Clubhouse vs Twitter, the Enlightenment or Return to Tribalism

A startup pushes back against cancel culture

One of the weirdest tech success stories today is the conversation app Clubhouse.

On the surface, it appears to be a glorified conference call with several people talking while a small audience listens.

Sometimes the sound quality is so poor I can’t hear what they are saying. At other times the sound is TOO good — during one session I heard someone scrape their chair backwards and walk to another room where it sounded like they were rummaging through a drawer for cutlery.

But despite this really simple idea and the spotty audio, Clubhouse is getting lots of attention. It’s attracting 2 million users a week and a recent funding round valued it at a crisp $1 billion.

I think it’s worth every penny.

Clubhouse and coffee

I remember the exact moment I finally understood Clubhouse.

It was at the height of the controversy involving Robinhood. The trading platform had temporarily frozen the sale of GameStop shares and small investors were fuming. The company was doing the bidding of powerful hedge funds, they said. Robinhood was basically selling them out to the Sheriff of Nottingham.

The media were kicking up a dust storm of allegations as well but, honestly, after suffering through several TV interviews and stories I still couldn’t figure out what actually happened.

Then Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev showed up on Clubhouse. So did Elon Musk, who has his own bitter history with hedge funds. The stage was set for a showdown.

But instead of the 2 minute shout-fests I was seeing on TV, they took their time to methodically peel back every layer of the GameStop saga until I knew exactly what happened.

For me the listener, it felt like Tenev and Musk were grabbing coffee at a quiet table in the corner. They had an intimate and detailed discussion while I was able to sit nearby and take it all in.

Clubhouse doesn’t seem like it should work but it does.

If I extend the coffee comparison a bit further, Clubhouse could be said to resemble the early coffee houses of London and Paris, which many historians associate with the Age of Enlightenment. People from all walks of life came to these cafes and fueled by a new drug called caffeine at just 1 penny a cup, they spent hours exchanging ideas, debating politics and planning the occasional revolution.

So if Clubhouse is the modern equivalent of an Enlightenment coffee house, what does that make Twitter?

The return of tribalism

The Age of Enlightenment was exceptional for many things but one of the most important was the rejection of group identity.

For most of human history, our identity was defined by our clan, tribe, religion and class. If you were born into a group, you usually died in it.

By the 1700s, this was starting to change.

Here are a couple of interesting examples. In 1728 a boy was born to a farm laborer. After just 5 years in school he also went to work on a farm, and then into the Navy where his self-taught skills saw him promoted over the sons of aristocrats until he became one of the world’s greatest navigators, the explorer Capt. James Cook.

Across the world in the Caribbean another child was born, this time to a slave. He worked as a carpenter’s servant before going to sea where his abilities elevated him through the ranks until he was given command of his own ship and became Capt. John Perkins, one of the most celebrated commanders in the British Navy.

This was happening almost 300 years ago. Now let’s look where we are heading today.

Last month, Virginia Heffernan wrote a column in the Los Angeles Times in which she compared her next-door neighbors to Nazi collaborators and Hezbollah. What triggered this outburst?

They cleared her driveway of snow.

Heffernan couldn’t accept this act of kindness from her neighbors because they belonged to the wrong group. She knew this because they had the wrong political sign in their front yard.

“I can’t give my neighbors absolution,” Heffernan declared.

Absolution for what isn’t clear, because she never bothered to talk to them. They weren’t individuals with perhaps a different opinion about tax rates or trade. They belonged to the wrong group. And that’s all that matters.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

The Internet was supposed to be the next chapter of the Age of Enlightenment. The final barriers to knowledge were falling and individuals were free to communicate with each other all over the world.

But then the unexpected happened. The Internet turned out to be very effective at stirring up the dark side of human behavior. All those primitive impulses like anger, fear and paranoia that had been in steady retreat for centuries are suddenly rushing back.

Millions of people who have never been so wealthy, tolerant and free are now ready to literally kill each other. What the hell is happening?

Wouldn’t you know it, this question came up on Clubhouse recently.

In a discussion with AngelList founder Naval Ravikant, the investor Marc Andreessen offered an explanation for the rise of cancel culture and rage mobs that goes something like this.

Most of human history has been an oral culture where we lived in extended families, clans and tribes that insisted on conformity. All of our communication was in person, which means it was heavily influenced by emotional signaling and our status within the group.

But then this started to change.

The invention of the printing press spurred more people to read and the oral culture started changing into a literate culture. Individuals were able learn on their own and move beyond their groups to exchange ideas with other individuals.

Group identities started to crack. Individuals and their ideas were judged with logic and reason. This rising importance of individuality laid the foundation for human rights and the freedom to speak, assemble and own property.

It also led to the United States, the first new country to be based on the values of this new literate culture, where the rights of individuals take precedence over the raw power of the group, or in this case the state.

This has been the steady progressive arc of our recent history. Until now.

After a relatively brief flourishing of literate culture, the Internet and social media seem to be dragging us back into an oral culture where emotions, group identities and social conformity are once again determining how we think and behave.

Or as Marc Andreessen suggested on Clubhouse: “We are returning to a pre-Enlightenment state.”

It sounds crazy but spend an hour watching the rage mobs light up Twitter and it starts to sound a little less crazy. Our tribal impulses are running amok and a rising number of individuals are being given the choice of conform or be destroyed.

We just saw this at work in the Los Angeles Times.

What kind of person will publish a story comparing her neighbors to Hezbollah, but will not take take a couple moments to find out who her neighbors really are as individuals?

I suspect it’s the kind of person who spends a lot of time on Twitter, and not enough on Clubhouse. And where we go from here will probably be determined by these kinds of choices.

Will we use technology to make tomorrow better than today, or will we let it drag us back to an ugly past.

If you’re interested in this discussion about human behavior in the Internet age, here are some links you might find useful.

The WEIRDEST People in the World, by Joe Henrich

Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

Can You Change Your Mind? by Craig Brett