View from Washington: Nobody knows anything

Clubhouse is the latest app to be declared a smash hit during the pandemic but is that call justified?

One of the more irritating things about tech journalism is that we often rush to anoint one ‘next big thing’ or another. We have seen a fair bit of that during the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps it is time to take a reality check as something akin to reality slowly reasserts itself.

Take Zoom. In the last fortnight, research from Stanford University has confirmed what many of us suspected: ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real. The university’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) attributes the condition to four main causes stemming from an excessive use of videoconferencing generally.

  1. Excessive amounts of close-up eye contact is highly intense.
  2. Seeing yourself during video chats constantly in real-time is fatiguing.
  3. Video chats dramatically reduce our usual mobility.
  4. The cognitive load is much higher in video chats.

VHIL director Professor Jeremy Bailenson has some useful tips for mitigating these issues in this crib sheet. But you do feel that the best cure of all will be a widespread return to more traditional networking.

There are signs of as much from within the technology sector itself. For example, Semicon West, the huge US-based chip manufacturing show that also embraces the Design Automation Conference (DAC), recently announced a move from summer to December – giving time for vaccines and other measures to drive down infections.

As DAC’s current chair, Harry Foster of Siemens EDA, said: ““Much of the historic value of DAC has been in the face-to-face connections and networking that attendees experience at the live event, which often leads to future innovations and years of collaboration.”

I don’t think Zoom is headed for a cliff edge, but its early hyping suggests we are not assessing innovations in ways that acknowledge that while some may meet the ‘right-place, right-time’ criterion right now, their longevity and longer term value is still up for debate.

The latest example is, of course, Clubhouse. I’m an Android user, so for now I’m dependent on the in-house Applephile for access – and under strict instructions to lurk only. But that’s still given me enough of an experience to make a few observations. They go beyond concerns already expressed about security and marketing based on celeb-fuelled FOMO.

Yes, it is interesting to eavesdrop on well-informed people and hear conversations evolve in more spontaneous and detailed ways than other forms of social media have made possible. The requirement for real names – notwithstanding passengers such as myself – and real-time moderation also seem to encourage greater civility than you see elsewhere. And even though Clubhouse again encourages the formation of largely like-minded communities, raising similar concerns about bias to the rest of the online world, there is space for contributors to be more thoughtful.

And yet.

First, there is the basic format. As a conversation- and interview-based medium, Clubhouse is primarily trying to put a digital spin on talk radio – and I suppose someone eventually had to try and disintermediate that too. But, trust me, good talk radio is hard to deliver. A lot of Clubhouse is not so much produced as allowed to escape. Much is, quite frankly, dull; sometimes it is unlistenable. And remember, the professionals typically aim to deliver for up to five days a week, three-to-four hours a day.

Second comes the decision to make the conversations impermanent and available only live, at a time when the main trend in media consumption has been towards giving the user on-demand scheduling and replay power over TV, movies and, importantly here, podcasts. I’m not sure this will ultimately be a problem but if I want to follow, say, a global technology discussion, one restricted from global participation by the reality of time zones and which cannot be replayed is, to borrow a favourite tech phrase, sub-optimal.

Third though – and probably my biggest question here – concerns time. Locked down during a pandemic or even simply constrained from much of your usual travel, you can find the time to spend a few hours a week looking at what Clubhouse has to offer and then tuning in to lengthier discussions. This is broadly analogous to the way some people have also taken the opportunity to stream all of The Sopranos or The Wire or Star Trek from start to finish.

Such temporal luxuries will expire, however – and we’ll all be glad when they do. But for Clubhouse, this may raise a challenge when it comes to the monetisation. The process can only really begin once the pandemic has mostly passed, particularly given that its creators insist it is still very much a beta. What will engagement for various online platforms look like when the world has less spare time, subscription-based or not?

On the one hand, I wish Clubhouse’s creators would get a move on with the Android version, so I can start chucking in my own two-bob of informed but polite snark. But on the other, the platform illustrates the hazards in pronouncing something a success at a time of unusual stress (and possibly because of that stress) rather than when it has faced the more traditional stress tests that a technology product must.

For now, apart from the geniuses who have brought us vaccines, treatments and other tools and services to mitigate Covid-19’s impact, we should reserve any other judgments in the light of what the great screenwriter William Goldman had to say about Hollywood: "Nobody knows anything."

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