Clubhouse, the invitation-based audio chat app, was launched less than a year ago, but it already boasts 10 million users and a $10 billion valuation. Opening the app is like scrolling through the clickbait advertisement bar at the bottom of a website, with chat rooms about NFTs, female founders (of what?), investment banking, owning your financial power, George Floyd, and networking. Many of them promise the secret, the guide, the ten ways to do any given activity. Dropping into a room feels both invasive and impersonal, with only audio streams attached to generic profile pictures. I wouldn’t be surprised if nobody on Clubhouse actually existed in real life, a sentiment that creeps in when using any social media app, to some extent. The home page reads as though someone took all the people involved in multi-level marketing schemes and gave them speaking capabilities.
Earlier today, I accidentally clicked on a WatchHerWork chat session with various women offering their opinions about getting paid more, estimating your worth, and climbing the corporate ladder. WatchHerWork’s tagline is “Help women go further, faster.” As I listened to the moderators talk about how to go from intern to CEO, all I could think was, who cares?
The current internet landscape often feels designed that very way: never-ending and rapidly increasing in speed, with little genuine meaning. Granted, I don’t follow anyone on Clubhouse and rarely use the app; I’m sure that if I did scroll more often and followed other users, the home page might become more algorithmically attuned to my interests. But the point still stands: broadcasted mass communication is not the same as conversation, and the very mediums with which we hope to simulate face-to-face interaction can never quite achieve that replication. Genuine conversation is far more intimate than Clubhouse, and not everyone is having productive, lucrative conversations at all times of the day. Believing that they are is what erodes the nature of relationships, conversation, and the private self.
The “optimization of conversation” mindset under which Clubhouse operates points to a larger obsession with often-hollow content that plagues the modern psyche. If recording conversations with colleagues and friends can become content used to amplify one’s digital influence, it seems only natural that these platforms emerge to capitalize on that opportunity. What is frightening about that impulse is not only the monetization of life’s most intimate forms of communication, but the utter disregard for privacy that makes these phenomena so popular.
Whereas the Snowden-era early 2010s may have seen a culture disturbed by invasive government surveillance and data sharing, privacy feels increasingly like a concern of the past. Apps like Clubhouse encourage us to wiretap ourselves, and we gladly oblige, internalizing the interests of the market. We share our locations, interests, friends, triumphs, mistakes, mental illnesses, and innermost conflicts with the public void of the internet. We voluntarily give up privacy, trading freedom for a perverted definition of connection. We put ourselves on Snap Map and tell strangers about our childhood trauma. We take pleasure in surrendering the responsibilities of individualism in exchange for a simulacrum of community, finding a Stockholm syndrome-esque comfort in knowing that we can live within the superficiality of virtual reality, forever. We may be living in the panopticon, but at least we can see the OOTDs of our fellow prisoners.
It is here that invasion of privacy becomes reframed as progress, innovation, enlightenment. Technological advancement has allowed us to avoid in-person interaction altogether, as we attempt to tinker with life until it is at its most efficient, substituting the inconvenience of daily life for the streamlined codes of the internet. Especially during the pandemic, virtual interaction provides the closest, safest replacement for seeing others in real life––but after a year of a digital-first world, that replacement feels ever the more permanent. Everyone you see on the street, you can find on social media. Everyone you meet has a presence that precedes them, and, maybe one day soon, will completely replace them. It’s dystopia reframed as utopia. The permeability between the virtual and the real has never been more apparent, and yet so close to invisible.
Personally, spending less time on social media feels like the most effective way to resist the complete digitization of real life and of physical space. However cliche the sentiment may be, disconnecting oneself from the internet makes its influence in real life even more unsettling. When virtual and real spaces start to become more similar, as pop-up restaurants and clothing stores and cafes and experiential museums are designed to go viral on TikTok, or as NFTs allow users to buy virtual clothing, or as apps attempt to simulate interaction, it becomes even more important to create a distinction between what should and should not be shared. Conversation does not need to be broadcasted; cobblestone sidewalks and quaint storefronts can exist on a particular street rather than being posted on social media. The preservation of privacy is difficult when everything around us is designed to encourage and make us cherish surveillance—not just in a government-spying sense but also in regards to the prevalence of Instagram, TikTok, and even Venmo—but the world feels very small when it is all recorded. To make the world vast and unknowable, the private and the personal are the only safeguards we have.
By Katherine Williams
Illustration by Enne Goldstein