The Unbearable FOMO of Clubhouse

I’m still trying to figure out the lure of Clubhouse, the newest social media app to take the zeitgeist by storm, and so far, what I’ve come up with, is FOMO.

Now, please don’t get me wrong: I’m seeing people I admire and trust extolling the virtues of Clubhouse: that they’re able to listen to people they’d otherwise have to pay to access, that they’re making great connections, that there’s a certain diversity and diverse conversations that are missing from other channels, that the conversations are 🔥.

If you’re in that crowd, good for you! Keep getting value out of it. This post is NOT to insinuate that there is no value to be had in joining or participating.

But I’m having some… we’ll call them “ethical” issues with Clubhouse as it is right now.

Accessibility of Clubhouse… or lack thereof

First and foremost is the accessibility issue. Right now, you have to have an iPhone or other Apple device to join — and Apple products are notoriously expensive, not available to everyone. I assume they will eventually add access for other operating systems (rumor has it they will be adding Android in 2021), but right now, that’s a pretty big paywall for a free app.

In addition, the app is 100% audio — with NO accessibility options. Our designer (and sometimes diversity and inclusion consultant), Bex McKnight, pointed this out. Again, if we’re being generous, we can assume that maybe the app developers have a plan to address this, since the app is still in a kind of beta access, but right now, it’s a huge problem for accessibility and inclusivity.

(I’ve also heard rumors that the founders have deliberately prioritized the “spontaneity” of the audio platform over accessibility, and have downplayed recommendations from diversity and inclusion consultants, which would be more problematic still…)

Clubhouse’s existence depends on FOMO

These are important, but the other BIG issue I see with Clubhouse is a little less tangible, a little more obtuse: Its entire existence depends on FOMO. (That’s Fear of Missing Out for anyone wondering.)

First, if you don’t have an invite (or an iPhone), you can’t play. That definitely creates FOMO — and I see people begging for invites a lot right now. Presumably this has a limited life span, but right now, it’s KEY to the app’s popularity.

(Side note: I remember when Facebook started, you had to have a college email address to join. I was actually IN college at the time, but my school was so small, it wasn’t recognized by the book of face and I couldn’t get in… Massive FOMO.)

But beyond the invite-only approach (which I’ve seen MANY people extoll, saying, “Don’t invite just anybody!”), the way the app itself WORKS is based on FOMO because the conversations are all live, realtime and not recorded.

For a while, I couldn’t figure out why everybody was so excited about the app at all, because every time I opened it up, there were just three or four rooms featured with people I didn’t know. Then I turned on my notifications. OH. Now it’s alerting me when people I know are in rooms. People I know can ping me at any time and invite me to participate in a room they’re running.

The problem with that, though, is that it means that I either have to be willing to interrupt whatever I’m doing in my life to choose to listen to a room — or risk missing out. And humans are NOT GOOD at that sort of discernment, on the whole.

Generally speaking, the only alerts I have active on my phone are text messages and actual phone calls. (Please don’t call me; I’m a Millennial and will almost certainly send your call to voice mail if I don’t recognize the number!). Oh, and my mindfulness bell. Not email alerts, not Facebook alerts… Nothing.

This is a conscious CHOICE on my part not to be a slave to the dings of my phone — but it also means that I can’t fully participate in Clubhouse if I’m not willing to jump whenever somebody starts talking that I might be interested in hearing. (I’m already seeing people planning rooms ahead of time, and alerting their followers on other social media sites to join, so I guess I could put those chats I really want to attend in my calendar….)

FOMO as a marketing strategy

This is honestly the holy grail for social media apps; the reason Facebook (and Instagram, and Twitter, and LinkedIn) penalize posts that lead AWAY from the social media site in their algorithm is that it is in their best interest to keep people on their platform and coming back for more.

In addition, we have the natural LIVE element of the audio which creates FOMO. If you don’t turn in LIVE to listen, you miss out. This is what created “must see TV” before TiVo and streaming services like Netflix — and why ad prices on Thursday nights on NBC when “Friends” and “ER” were running would be that much higher. Clubhouse is just doing it with audio. (It’s also the same sort of premise as SnapChat.)

It reminds me of the “free summit” marketing model: You get invited to a free summit with DOZENS of experts and your favorite people speaking and giving away great content. The problem is, unless you’re willing to be shackled to your device for 5 days, 12 hours a day (or whatever), you can’t possibly attend and listen to all the speakers and events. But never fear! The organizer will graciously sell you access to all the recordings for just the low, low price of… (Some in-person conferences do the same thing.)

That model is built on FOMO and overwhelm. A successful free summit like this HAS to overwhelm you with content in order to drive demand for the recordings — that’s how it works.

And that’s how Clubhouse works. I’ve already seen two friends talk about how they are addicted to it — and one called it “Crackhouse”! LOL.

In fact, that’s how most social media — and a lot of our marketing tactics — work at this point. We’re caught in a cycle of addiction, and it’s pervasive because it sells.

But that doesn’t make it ethical or desirable.

I was reminded of The Ethical Move ethical marketing pledge (via Alice Karolina) as I was writing this, and while it doesn’t specifically call out FOMO marketing as a whole, it mentions not creating “feelings of anxiety and a false sense of urgency ‘You have to do it now…or you will lose out forever.’”

It also talks a lot about not creating “false scarcity” — and while some of the scarcity inherent in Clubhouse is real, a lot of it is manufactured. (ie: If you want to PARTICIPATE in a room and talk, you kind of have to show up live, but there’s no reason these conversations couldn’t be recorded or transcribed; that’s false scarcity manufactured by the “rules” of the app.)

Now, I can predict that there will be people who want to tell me that the live element, the scarcity element, the exclusivity is WHY they like Clubhouse. I saw a statement to that effect, where the person said that because the conversations are live and unscripted, people say things they might not otherwise say. (I’m gonna give that a little side eye 👀 but leave it be for now.)

It’s entirely possible that I’m being an old fogey, or that I’m biased because I’m an introvert and prefer writing over speaking anyway. I’ll own that! And I certainly don’t want to be “that guy” who pronounces that TV is a fad and the internet will never catch on. 😉

But as someone interested in more ethical marketing, I do feel a need to examine it and start the conversation.

If you’re going on there to chit chat with your bessie mates, or gossip about celebrities, or participate in mindfulness meditations — awesome. Do those things.

But if someone is looking at Clubhouse as a business owner, interested in it for marketing reasons, I would just encourage us to be sure we’re looking at it from ALL angles and go in with open eyes and clear intentions from the start.

I am NOT ready to “cancel” Clubhouse or say that it’s pure evil. And I’m going to keep my notifications turned on for a little while to see if I start to get the hang of it more and understand the draw. Maybe I’ll even host a room! (I haven’t yet.)

But I also feel it’s important to speak up when I notice platforms or tactics that could be abused, to help others who want to be ethical and lead with their marketing be fully aware of what they’re doing.