Enter the Clubhouse: Why users are moving to new, smaller social media platforms

From subscriptions services serving as alternative revenue streams for users to audio-based platforms offering a more intimate experience, social media has become more populated thanks to a variety of new, niche platforms and applications.

Audio-based content, invite-only membership offer more control to users and creators

Recently, social media has become more populated thanks to a variety of new, niche platform and applications like Clubhouse. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

In recent years, social media was largely dominated by big names like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

But as pandemic lockdown measures have forced users to seek out intimate social interactions, it has also diverted attention onto newer, niche platforms and apps that promise to make these kinds of interactions easier.

"I think that people are looking for niche spaces to form niche communities, which I think is much more reflective of the way that we conduct our social lives normally," Toronto Star tech columnist Navneet Alang told Spark host Nora Young.

Alang compared the bigger social media platforms to a shopping mall: "It's the place where everybody goes."

Tech columnist Navneet Alang says more and more users are joining smaller social media platforms because some people are looking for niche spaces to form niche communities. (Navneet Alang)

Clubhouse is one of the latest platforms to make a splash online. Users can host real-time voice conversations that any user can listen to, but no one can record.

But it's currently invite-only, meaning you'll need to be invited by an existing Clubhouse user to even access the app.

Clubhouse launched on iOS in April 2020. Despite being less than a year old and only having about two million users, it's already received an implied valuation of $1 billion US by some investors, according to The Information.

Initially popular among Silicon Valley investors, other demographics were drawn to the app by early adopters like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who hosted a Clubhouse session earlier in February.

"There were people on Twitter who were campaigning, begging to get an invite" to Musk's session, said CBC tech columnist Takara Small. 

Beyond tech-sector celebs like Musk, Small said the presence of Black celebrities like actor Tiffany Haddish played a significant factor in Clubhouse's rise by sparking an influx of Black users. 

"That, to me, just speaks to how important Black users are for these technology platforms and how important they are for businesses, even though, in my opinion, they don't always receive the recognition they deserve."

Once people have adopted platforms or technology into their lives, we found over time it's hard for them to just simply disregard it.- Takara Small


Clubhouse's invite-only format gives users control over who they want to interact with, Alang said. He noted that users won't share links with people they don't want to engage in conversation with.

This resonates with research conducted by Aberystwyth University professor Mark Whitehead, whose work explores social interactions with various forms of digital technology.

In researching why some users are leaving Facebook, Aberystwyth University professor Mark Whitehead found that some people described their social network circle as being too big. (Aberystwyth University)
In researching why some users are leaving Facebook, he found that some people described their social network circle as being too big.

"It wasn't just so much they couldn't trust where the data was going after their network. It was their actual own network [that] was getting too big to trust, and they kind of felt they didn't really know people that well on that network," he said.

A bigger social network brought with it social obligations in the form of Likes and Pokes. For some users, that was too much to handle.

Alang says Clubhouse's invite-only policy also acts like a safeguard against the "dunk culture" prevalent on other social media platforms.

"It's sometimes a frustrating aspect to spaces like Twitter where people will always sort of jump to the least charitable interpretation, and so I think Clubhouse is a little bit of a reaction to that sort of culture on social media," he said.

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Small adds that content ownership resonates with audiences, especially young people, because people no longer have the same job security they had decades ago. 

As an example, she pointed to TikTok collectives, such as one called the Hype House, which are mansions where various TikTok stars live together and make content as an ensemble.

"They control what they show. It's not like a reality show where they're divorced from what ends up on the screen at the end of the day," she said.

Indeed, some apps have grown in popularity by becoming alternate sources of revenue for users.

On Cameo, for example, fans can request personalized messages from celebrities and sports personalities for a fee. And on OnlyFans—a network frequently used by adult performers—fans of a creator can view their content for a monthly subscription fee.

Intimacy through audio

While most platforms incorporate some form of text publishing or video sharing, Clubhouse is completely audio-only.

Alang says this is helpful because there's a natural limit to the number of people that can participate in an audio chat until they start talking over each other. 

"One of the downsides of Twitter is that you may tweet something and a million people might see it, and 100,000 of those people might have something to say about it," he said.

Alang adds that it's easy to be rude through text, but when a user is directly using their own voice, it's more difficult.

...I think [it] is much more reflective of the way that we conduct our social lives normally.- Navneet Alang

Small agreed.

"When you say goodbye to someone on Twitter, it could be seen as negative or the brush-off, but your tone in your voice on Clubhouse can convey that warmth and emotion," she said. 

That's especially important during the pandemic. Small says that Clubhouse's audio-only approach can help rekindle human connections in a way text-based platforms can't. 

"Clubhouse is a place now where people are holding TV-watching sessions — like, they're getting together to watch a movie. Some people have created speed-dating rooms," she said. 

CBC tech columnist Takara Small said Clubhouse has created a type of intimate experience for users that text-based social platforms can't copy. (Submitted by Takara Small)

Small platforms in a post-pandemic world

Though these smaller platforms have picked up steam recently, Small and Alang agree they will likely experience similar problems plaguing bigger platforms in the future, such as the aforementioned "dunk culture."

Still, Small doesn't see these platforms disappearing anytime soon. On the contrary, she sees mainstream platforms adopting similar quirks like audio-focused tools.

She adds that the core essence of these platforms—the ability to provide intimacy by connecting users around the world—will still exist post-pandemic. 

"Once people have adopted platforms or technology into their lives, we found over time it's hard for them to just simply disregard it," she said.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Produced by Nora Young and Adam Killick.

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