Clubhouse and Reputation Building

For a couple of weeks after I joined Clubhouse (about a couple of months back, I think), I was enthusiastic about the platform. Every evening, when I was bored, I would log on to see if there was some interesting conversation happening. I participated in a few. I even blocked one (particularly obnoxious) guy.

Now I’m beyond it. I still check the app out of habit to see if something interesting is happening, but most of the time nothing interesting is. I don’t know if people are using Clubhouse the way they used to.

In any case, I was just thinking of Clubhouse in the context of reputation building. The thing with Clubhouse is that it is truly a “social network” – to create anything you need a “society” to create it with.

Blog is individual – everything that comes here is pretty much my own effort. Twitter as well. Even Instagram. And TikTok. All these mediums allow solo creators to create stuff, get following based on that and then build a reputation.

A few months back I had written about “credentialed and credential free network“, in terms of whether “external credentials” are useful in making someone successful on a particular social network.

Blogging, as it grew through the noughties, was largely credential-free, and most people built reputations through the sheer quality of their content. TikTok is similar as well. As for Instagram and Twitter, while people have managed to build a following and reputation through their content alone, having credentials outside of the social network has provided a big step up. So the people with the most following on these platforms aren’t necessarily the best at the art of these platforms.

As I think about it, Clubhouse represents one extreme of credentialing – it is virtually impossible to build your own reputation on the platform.

It has to do with the way content is created. Clubhouse content is 1. ephemeral (conversations are not recorded); 2. socially created (you need to get into a room with people who invite you to speak to create content).

The combination of the two means that it is virtually impossible for a newbie to make an impression on the platform. Yes, you can create your own rooms and deliver fantastic monologues ┬áthere (that’s a great use case for clubhouse). However, unless you are already connected with the “right people” (in which case you’re “importing credentials”), there is no way for people to discover your awesome content.

The other way to get noticed on Clubhouse is if you are seen talking in rooms where other popular people are speaking. However, the format of Clubhouse means that you need to be invited to speak. If you don’t already have credentials, the likelihood that you’ll be “admitted on stage” when you raise your hand is low, and you get a small number of short intervals to make an impact.

Thus, if you are a “nobody”, unless you are incredibly lucky (and say some spectacular things in the few opportunities when you’re allowed to speak in popular rooms), there is NO WAY you can become a somebody. And that is a problem. And that means that Clubhouse will forever remain a “circlejerk” for people who have built their reputations elsewhere.

I’m not surprised that it has stopped holding my attention.

Credentialed and credential-less networks

Recently I tried out Instagram Reels, just to see what the big deal about it is. The first impression wasn’t great. My feed was filled with famous people (KL Rahul was there, along with some bollywood actresses), doing supposedly funny things. Compared to the little I had seen of TikTok (I had the app installed for a day last year), this was barely funny.

In fact, from my first impression it seems like Instagram Reels is a sort of bastard child of TikTok and Quibi (I took a 90 day trial of Quibi and uninstalled after a month, having used it 2-3 times and got bored each time). There is already a “prior reputation network”, based on people’s followers on the main Instagram product. And Reels takes off on this.

This means that for a new person coming into this supposedly new social network, the barriers to entry to getting more followers is rather high. They need to compete with people who already have built their reputations elsewhere (either on the Instagram main product, or in the case of someone like KL Rahul, completely offline).

I was reading this blogpost yesterday that compared and contrasted social networking in the 2000s (blogs) with that of the 2010s (twitter). It’s a nice blogpost, though I should mention that it sort of confirms my biases since I sort of built my reputation using my blog in the late 2000s.

That post makes the same point – blogs created their own reputation networks, while twitter leverages people’s reputations from elsewhere.

The existence of the blue checks points to the way in which the barriers that a new blogger faced entering a community was far lower than is currently the case on twitter. The start-up costs of blogging were higher, but once somebody integrated themselves into a community and began writing, they were judged on the quality of that writing alone. Very little attention was paid to who that person was outside of the blogosphere. While some prominent and well known individuals blogged, there was nothing like the “blue checks” we see on twitter today. It is not hard to understand why this is. Twitter is an undifferentiated mass of writhing souls trying to inflict their angry opinions on the earth. Figuring out who to listen to in this twist of two-sentences is difficult. We use a tweeter’s offline affiliations to separate the wheat and the chaff.

For the longest time, I refrained from putting my real name on this blog (though it was easy enough to triangulate my identity based on all the things I’d written here). This was to create a sort of plausible deniability in case some employer somewhere got pissed off with what I was writing.

Most of the blogosphere was similarly pseudonymous (or even anonymous). A lot of people I got to know through their blogging, I learnt about them from their writing before I could know anything else about them (that came from their “offline lives”). Reputation outside the blogosphere didn’t matter – your standing as a blogger depended on the quality of blogposts, and comments on other people’s blogposts only.

It is similar with TikTok – it’s “extreme machine learning” means that people’s reputations outside the network don’t matter in terms of people’s following on the network, and how likely they are to appear in people’s feeds. Instead, all that matters is the quality of the content on the platform, based (in TikTok’s case) on user engagement on the platform.

So as we look for an alternative to replace TikTok, given that the Chinese Communist Party seems to be able to get supposedly confidential data from it, we need to remember that we need a “fresh network”, or a “credential free” network.

Instagram has done something it’s good at, which is copying. However, given that it relies on existing credentials, Reels will never have the same experience as TikTok. Neither will any other similar product created from an existing social network. What we need is something that can create its own reputation network, bottom up.

Then again, blogging was based on an open platform so it was easy for people to build their networks. With something like TikTok relying heavily on network effects and algorithmic curation, I don’t know if such a thing can happen there.