Why We Love Clubs

The meteoric rise of Clubhouse is rooted in the history of coffee-houses


“Clubs happen because of the elementary truth that we like to be with our own kind, with whom we can be ourselves and let our hair down.” — Anthony Lejeune, 2012 1


You’ve undoubtedly heard about the app Clubhouse.

The real-time social audio app has gained steam since launching last year, with a quick rise amid a number of competitors. The technorati were the first to catch on, and it spread from there.

While I joined last August, I found I was overwhelmed with the choices. The notifications were too frequent, I felt out of place without many connections on there, and I was stumbling into conversations (or “rooms”) that neither related to me nor interested me.

But then a funny thing happened that brought me back. More on that in a moment.

 

With Clubhouse (or any of the rising social audio platforms), one of my concerns is the time suck. We all have limited time and limited attention. With so many video calls, Slack messages, emails, and other mechanisms to stay connected (too connected!) to our colleagues, people are just burned out. But humans are social creatures; we need to connect and converse.

My friend and colleague Jeremiah Owyang called social audio “the Goldilocks medium: text is not enough and video is too much; social audio is just right.” (Read his report on the social audio industry that currently includes  two dozen players.)2

 

But even so, with synchronous audio, you need to be in the room where it happens. There’s currently no recording nor are there any transcripts. Which reminds me of the caution of this old Latin proverb:

“Vox audita perit, littera scripta manet.”
(“The spoken word vanishes; the written word remains.”)

Once a moment is there and gone in synchronous social audio, that’s it. There’s no reclaiming it. This is the beauty of something like Twitter or YouTube; we can join in conversations asynchronously. (Although, I’m an early user of Yac, and they’re focused on asynchronous sound clips to avoid unnecessary meetings—kind of like email with a personality.)

 

The reality is that audio does provide an intimate connection unlike any other. Given the current situation of so many people working remotely, it’s an important and necessary medium. And Edison Research's latest Infinite Dial report on audio consumption habits shows that, with the growth of podcasts and smart speakers, audio is just as important as ever.3

But this isn’t simply an alternative to podcasting. The best analogy I can come up with is that social audio is akin to a conference: there are speakers in rooms, and they can invite people up to the stage as panelists.

Some rooms are huge, with big names drawing significant audiences of thousands of listeners, like a keynote address at a conference. Others are small and intimate affairs among a handful of friends, as a breakout room or a hallway conversation might do.

With each, there’s variability in the quality of the content, as you might imagine. And don’t doubt for a minute that the hustlebros aren’t there; oh, they’ve managed to push themselves to the front of the line, using yet another platform to sell their MLM schemes and drive their follower numbers up.


“Captain Willoughby was known at his club for a bore. He was a determined raconteur of pointless stories about people with whom none of his audience was acquainted. And there was no deterring him, for he did not listen, he only talked.” — A.E.W. Mason, 1902 4


In many ways, what we’re seeing evolve is a parallel to how coffee-houses and clubs sprouted up from the 1400s in the Middle East to London in the 1600s.

 

History of the Coffee-House

The first coffee-houses appeared in Mecca in the 15th century, spreading to the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. They became popular meeting places where people gathered to drink coffee, have conversations, play board games such as chess and backgammon, listen to stories and music, and discuss news and politics. They became known as “schools of wisdom” for the type of clientele they attracted, and their free and frank discourse.5

The first coffee-house appeared in London in 1652, and from 1670 to 1685, the number of London coffeehouses began to increase, and saw the first appearance of barmaids. In order to stand out from others, most proprietors engaged the most attractive women they could find to lure patrons. By the middle of the 18th century, coffee-houses became an integral part of London life.

These were years when newspapers weren’t widely available to citizens, so coffee-houses became places where someone with a newspaper would read to the other assembled patrons, informing them of the day’s news and opinion. Thanks to coffee-houses, we begin to see the democratization of information and ideas.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas suggested that the newspaper was one of several institutions (together with the coffeehouse, the literary salon, the novel, and more) that served as the basis for the “bourgeois public sphere,” a space of rational-critical debate that changed the very possibilities of politics.6


“The history of coffee houses, ere the invention of clubs, was that of the manners, the morals, and the politics of a people.” — Isaac D'Israeli, 1791


From Coffee-House to Market

These very public places gave rise to a number of cultural and industrial developments. Because they were places for like-minded people to gather and share their views, in addition to the bourgeois, they attracted some of the brightest minds.

