Clubhouse Is My Cozy Fix For Pandemic Holiday Loneliness

In a year of social distancing, the audio-only chatroom app feels something like a crowded happy hour.

by Shayla Lawson
Photo Credit: Pando Hall, Tara Moore, Issarawat Tattong/Getty

Scrolling through social media is one of my favorite COVID copes. But I’m tired. Instagram is all ads and “I’m surviving” selfies. Facebook is too crowded. And TikTok? I’m stressed out by absolutely anything that involves a “challenge” right now. The Twittersphere rounds the same inside jokes between the latest word vomit of top headlines. Between the Zoom calls, YouTube tutorials, and binges on HBOMax, I am most certainly, most definitely, absolutely tired of screentime.

The app Clubhouse, launched by co-founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth in the spring of 2020, doesn’t demand I look at it, and that feels cozy. Like a hug. Clubhouse allows members to peruse free-flowing, topic-based, live audio chats; it is a space to listen, mingle, or speak your piece. The app is invite-only; I was sent an invite to join by poet and activist Crystal Good. I’m not really of the socials, but Good, who moonlights as the unofficial social media senator for the state of West Virginia, gave it the glowing recommendation of “addictive.” I was drawn in by the app icon, which wasn’t a logo but a real human face. When I clicked on it, I didn’t feel like I was entering a feed; I felt like I was entering a place. The homepage has the soft taupe glow of a paint swatch; Clubhouse calls its conversation spaces “rooms.” The bios are simple, just enough room to flex your icon and style in under one sentence. There are no hyperlinks off to different sites, brands or people — there are almost no ways you can use your profile as a way to compete.

Part live podcast, part live radio show, the format feels both futuristic and vintage — the right mix for the app to catch on and grow. I’m not ready to talk on Clubhouse, and I don’t know it’s something I ever will do. As an audience member, I can leave the app completely, let my phone screen sleep and listen to the live broadcasts without ever touching my phone. To talk would mean I’d have to stay active, go back to clicking away at buttons on my screen to both raise my virtual hand and participate.

After sheltering in place now for nearly a year, I’d almost forgotten the comfort of overhearing.

And the conversation? Soothing. After sheltering in place now for nearly a year, I’d almost forgotten the comfort of overhearing — the chatter of people speaking to each other in bars, malls, and markets — finding comfort being beside someone new. When you enter a Clubhouse room, the icons snuggle close to each other the way we haven’t since 2019 — smiling as we listen to our voices intermingle, interrupt, “excuse me,” and overlap.

I’m speaking about the app Clubhouse with such warm nostalgia because, why not? It has been a long year. I am worn to the edges and I am bored. Opening up an app that lets me listen almost brings a tear to my eye. I mean it. I don’t care what I listen to: advice for founders and investors, Stevie Wonder song appreciation, a forum on microdosing, or morning devotionals. The point is, I don’t have to perform how well I’m doing. I don’t have to be smart, I don’t have to participate. I don’t have to keep my phone in my hand in order to keep engaging.

For this article (OK, maybe for me, a little) I signed on to Clubhouse once at 3 a.m., and slid into a chatroom of 20 or so people made for insomniacs. At one point, no one was talking. At one point, the only sound was the soft snore of the chatroom’s host. She had fallen asleep. I wouldn’t have believed it if not for the fact the circle that blinks around the profile pic of the room’s speaker blinked every time she breathed in. I peaced out, and drifted off to sleep, chuckling.

My version of Clubhouse probably isn’t the version the app creators imagined when they launched. There’s plenty of users who could talk about how they’re using Clubhouse to level up with professional development, improve their language skills, receive expert advice on everything from fashion to Bitcoin, or make a Clubhouse expert of themselves — even if their expertise is guilty-pleasure mess like who's in or out on Real Housewives of Atlanta. Do what you want, I’m in it for the snooping… and the snoring. I don’t have anything to say. I just want to check in and hear that people are still around. Still busy. Still being their big-mouthed selves.

Will I get caught up in Clubhouse? Of course not. After a week, I’ve already turned the notifications to “Very Infrequent” in my iPhone. As much as I can wax romantic about the reprieve Clubhouse creates from the other social media apps, it is still another one. Like other platforms, it can be used to radicalize and harass — already there are reports of rooms that espouse troubling political views and of users who drop in rooms to scream racist things — and audio is harder to automatically moderate than text and image. But, in the right room, Clubhouse mimics the feeling of community I miss now. That of happy hours and karaoke bars and professional mixers, where work and play would mingle in this beautiful blurred-line mix that made life feel meaningful. The longer I stay online, the more I’m reminded how far I am from anything close to that community of strangers and chance social encounters. It’s not the same as the feeling I’d usually get this time of year, grazing elbows and smiling excuse me to a cutie carrying drinks through a crowded bar or watching new friends belt out Cyndi Lauper at an ugly sweater party. But for now, I enjoy its buzz of conversation, crackling like fire in my silent apartment.