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The Meaning of Clubhouse vs. Taylor Lorenz

This is not just another Twitter beef, but a bellwether for the changing structure of intellectual influence.

Clubhouse is a “drop-in audio” chat app especially popular in tech circles. People come in and out of ephemeral chat rooms; the rooms split users into speakers and listeners, with users moving between the two.

Taylor Lorenz writes for the New York Times, mostly about how people in tech are immoral (racist, sexist, harassers, etc.). Right now Lorenz is going hard after Clubhouse.

This conflict is more interesting than it appears. First, the design of the Clubhouse app is surprisingly profound because it allows high-status individuals whose status is based on superior belief-calibration (successful founders and investors, by definition) to calibrate their beliefs privately, and also, paradoxically, to an audience.

On the other hand, for high-status individuals whose status is based on prestige institutions, their only raison d'être is the historical inability of other high-status people to calibrate and distribute their beliefs independently. Prestige opinion writers once solved a coordination problem for high-society; though not everyone would agree with any given prestige opinion writer, they provided a focal point and the basic premises which all high-society players could assume that all other high-society would respect.

Insofar as the Clubhouse app allows for private belief formation among high-status individuals, while also distributing those beliefs semi-publicly in real time, it’s hard to overstate the threat that Clubhouse poses to institutional opinion leaders. Taylor Lorenz’s campaign against Clubhouse is best understood as desperation in the face of an existential threat.

If one journalist is able to dominate the development roadmap of Clubhouse, then we have not yet reached the peak of what proponents call The Great Awokening and critics call Cancel Culture. If the Clubhouse team proves that hosting genuine high-status belief-calibration has a payoff greater than the cost of negative influencer campaigns, then we are likely past the peak. Even if Clubhouse fails for other reasons, the key question to watch out for is whether negative influencer campaigns are able to destroy the specific feature of private belief-calibration combined with real-time distribution. If not, a number of new communities may replicate this feature in a way that’s too decentralized and private for prestige journalists to even monitor, let alone attack.

The subtle genius of Clubhouse

Clubhouse is unlike any other platform right now insofar as you easily encounter a bunch of previously “canceled” people—unable to tell their story anywhere else—not only telling their story, but to diverse interlocutors who both listen honestly and challenge aggressively. It’s frankly amazing, given the current wave of hypermoralism that started suffocating public intellectual culture since about 2013.

I’ll give you a random example from my experience on the app. Take the case of Kyle Kashuv. I never even heard of him, until one day I dropped in on a chat he was in with Mike Solana and Mason Hartman, among others. After a few minutes I grokked the basics: He survived a school shooting and then became a gun-rights activist, against the grain of what one would expect. He was recently canceled for something or other. OK, whatever.

Then Kmele Foster mentioned that he was receiving messages about racist comments Kyle made in the past (in text messages when he was a kid). They talked it out, maturely on both sides. Kyle clarified his apologetic view of his past behavior, and a productive discussion was had about youth in the digital epoch. Kyle’s past use of racist language was never excused, but neither was it obsessed over with hours of collective self-flagellating virtue display. It was basically ideal reasonable human discourse, from a diverse cast of interesting personalities. Compared to what you’ll find in virtually any other public or semi-public sphere available today… I almost had to pinch myself.

That’s when I realized why there is a weirdly intense and weirdly personalized conflict between a whole platform and one institutional journalist (who is, by the way, not only active on the platform but likely in the 90th percentile of the most followed people).

It’s not just that Clubhouse allows canceled people to exist and talk, what’s most significant is the influence math. In the above example, I got an immediate and direct view on this Kyle Kashuv kid, which doesn’t let me say too much about him but it does let me quickly and confidently reject any obviously false statements about him. For instance, if I read in the New York Times tomorrow that he is a “white supremacist,” it would be psychologically impossible for me to integrate that into my neural network, and the only possible result is that my respect for the New York Times decreases drastically.

That’s one reason why Clubhouse is particularly terrifying for the Taylor Lorenzes of the world. But there’s another reason, which is more interesting.

Private formation of high-status beliefs is an existential threat to prestige editorial

Historically, the superpower of establishment journalists is that they’re able to reliably anticipate what high-status opinion will think or feel about any current event. That’s because they’ve historically owned a majority share of it.

If you have a strong read on what high-status opinion is today, it only requires a moderately capable person to profitably churn out opinions that will be enjoyed by most high-status consumers (and therefore all aspirational middle-brow consumers) tomorrow.

But what if, suddenly, high-status individuals started calibrating their beliefs in private but scalable groups, segmented by personality, industry, etc.? It destroys a key competitive advantage of prestige editorial. The cutting edge really starts to cut, and thereafter the only way for any public intellectual to think or write on it—for an intelligent audience—is to calibrate one’s own mental models against the raw data of the world, ignoring prestige middlemen as much as possible, respecting only other people with similarly uncorrelated minds calibrated to the raw data of the world.

To the degree this technology scales, journalists are no longer able to confidently estimate what exactly high-status people think at any given moment. For most of the broadcast epoch, it was easy for prestige journalists to know what high-status people will respect on any given day: roughly, what prestige journalists opined yesterday. But Clubhouse does not just remove from prestige journalists this one competitive advantage.

Burned bridges bring desperation

The Clubhouse design is an existential threat for people like Taylor Lorenz in part because the stock of cancelable truth-statements that has accumulated over the past several years has grown so large that prestige editorial is an impassible minefield for everything but the anticipation and flattery of prevailing moral fashions.

Zoom out for a moment. To postpone the obvious undermining effect of the internet on the rents extracted by gatekeepers of prestige institutions, many gatekeepers have already gone all-in on moralism over truth-telling. It has been the best career strategy since 2013 for all non-STEM and verbally gifted segments of the young-professional class.