One of the most famous coffee-houses in London was The Grecian. Classical scholars and members of the Royal Society gathered there, and it became the leading penny university, as many coffee-houses were called, due to the price of admission being a penny, giving pupils access to books, newspapers, and lectures, including from some major figures of the time.

Edmund Malone, writing to his father in 1776, shared his observation from a coffee-house:

“I am at present writing in a coffee-house, in the midst of so much noise and bustle—the celebrated anti-Sejanus (Mr. [James] Scott) on one side and Mr. [Charles] Macklin [the actor] on the other—that I can't add anything more at present.”

These intellectually-stimulating settings gave rise to ideas and industry:

  • Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane, Edmund Halley, James Douglas, and the poet and statesman Joseph Addison gathered at The Grecian to discuss ideas that flowed from their work.

  • Lloyd’s Coffee House provided the venue for merchants and shippers to discuss insurance deals, leading to the establishment of Lloyd's of London insurance market, the Lloyd's Register classification society, and other related businesses.

  • In 1698, Jonathan’s Coffee House was the site of what eventually evolved into the London Stock Exchange

  • Other coffee-houses had salesrooms attached to them which were the origins of the great auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

 

The Social Audio Coffee-House

This brings us back to Clubhouse. If you pop into Clubhouse rooms, you’ll find similar situations: entrepreneurs testing their ideas and looking for inspiration; big names from music, entertainment, and tech; and yes, the occasional bore who’s found the latest platform for selling hustle.

After sitting out the conversation for a few months, I was enticed to re-enter the scene. I discovered a more robust space—one that can be classified into Business Clubhouse and Nighttime Clubhouse. On the business end, we see discussions of entrepreneurship, writing, speaking, branding and more. In the evening, things turn more casual, like a cocktail party: jazz clubs, music venues, cultural discussions, etc. The serendipitous nature of the Explore feature can surface just about anything you might be interested in.

Here’s what drew me back in: I saw a friend post elsewhere (email, Twitter, Facebook) that he was planning a talk. He outlined the theme and highlighted the two co-hosts. Between the three of them, I recognized expertise and quality, and joined because of that.

 

What we’re witnessing is a natural sorting. The good ideas are rising to the top—the lesser ideas or individuals are still there, but there’s a filter happening that is making things more relevant and trusted. Individual recommendations over algorithm. It’s what we’ve been missing on social platforms in recent years.

Because that’s what we yearn for in our social interactions. Whether the people with whom we interact are like-minded or are diametric opposites, a spirited debate comes from those who enter into a discussion with their goals and objectives up front.

When we have an experience that matches our expectations, we’re more likely to trust.


Preview of Friday’s curated content:

Where is this headed? In the follow-up essay in Friday’s newsletter for paying subscribers, we’ll trace the rise of clubs from coffee-houses, looking at what exclusivity does to us. An excerpt:

“Coffee houses led to clubs. Towering over the rest was Dr. Johnson’s, which met at the Turk’s Head in Gerrard Street. It included Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith, Edward Gibbon, actor-managers like Garrick and Sheridan, the musical historian Charles Burney, and the later President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks.”

In addition to name-dropping, the early adopters or those who have exclusive access usually like to show off their status. According to one tech reporter,

“Nearly every early Clubhouse user I speak with brings up their follower count unprompted.”

Read "The Rise of Clubland"

One timely link:

Clubhouse, which centralizes creation and consumption into a feedback loop, will do for audio what Twitter, Stories, and TikTok did for text, images, and video. (Link for premium subscribers)

This week’s book recommendation:

In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London to dine, drink, and talk until midnight. Eventually the group came to include among its members Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell. It was known simply as “the Club.” This book conjures up the precarious, exciting, and often brutal world of late eighteenth-century Britain, telling the story of an extraordinary group of people whose ideas helped to shape their age, and our own. (Link for premium subscribers)

Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.

1

Lejeune, Anthony (2012). The Gentlemen’s Clubs of London. Stacey Publishing, Ltd.

4

Mason, A.E.W. (1902) The Four Feathers. MacMillan.

5

Coffee,” Encyclopedia Britannica, retrieved 2/16/2021

6

The Myth of the Fourth Estate,” Lapham’s Quarterly, April 3, 2012