Is it Time to Join the Club? Clubhouse and its Potential for Campaigns that Organise Online.

Author: Ned Howey

We’ve been hearing a lot of excitement over the new Clubhouse app - excitement that was meant on our part, for the most part with a degree of scepticism. A new social media platform? Slim chance it comes to anything. But after a venture into the app, I find myself questioning if this might just be the next best thing - and hold some real potential for campaigners.

The app itself is as if Twitter, Zoom, and podcasts got together and had a love child. The resulting experience is one that is multiple times more engaging than a zoom meeting and deeply networked. In times of social distancing, the desire to connect may have found a new home. And perhaps what is most surprising and exciting is that we see this small bit of hopeful potential that this might solve one of our greatest frustrations as progressive organisers: that people engage more, dive deeper into the discussion, and have the experience of coming closer in contact with people outside of their way of thinking.    

One weekend of experimentation resulted in incredible conversations. Granted, I had to slog through the usual crowd of sales people, business coaches, Bitcoiner and VC crowd before I followed the right people and clubs to get the content most interesting to me. But once I did, the results were phenomenal. In my first political meeting, I ended up having an ongoing dialogue with a US Senator on the differences in European and US politics. Later in a Sustainability group I heard a climate skeptic invited to view their opinions differently, and an in-depth and nuanced discussion on anti-racism, race and relationships. It’s almost impossible to not be inspired by the potential to serve core organising goals: connecting people, building relationships and culture, and inspiring people to be more deeply engaged. 

Now came the real experiment: to try setting up a room of my own. Since it seemed like half the conversations I heard were people talking about how exciting their experiences on Clubhouse were, and since it was the topic most on my mind, I started a room asking the question if Clubhouse does have potential application for politics and campaigning. With no real promotion of the event outside of a tweet, I found myself in a three-hour long conversation with some fifty-plus of the most incredible people I’ve talked to in ages. 

Among others, we heard from: 

- Campaigners and politicians in New York about their use to connect candidates with everyday people. 

- Chinese journalists reporting on the explosion in popularity in the app and its ability to connect people inside and outside China in a way people have never experienced before (and the government trying to figure out how to react).

- And organisers involved with the Indian Farmers’ strike using the tool for connecting, recruiting and organising. 

It could be the app is a flash in the pan, but we have to admit that despite our initial scepticism there seems some promise that it could be groundbreaking. 


Here is some of the good, the bad, and the brilliant of what I learned. 

The Bad:

- It’s still VERY in beta. The worst part being it's currently only available for iPhone. Obviously, this is extremely limiting in reach. 

- There can be an overwhelming sense of ‘hustle’ ie. people trying to connect to sell their services (from business coaches to online marketing professionals). 

- Along with bringing people of diversity together, the ability for it to be a safe space is very dependent on group’s moderators and there are some horror stories out there of people experiencing racism, homophobia, and transphobia. 

- There were specific concerns about politics raised - from candidates forgetting that anyone from the public could be present to groups accidentally exposing strategy to their opponents. 

- The app owns all the data and not many ways currently to successfully convert to other forms of organising with people. 

- While users are not allowed to record (according to the term of services), apparently the app records all discussions - supposedly to protect against abuses. But where is all that data going? (Also can influence people’s comfortability, openness, and honesty). 

- As the entire experience is fully synchronous, connecting with people happens most naturally when time zones are aligned. 

- As there is no current monetisation model, we have to wonder what changes might come for the worse once a model is introduced.  

- There is something almost “addictive” about the app. Maybe too much of a good thing?


The Good: 

- It’s highly diverse - and particularly with a good percentage of Bipoc active users and Bipoc-specific groups. (Although also fairly US-heavy). 

- Its follow structure allows connection and growth of networks (much like Twitter). 

- You have a real opportunity to connect in an authentic way. The result is an online connection perhaps closer to in-person meetings than almost any other online experience. 

- There is something deeply intersectional about a lot of the activity on the app now. 

- The app’s structure is set up well for dealing with trolls (the moderator can move any speaker ‘on stage’ to the ‘audience’ at any time - where they can listen but cannot participate). 


The Hopes: 

- This can become a central way for movement-builders to build deeper and human-based connections with supporters online. 

- We are able to emulate the experiences of deep canvassing in moving people by connecting them with people outside their traditional networks. 

- We develop cultures on the app so as to protect the most marginalised of voices - pay close attention to our influence and structures so that an awareness of privilege is brought into the process of facilitation of dialogue. 

- We hope there are further features allowing for other ways of participation beyond just speaking and listening (a chat?, a shared written space?, a clap reaction to show support?) 

- We’re hoping a monetisation model comes up building off of user preferences rather than surveillance and manipulation of user behaviour. 


Again, Clubhouse might just be another flash in the pan - unable to find a significant place in our online social connection world. But it could also be an important place for deeper connections and conversations online...and even more so organising. Would love to hear what you think. Come join me at Clubhouse and let's discuss. Find me there: @NedHowey.