling out practical advice on how to grow a business, helping people navigate relationship issues, or debating stock market trends like GameSpot. The audio factor — hearing people’s live voices — gives you a sense of physical presence, conveying who they are in a way that you don’t get from online writing. Interestingly, this leads to supportive exchanges without the divisive and derisive comments that are so easy with online text dialogs.

Clubhouse has opened a new type of creative and constructive online world. Let’s hope it keeps working, since the world needs this.