Many photographers have had the same reaction that I did upon hearing about yet another new social media app hitting the radar: a yawn and a roll of the eyes. We have seen countless apps and image-sharing sites emerge with fanfare and then fail to gain traction in the crowded sphere of social media, and we feel pressed to carve out time for the platforms that we already use.
So why should any photographer devote more precious time to an app that doesn’t even include any images? The short answer is because Clubhouse is poised to be a true disrupter, an app that could usher in a whole new era of social media. If that answer is provocative enough to make you want to try it, then stop reading this article right now and waste no time in finding a friend who can give you an invite. Otherwise, read on to find out why Clubhouse is turning the social media world on its ear—quite literally.
What is Clubhouse?
You know an app is breaking new ground when it can make one of the oldest forms of communication seem new again. Talking to people seems almost archaic these days, as we have transitioned from in-person conversations to phone conversations to Zoom conversations, and yet now there is an app that makes talking suddenly seem revolutionary.
Despite its apparent simplicity, Clubhouse is difficult to describe because it overlaps with so many other audio experiences without specifically imitating any of them. At its most intimate, it can be like sitting around a campfire with a group of friends when a few people you really admire and have never met just happen to walk by and ask to join in the conversation.
It can be like a podcast where a couple of people do all of the talking while thousands listen. It can be like a panel discussion where audience members can volunteer to come up on stage and become panel members too. It can be like the office break room where colleagues randomly gather around the water cooler as they overhear something interesting. It can be like placing an ear to the wall while a group of top pros has a spontaneous brainstorming session. It can be all of that and more.
Just as interesting is a summary of what Clubhouse is not. It is not a place to “post and run”. It is not a place where copying others will gain “likes”. There are no “likes”, no keyboard warriors, and no ads (which the founders do not favor in their plans to monetize the app in the future).
The app does not have images anywhere at all, nor the ability to link to them. Instead, it defers to Instagram and Twitter as routes to visual content by connecting user profiles to those other platforms. Ditto for direct messaging via text; it is not a feature of the app, so most photographers use Instagram for follow-up texts. Even more unusual, nothing on Clubhouse is recorded, so all conversations are ephemeral: either you tune in, or you miss out.
Possible Photographer Incentives
The uses of drop-in audio for photographers are unlimited, but here are some possible scenarios to give you a sense of the potential that the app has to offer.
1) Listening to Pros Share Insights
The number of knowledgeable and helpful photographers on Clubhouse is truly impressive. From business to creativity to gear to travel concerns, the topics that I’ve heard covered so far run the gamut of what most photographers care about.
2) Random Opportunities
What continues to astonish me is not so much the depth of talent and knowledge to be found on Clubhouse (which is substantial, but not surprising), but the wonderful randomness of the interactions. Conversations spontaneously evolve and bring together people who normally would never have opportunities to connect.
For example, I recently dropped into a room with a topic regarding the Canon EOS R5, which turned out to be a lively discussion between numerous professional photographers, some of them very well known. Other pros and enthusiasts asked questions, and about fifty people in the audience listened passively. At one point the conversation evolved into wishes for features on future cameras before returning to questions and more advice.
What most people in the room almost certainly did not know is that two Canon executives were among the silent audience members. Those feature requests went right to people who have direct input at Canon, and some of those pros speaking in the room may now be on Canon’s radar for future projects.
3) Quick Advice
Imagine that you’re in a hurry to make a travel decision and would really appreciate some knowledgeable advice about your particular dilemma. So you jump on Clubhouse and start a chat room with a topic asking for input. A few people come in and offer up some ideas, but one of them has a friend who lives in the area that you intend to visit. The friend happens to be online, so he pings her (a feature of the app), and she pops in to talk for a bit. Within a short amount of time, you are able to make an especially informed decision through easy conversation.
4) Unpredictable Connections
Photographers sometimes cross paths “in real life”, but most of us are aware of each other only through published/posted work, reputation, interviews, and impersonal text interactions. In less than a week on Clubhouse, I have had friendly voice conversations with at least a dozen notable photographers who I knew previously only as names with profile photos.
Just as interesting, I have connected with several people outside the photography industry who any professional would love to have in their Rolodex. Within my first half-hour on Clubhouse, I came into one of these connections quite serendipitously and immediately appreciated the potential of this new paradigm for creating and strengthening professional relationships. Moreover, it all happened in the course of having fun, through encounters that felt far more relaxed and casual than most other social situations ever do.
5) Reaching New Audiences
Clubhouse combines a broad range of interest groups with a high level of serendipity for discovery. Every day that I have been on the app, I’ve heard numerous photographers with relatively small followings get shout-outs from people they have never met. Typically it’s because a photographer raised their hand in a room to ask a question and the speakers checked out that person’s Instagram link (a habit that seems to be almost a part of the app’s culture). The pattern is similar each time: the speakers are impressed with the photographer’s Instagram feed and exhort the audience to go have a look.
Through the Looking Glass
Clearly, Clubhouse in its current form is not poised to supplant image-sharing platforms such as Facebook or Instagram in any absolute sense. Nonetheless, if the app’s creators manage to defend its lead, Clubhouse is likely to reconfigure how we use image sharing platforms and how they function, rather than replacing any of them. If the app loses its lead to copycats, then the same result seems inevitable: one way or another, social media is about to turn a corner where interactive audio is integral to the social media experience.
Whether you decide to join Clubhouse or not, the drop-in audio chat model inevitably will become part of how you consume and share visual media in the future.
About the author: Erin Babnik is a full-time landscape photographer, photography educator, writer, and speaker. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Babnik divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Europe, teaching workshops and giving talks on both continents. You can learn more about Babnik and her ideas about photography through a variety of interviews with her. You can find more of Babnik’s work on her website. This article was also published at Photo Cascadia, where she’s a team member.