How Clubhouse evolved from gaming

Clubhouse has taken Silicon Valley by storm over the past year and is gaining steam in other countries and communities. To many, it feels unlike anything else on the internet: an intimate place to meet, listen, and talk to friends and strangers via voice. I too have become obsessed, especially over the past few weeks.

However, Clubhouse isn't fundamentally new. It has cleverly borrowed proven concepts from gaming (livestreaming on Twitch and audio rooms on Discord) and through intentional product design repackaged it for broader audiences.

Here, we'll start by taking a look at how livestreaming and audio rooms work in gaming. Then, we'll dive into how Clubhouse adapted them for non-gamers. Finally, we'll conclude with how Clubhouse might evolve in the future -- again, by looking at what's happening today in gaming.

Gaming, livestreaming, and audio rooms

Behaviors in gaming are at the forefront of new behaviors online. Many online behaviors we take for granted like instant messaging and watching videos started in online gaming twenty or thirty years ago.

Livestreaming and audio rooms have been popular in gaming for a while. Let’s take a closer look.

Livestreaming

Livestreaming broke out nearly 10 years ago on Twitch. Twitch allows anyone to broadcast a video and audio feed to a massive audience. Twitch is extremely popular - hundreds of millions of people watch livestreamers every month.

Almost all Twitch usage is people watching other people play video games live. Nothing prevents people from streaming other things: news shows, campaign rallies, podcasts, concerts, whatever. However, beyond a few niche communities, Twitch just hasn't taken off outside gaming.

Watching live video (or any form of video) requires significant attention from viewers. Videos need to be funny, surprising, or beautiful -- while being visually interesting.

Playing a video game makes it easier to create compelling live video. Modern video games are visually rich. They’re often powered by the same software used to make Hollywood movies. The combination of immersive video game visuals and a livestreamer’s quirky commentary can be fun to watch. However, without the aid of a visually rich video game, it’s hard to create engaging live video.

Audio rooms

Audio rooms (a.k.a conference calls with friends) are also common in gaming. When people play games, they often simultaneously talk to their friends in an audio room. Gamers have been doing this across a few services for a while (Skype, Teamspeak). More recently, it has been happening on Discord.

These audio rooms are often unplanned. Gamers might play when they have a few spare minutes (or hours), and their friends might be doing the same. If so, great! They can all join an audio room and talk while playing. And, there’s no need to figure out what to talk about -- gamers use the chat to coordinate strategy or trash talk friends. Playing the game provides many contexts for conversation.

Discord’s audio rooms are primarily used by gamers chatting with other gamers. Nothing prevents others from using audio rooms. However, without the serendipitous and casual context provided by a video game (which can happen at any time), it’s hard to come up with a reason to join an audio room.

Clubhouse

Clubhouse has brought these behaviors -- livestreaming and audio rooms -- to a non-gaming audience.

Clubhouse’s brilliance and appeal comes from its simplicity. It’s just talking and listening. All you do on Clubhouse is talk or listen. Other social media platforms require you to write or post photos or make videos. Those are all much harder than talking.

Nearly everyone in the world knows how to talk and listen, and they do it all the time. Billions of people will be coming online to the internet over the next 5 years in countries like India, Indonesia, and Nigeria. Many of them will be illiterate. Clubhouse provides them an opportunity to participate too.

As a result, more people will contribute as “creators” on Clubhouse than on any other media platform.

More creators results in new, emergent behaviors

Media platforms feel qualitatively different at different levels of creators on the platform. Intuitively, we know this. Twitter circa 2008 with a handful of users is fundamentally different from Twitter with hundreds of millions of people, even though the core product hasn’t changed.

Twitch, the largest livestreaming platform to date, has 3 million creators as of Feb 2021 (out of ~200 million monthly viewers). On Clubhouse, there’ll be a much larger number of creators (remember, all you have to do is talk, and anyone can do that for at least a few minutes!). More creators on a livestreaming platform will yield new emergent behaviors.

One example is crossovers. Many of the most popular Clubhouse rooms so far have involved bringing people together who otherwise wouldn’t have gotten together. For example, a panel of mayors from San Francisco, Austin, and Miami pitching their respective cities. Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg stopping by for a few minutes to share unfiltered thoughts. Impromptu discussions with people from around the world, including in China for a brief few months.

These types of events don't happen anywhere else online, although it has technically been possible on Twitch (and YouTube Live and Instagram Live) for some time now. The friction to communicate is much lower on Clubhouse (just talk for 5 minutes!), which brings in new types of creators: busy people, foreigners, and even illiterate people.

Serendipity with friends

Clubhouse isn't only about listening to others in large rooms. It's also about talking to your friends in smaller rooms. In other words, audio rooms for non-gamers.

Many people might initially join Clubhouse to listen to speakers in large rooms. But, once enough people do that, there’s a good chance they have one or two friends online at the same time. At that point, it only takes one click to create an audio room with friends.

Clubhouse takes away all of the coordination complexity that comes with figuring out which of your friends are free to hang out. After all, anyone online on Clubhouse probably has some time to kill! This experience mimics the feeling of bumping into friends in the common room of a college dorm after a late night, enabling all sorts of serendipitous interactions.

What's next for Clubhouse?

One way to look at how Clubhouse as a product might evolve is to consider what's happening in gaming today that's not yet on Clubhouse.

Large rooms become more interactive

Today on Clubhouse, the large rooms aren’t very interactive. Most people are listening to a small number of speakers.

On Twitch, it’s different. Viewers aren’t just watching livestreamers. They’re constantly interacting. Often it’s with other viewers via a live chat room where viewers can share how they feel about the stream. Other times they interact directly with livestreamers. Livestreamers can kick off polls, collect donations, or play games with their fans.

Clubhouse could enable similar forms of interactivity. Imagine chatting with friends who are listening in the same room as you. You could have your own private sidebar (like whispering to your neighbor in an auditorium) sharing spicy takes, inside jokes, and debating whatever you’re listening to. Speakers in a room can also further interact with listeners. Today, they can bring listeners to the stage to ask questions (already a powerful feature!). In the future, they might conduct polls, collect tips, share articles and Tweets with the audience, and more.

Smaller audio rooms let you make new friends

Today on Clubhouse, many small audio room discussions happen amongst people who already know each other.

On Discord, it’s different. Gamers are often in rooms with people they’ve never met before. They join rooms based on a shared interest in a game. That shared interest provides enough of a spark for forming new online friendships.

Clubhouse could go in a similar direction. For example, let’s say you’re interested in movies and tuned in to a large room discussion with the director of a new film. Imagine then being matched with three other people who attended the room -- one in Los Angeles, one in New Delhi, and another in Lagos. You could be placed with them in an audio room afterwards and have a meaningful conversation based on what you learned from the director.

To me, this is the most exciting promise of Clubhouse: a platform for anyone with an internet connection to have live conversations based on shared interests, regardless of nationality, income, or literacy.

What do you think? Let me on know on Twitter. Or, find me on Clubhouse!