The Case for Twitter Spaces
Why Twitter’s Clubhouse clone is poised to give the hottest app on the planet a run for its money
I live a simple life with a few steadfast rules. They include: 1) Be kind 2) Call loved ones at least once a week 3) Don’t expect too much from Twitter. Alas, after a hasty hot take and then some serious thought about Twitter’s new Clubhouse clone — called Twitter Spaces — I’m relaxing rule number three for just a moment. Lord help me.
Twitter and Clubhouse are locked in a battle to dominate a new form of audio social networking that feels equal parts podcast, industry convention, and conference call. For the uninitiated, the format has people gather in virtual “rooms” where a convening moderator sets a topic and invites people to speak. No new form of social media has been as promising since Snapchat debuted Stories in 2013. And like Stories, there’s a case to be made that the primary beneficiary will not be the originator.
Clubhouse, which pioneered this format, has built something special, no doubt. The discussions in its rooms feel timely, entertaining, and sometimes a bit edgy. Being in a room with celebrities and industry icons, even if you’re not a speaker, creates a feeling of shared presence that’s flat out electric. So it’s no wonder that Clubhouse invites are going for $125 on eBay.
But while Clubhouse may be the hottest app in the world, Twitter is well positioned to co-opt its energy with Spaces, a clone that replicates Clubhouse’s features and integrates them into the Twitter app. Twitter’s version — just rolling out — is intuitive, a logical fit, and adds a meaningful new experience to the app. It may not work (see: Rule three), but it’s likely not Google+ 2.0.
Whenever I evaluate a new social network’s prospects, I return to Eugene Wei’s framework: Status as a Service. In a lengthy post written two years ago, Wei, a former Amazon and Facebook employee, explained that when people use social networks, they “seek out the most efficient path to maximize their social capital.” People, in other words, expect to earn status from the effort they put into creating stuff on social media. That’s why they post for free. Young people, for example, stay away from Twitter because it’s difficult to reach anyone with their tweets. But they use Instagram because, per Wei, they can add lots of hashtags, get their posts on discovery pages, and build a following.
Clubhouse’s early boom is, in part, a land grab for status. People who spend time there sit in rooms, speak, and then revel in the followings they’re building. Nearly every early Clubhouse user I speak with brings up their follower count unprompted, and most within the first five minutes. Building a following on Clubhouse gives you an opportunity to reengage your followers in another room sometime down the road. It’s valuable social capital.
Twitter Spaces is better positioned to deliver that precious commodity though. On Spaces, people participate in rooms and add followers in the same way they do on Clubhouse (sounding smart, funny, engaging). And while they get that same ability to reengage their followers in a Spaces room sometime down the line, there’s an added benefit: The opportunity to drop tweets into new followers’ timelines.
A Twitter follower is therefore more valuable than a Clubhouse follower when it comes to building social capital. And for people looking for the most efficient path to maximize their social capital, a minute spent on Twitter Spaces is more useful than a minute on Clubhouse. So they’ll allocate their time accordingly. It’s a bit crude. But this is how these platforms work.
Twitter Spaces’ toughest challenge will be matching Clubhouse’s ability to highlight interesting rooms. “The magic of Clubhouse is the hallway,” Josh Constine, a Clubhouse power user and an investor whose firm invests in the app, told me. What Constine means is that when you open Clubhouse you can peruse a feed of rooms — that is, the hallway — and drop in and out as you scroll through. On Twitter today, you can only find Spaces when someone you follow is participating in one (it shows up in the Fleets bar), or when you see a tweet with a link to one. But Twitter has a valuable shortcut.
Unlike Facebook, where you connect with friends and family, on Twitter, you follow people based on your interests: reporters, athletes, politicians, entertainers, and so forth. Your Twitter follow list is therefore a loud signal pointing to the topics you’d be interested in hearing about, and the people you’d want to hear talk about them. Even without a “hallway” (a form of which the company seems intent to build), Twitter will show you relevant conversations right off the bat. “This experience fundamentally is the same thing,” Twitter product head Kayvon Beykpour told me in a conversation on Spaces last night. “The same use case, with slightly different mechanics.”
Twitter has another advantage when it comes to recruiting participants for Spaces: An engaged userbase filled with some of the world’s most prominent people. When Elon Musk goes on Clubhouse, it’s a news story. When he logs onto Twitter, it’s Wednesday. These power users will generate buzz for Spaces when they gain access to it, and they’ll get their millions of followers accustomed to using the format on Twitter. They’ll gravitate toward Twitter for a simple reason: Reach. They’ll be able to speak with more people on Twitter, which 192 million people use each day, than Clubhouse, which 2 million use each week.
Meanwhile, for the middle class of content creators (people with moderate sized-followings), Twitter has quietly assembled a suite of products to win them over. It acquired Revue, a newsletter platform that lets creators charge for subscriptions (and takes a 5% cut vs. Substack’s 10%) which syncs quite nicely with Spaces. Imagine the following scenario: Someone builds a paid newsletter on Revue, uses their Twitter account to share their work, and then jumps into Spaces to deepen their relationship with subscribers after they post. It works.
Finally, Twitter needs this and will do everything in its power to give it a chance. Twitter conversations have become so toxic that opening the app fills people with dread. Twitter can be fun and interesting. But most often it’s a rolling shouting match where even the most benign statements are picked apart by angry people looking to fight.
Spaces, in a best-case scenario, could help people see each other as humans, not 2D avatars. With audio, you can hear nuance, intonation, sarcasm, humor: context that is too often lost in the hellscape of the timeline. Talking — dialogue — can make even the most tense exchanges cool off (we saw this when San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin dropped into a Clubhouse chat with some of his biggest haters). And this is why Twitter is going all in. For the sake of its future, this must work.
Case in point: After I tweeted that Twitter would win out vs. Clubhouse earlier this month, I got a lot of terse and angry pushback. Tonight, I’m going to talk it out on Clubhouse with some of those who disagreed with me (venue chosen at their request). The conversation will, with 100% certainty, be more productive than a Twitter spat. And sometime soon, we could be seeing this type of engagement regularly, perhaps in the same app.
If you have Clubhouse, you can join here and listen to the discussion at 6 p.m. pacific time today, Thursday 2/11.
I write this without a rooting interest. I haven’t invested in either company, unlike many of Clubhouse’s core evangelists. And I definitely don’t have a special affinity for Twitter. (Not long ago, I wrote a story that caused 1 million people to tweet #RIPTwitter over a weekend.) That said, I’ve been studying the service for a long time, and believe Spaces is a particularly unique fit. Twitter may well mess it up. And there are plenty of reasons why it won’t work. But everything seems aligned for Twitter Spaces to become the next iteration of Instagram Stories.
Facebook Is Said to Be Building a Product to Compete With Clubhouse (New York Times)
Facebook Eyes Clubhouse With Familiar Playbook in Mind (Bloomberg)
Clubhouse May Be Social Media’s Future. What’s All The Hype About? (NPR)
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