Image of Clubhouse UI taken from their social media

UX Leaders Embracing Clubhouse is Emblematic of the Insular Nature of UX Discourse

I remember a quote from a professor of mine, Dr. Davide Bolchini. He said it in the first ever Human-Computer Interaction class I ever attended, back in 2014. He said, “UX is a field that always looks UPWARDS.” He then went on to recap the history of the field, its origins, and how it was built on the foundation of finding emergent technology and finding ways to incorporate it into a space in ways that utilized the strengths of the technology while keeping in mind Utility (does it meet a need?), Usability (does it lend itself to be used easily?), Desirability, and Brand Experience. 

Sometimes though, a laser-focus on simply moving upwards is detrimental, and the quick adoption of the Clubhouse app by UX thought leaders is a prime example of that. 

What is Clubhouse? 

Clubhouse is an audio-only social media app that’s aimed at professionals who want to have constructive conversations with one another. From what I’ve seen of it, it seems to have the structure of a moderated panel discussion: there is a lineup of speakers and an “audience” who can join-in and listen to the discussion, like listening to a podcast but live. There’s also the provision of allowing the audience to chime in, but there seems to be a moderator control aspect to it. 

To access this app, you need to have an iOS device (as of writing, it’s iOS only), and you need an invitation to be a part of this exclusive community. If that last part sounds like you’ve heard it before, it’s because you’ve probably already seen other services employ this model (Google+, for example). This article does a great job of explaining this strategic exclusivity: (Creating the Illusion of Exclusivity: The Story of Clubhouse)

Exclusivity and FOMO by Design

As the article I linked to above explains, the exclusivity is on purpose. It cultivates the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) in people who want to get in, sometimes by any means necessary (people are selling invites on eBay, for example: (Clubhouse, a Tiny Audio Chat App, Breaks Through). 

This feeling of FOMO lies at the heart of my issue with Clubhouse being quickly adopted by so many in the UX community. Discussions in this field have always had the problem of being too exclusive and too insular- knowledge being locked away behind paywalls, in expensive books, and in conferences. To me, using an app that’s promoting itself on the basis of FOMO and platform exclusivity (iOS only!), is the grown-up, elder millennial version of the “green text bubble” phenomenon that’s observed in high school group chats that use iMessage. There, messages sent from iOS devices are indicated with blue text bubbles, and messages sent from non-iOS and non-iMessage enabled devices appear with green text bubbles. This simple design choice creates a social pressure among school students, who are quick to ostracize or make fun of students who don’t have iPhones, sometimes to the extent that they’re left out of group chats entirely. (Why iPhone users sneer at Android green bubbles in iMessage

Ben Bajarin’s twitter thread giving an example of the “green text bubble” phenomenon.

Counterpoints to the iOS exclusivity, and my thoughts on that 

The immediate counterpoints are that iOS exclusivity may have been necessitated by the nature of product development. This may be a staggered release -they’ve said an Android app is on the way in this statement, along with some other promises: (Clubhouse — 🎉 Welcoming More Voices)

Of course, developing and deploying products takes time, and there are complexities and considerations on each platform. However, I see no roadmaps, no estimated times of arrival, nothing. All I see are ambiguous promises. There is no way for me to know how many weeks or months I will need to wait to even be in the running to grab an invite thrown at me. Like I’m some caged animal desperately waiting for a piece of meat thrown at me by a zookeeper. 

Another counterpoint I see is that it really isn’t that long, just a matter of a few months at most. My answer to that is- it IS a lot of time. As I said before, UX is a field that constantly looks upwards. This field moves very fast, and if I don’t have access to the latest, most up-to-date discussions that go on, I stand at risk of falling behind and being out of touch. Yes, I know it’s called the “bleeding edge” for a reason, I know that being at the forefront of everything puts you at risk, but if I want to get cut by the bleeding edge, I should be allowed to do so. 

Conclusion- A feeling I am all too familiar with 

The immediate acceptance of Clubhouse as the de-facto platform for UX discussions has left a bad taste in my mouth. That’s not to say that this is something I have not tasted before. Ever since the day I took my first step into the UX business, I saw how many closed gardens there existed. How many small cliques, how much insularity there was everywhere I looked. Maybe in our quest to constantly look upwards, we didn’t realize that the field necessitated looking in all directions.

Leah Symonne wrote a brilliant article about “The Cult of Creativity” (The cult of creativity. UX Design doesn’t have to be your… | by Lena | Feb, 2021) where she talks about how much of the community is an echo chamber, a monoculture of people who all think the same way, who liken themselves as purveyors of some arcane wisdom, shunning all other lines of thoughts, pushing away all those who don’t want to make UX their singular personality trait. 

I’ve seen this insularity in the community first-hand, ever since that first Human-Computer Interaction class back in Grad School in August 2014. I experienced the sheer apathy meted out to me by the UX community for voicing ideas that were contrary to the established ways of thinking. I’ve been big-leagued by managers of the local chapters of UX-based community organizations when I expressed interest in helping them out. It’s all reminiscent of high school and college cliques- you are either part of them, or you know somebody who knows somebody that can get you in. They say high school never really ends, and that has been my lived experience. I was the invisible man in high school, they didn’t let me audition or try out for the college rock band because I didn’t know the right people, and now, as a UX professional, I’m being left out of yet another exclusive group just because I don’t have an iPhone and an invite. 

While I may be disappointingly used to being excluded by a community that ostensibly celebrates different voices- UX is truly a confluence of the most brilliant minds from a variety of different fields, spanning technology, the humanities, and a whole lot more- I am concerned that this is a sign of things to come. A dreadful portent of a future where there are even more subdivisions of this great community into smaller and smaller walled gardens. Where knowledge is locked down even more, and where everyone threatens one another with closed fists rather than welcoming one another with open hands. 

I hope we find a way to tear all these walls down before we all end up buried within them.