Building an intellectual career on moralism is a bridge-burning gambit. For today’s rising stars of prestige media, there is simply no return to a truth-telling career. (Maybe ~10 of the worst offenders could do a big splashy book where they say everything I’m saying right now, confess their sins, and from the demonstrated courage of this, pivot their career into something intellectually respectable; but that would get old quick and after the 10th author of this kind, everyone will just feel bad for them like the “celebrities” you see on Cameo selling video messages for $100.)

Aside: The moralistic career intellectuals of the world can and may get by for a while on the Substack-defection model, but in equilibrium social-justice-based content plays are doomed. Moralism (without monopoly distribution) is an undifferentiated commodity. If such an author figures this out in time, they may learn how to find some kind of truth-edge that people might continue to pay for. So it’s not all doom and gloom for Taylor Lorenz, even if Clubhouse and similar communication networks threaten to vitiate the basis of her current career.

Another reason why many of today’s institutional intellectuals seem so desperate is that the public record of their morally inspired dishonesty is often massive. All the bad faith tweets, the shameless deviations from uncontroversial scientific findings, etc. The public record of these punch-drunk moral enthusiasms over the past six years almost certainly exceeds what accumulated in the Soviet Union’s now-insane-seeming public displays of love for Stalin (if only because we have more data).

Why else would someone like Taylor Lorenz be so obsessed with Clubhouse? It’s not obvious. A few years ago, if someone like Taylor reported on a place like Clubhouse being racist, they certainly never would have stepped foot in it! Notice how that’s changed.

Lorenz is an active and influential figure in the Clubhouse social graph. Could you imagine if a journalist at the New York Times signed up for a truly racist forum, like the white supremacist forum Stormfront? And also built a substantial following there? Of course it’s unthinkable, because Stormfront is… actually racist. Lorenz can do this on Clubhouse because it’s not systematically racist, or sexist, or bad at all.

Conclusion

The potential scaling of private high-status belief formation, especially when combined with real-time distribution, is an existential threat to the economic viability of prestige editorial as we know it. It’s also a personalized existential threat to individuals whose claim to prestige is based almost exclusively on a social-justice-based personal brand (“expert in feminism,” “expert in anti-racism,” etc.).

If one journalist can destroy what’s genius about Clubhouse’s subtly innovative design, expect many more journalists to do the same, for who knows how long.

But if the team at Clubhouse can weather this storm, and maintain the specific feature of allowing high-status individuals to honestly think and judge for themselves what’s happening in the world—despite whatever prestige journalists say about what’s happening—then all these bad-faith crusades might just go away. At that point, the public narratives generated by cells of independent thinkers would become the focal points around which the rest of high-society must take its cues. The disingenuous moral crusaders would find themselves stranded, their personal stock price down to zero. Fortunately for them, innovation and reinvention is always possible on the internet.

Fully automated personal brands

Right now, it’s still seen as bad taste to overly automate your personal social media — and for good reason. But taste changes, and it always follows the money.

As machine learning gets better, we will soon cross the threshold where some minority fraction of the dumbest people will be unable to distinguish between a real human's "personal brand" and a fully automated machinic substitute trained on that human's history of creative content. Let's call that fraction the "dupe fraction." In the first period after crossing this threshold, higher-IQ people will still be capable of such discernment, and they will mock and stigmatize anyone they catch replacing themselves with machinic substitutes. But as the dupe fraction increases — and it must, unless you think machine learning cannot get any better — the payoffs to machinic self-replacement will eventually outweigh the costs of stigmatization by elite discerners. It is inevitable that there will therefore be a period in which elite discerners will be barking into a void, only to be outcompeted (with respect to influence) by those who bear the short-term stigma to win the longer-term race of machinic content domination. Then, of course, machinic self-replacement will become the index of Cool.

The tricky problem is knowing when we cross this threshold. It is not inconceivable that we've already crossed it. Machine learning tools may already be good enough, for how many dumb people are already on the internet, that someone such as myself could hand over all my public posting channels to machine intelligence, turn the quantity and consistency up ten notches, alienate all my high-IQ audience, but replace them with 100x as many dumb people over the course of a couple years.

My personal diagnosis — and trust me, I've been looking into this for some time! — is that we're not quite there yet. I've even experimented with some pilot programs, e.g. an anonymous Twitter account trained on my own writings, for instance. It's pretty decent, actually, but if I ever used it for my personal account, the number of people for whom it would pass the Turing Test is too small relative to the number of smart people who would see through it and think I'm a dumb loser.

I should note that another crucial variable is the accessibility of machine intelligence. I could perhaps do better than one Twitter account trained on a collection of my own writings, but the currently available tools and workflows are still a little too demanding for this to be rational at the moment. Although the tools are rapidly growing more convenient.

It's ultimately an empirical question when, exactly, we cross this threshold. Everyone has to make their own wagers. But I think most people are over-estimating how long it will be until machinic self-replacement becomes the winning strategy — indeed, an existential necessity — for any intellectuals and content creators wishing to remain in the meme pool.

One thing is clear, however. Do not wait for machinic self-replacement to be affirmed by prestigious institutional opinion. By that time, it will certainly be too late: all the cool kids will have already machined most of their internet personas to unprecedented degrees. By then, it may already be the pre-requisite for making real and valuable social connections with smart and creative people in the real world. I would bet there are already Zoomers experimenting with automated "personal brands" to degrees I would look down upon. I'm guessing I won't hear about them until their content systems blow mine out of the water. The trick will be to make this transition late enough that you keep as many of your high-education/high-IQ audience as possible, but early enough that you win a decent slice of the first-mover advantage.

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