Is Clubhouse the Future of Public History?
The answer is, ‘Yes.’ At least, partially.
I joined Clubhouse in August 2020 when the app had only several thousand users. Within a few days, I was struck by the appetite for historical knowledge in the conversations I joined. So, I began the first history-focused conversation series on the platform and called it the History Club. Six months later the History Club has more than 30,000 followers and I’m followed by more than 29,000 people. We hold weekly conversations with users from around the world on topics such as the Trump Presidency; misinformation and disinformation; the past, present and futures of journalism; open access; teaching the Holocaust on social media; and The New York Times 1619 Project. Our most recent conversation on African American participation in the U.S. Civil War was joined by more than 600 people. There’s a strong appetite for historically-informed, civic-minded conversations that are accessible, intellectual and diverse. Those conversations are now happening on Clubhouse.
For those unfamiliar: Clubhouse is a new social network based on voice. No text. No memes. No URLs. No DMs. You simply log into the app and talk, listen and learn from other people around the world. Clubhouse launched in March 2020 and today has more than 10 million users. At any given time, there are more than 1,000 conversations in English, French, German, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Russian and other languages. The company recently raised $100M from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and is valued at $1 billion.
Social audio apps are an emerging trend. Similar apps include Twitter Spaces, Sonar, Chalk, Space, Stereo, Soapbox, Yalla, and The Cookout. For those who find video chat exhausting (as I do!), and Twitter and Facebook clogged with ads and click-bait, social audio offers a welcome relief. Want to have an interesting conversation with a founder in Nigeria or a designer in Italy? You can. Want to listen to a conversation on cryptocurrencies or the role of art in activism? You can do that, too. Clubhouse offers an array of interesting content. It’s replaced nearly all the podcasts I listened to.
So, what are the benefits to public historians and history communicators? There are many, but I’ll highlight five: (1) events; (2) networking; (3) training & development; (4) diversity & inclusion; and (5) accessibility.
1. Events: Clubhouse centers on the concept of “rooms.” Anyone can create a room on a topic and invite people into it (either all users or a select group). Let’s say a museum or historic site wants to host a room on Clubhouse about their upcoming exhibits. They could schedule a room, collect RSVPs via their website, and talk to thousands of people from around the world about their new shows. Or perhaps a group of historians wants to organize a conference or a mini-con? They could do that on Clubhouse. Want to host a pop-up workshop? You could do that on Clubhouse, too. The simplicity of creating rooms coupled with a global network of users presents so many opportunities. And since it runs off Clubhouse’s servers, it eliminates infrastructure and licensing costs, particularly for small institutions with limited budgets and tech support. It also eliminates Zoom fatigue. One thing we heard at the Lepage Center (where I was the founding director) was that after people spent their entire days on video calls, a Zoom event in the evening felt exhausting. Clubhouse can improve event turnout as well as improve the event experience and the diversity of attendees.
2. Networking: Who you follow on Clubhouse determines what rooms you see. Following a diverse group of people can greatly expand your network. In my six months on the platform, I’ve made valuable connections that have been mutually enriching. I’ve met several people who work in cryptocurrency who’ve helped me understand a space that was completely opaque to me only a few months earlier. Public historians can also network with each other. Public historians could set up a weekly or monthly audio call via Clubhouse that would share best practices from around the world.
3. Training & Development: Clubhouse creates interesting opportunities for training and development. Let’s say, for example, a public historian wishes to improve her graphic design skills. There are thousands of graphic designers on Clubhouse willing to hire out their services. These relationships could lead to training sessions for individuals or institutions or mutually-beneficial long-term relationships. The same could be true of audio design, writing, editing, Web design and other skills increasingly necessary for effective history communication. Clubhouse has a vast network of talented users eager to collaborate that could provide public history institutions with vendor relationships as well as chances for professional development.
4. Diversity & Inclusion: With users from around the world on the app, there are wonderful possibilities for building and growing diverse audiences. The ease of using the app allows people from Chad, Greece, New Zealand, Mexico, Uruguay, Spain, the U.K. and U.S. to attend events simultaneously, resulting in more diverse audiences and more diverse viewpoints in the conversation.
5. Accessibility: One reason for Clubhouse’s soaring popularity has been its timing. The pandemic has forced so many of us to be stuck in our homes with limited human interaction. This has particularly affected vulnerable populations such as those with chronic illnesses. Activists have already forged transnational communities on Clubhouse, with several regular conversations occurring around chronic disease and chronic illness that give voice to people around the world.
Clubhouse is far from perfect. There have been incidents of racism, anti-Semitism and bullying on the platform. The platform is a commercial entity and the data it collects from users contribute to its valuation. There is also misinformation and disinformation on Clubhouse. Recently, members of the Chinese Communist Party joined Clubhouse to counteract pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong on the platform. China subsequently banned the app. Clubhouse is not immune to broader social and geopolitical forces. But public historians and history communicators can help Clubhouse and similar apps devise solutions to these challenges as these platforms grow in popularity. As social audio opens up to the world, public historians should look for opportunities to be involved.
Jason Steinhauer served as founding director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest; is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute; and is a contributor to CNN and TIME. He’s currently writing a book about how history gets communicated on the Internet, and hosts the History Club every Thursday night at 10 p.m. ET. Find him on Clubhouse @JasonSteinhauer.