Clubhouse and Continuous Partial Attention

Anytime a new social app like Clubhouse captures millions of people’s attention and skyrockets to a supposed billion dollar valuation in a matter of months, I wonder: What is this activity replacing? Which app has been shoved aside for the new kid on the block?

The obvious answer is that Clubhouse listening time is replacing podcast listening time.

But analogizing Clubhouse to a podcast obscures its unique benefits, which is that it’s social and live. Unlike a podcast, which is an entirely passive consumption experience, on Clubhouse there’s the prospect of participation (if the moderator invites you to speak). You can see all your friends who are listening alongside you in real time. I’m sure you’ll soon be able to text chat with them. Until then, a peanut gallery live chat happens in real time on Twitter.

Active participation requires one notch more attention than listening to a podcast. Dedicating that extra attention is what produces Clubhouse’s unique benefits; it’s also what makes Clubhouse potentially problematic for our ADD-prone brains.

To be clear, one can engage with Clubhouse passively. I could listen to it in the same spaces I listen to podcasts: walking the dog, eating, driving, etc. and just forego all the social+live benefits. But in that case, I’d rather just listen on-demand to the recorded version of a show on 2x speed, as I can with podcasts. A passive Clubhouse experience is inferior to podcasts.

So how have I actively listened to Clubhouse so far? I’ve sat in a chair, with the app open and my ears alert, and stared at the wall. Unfortunately, my wall is nice but it’s not that nice. I mean, there’s a reason TV eclipsed radio. There’s an extraordinarily high quality bar to justify devoting your undivided attention to…live audio.

It’s not surprising then that when I talk to Clubhouse junkies about when and how they listen, they’ll say they keep it on in the background while doing other work. A friend of mine told me he can dip in and engage when he’s intrigued; zone out when he isn’t. I suspect this is the case for most Clubhouse listeners today who have day jobs: they multi-task.

I’m unable to do this. When human voices are involved – or lyrical music – I can’t focus on anything cognitive. I can’t turn Clubhouse on in the background, do real work, and then dive in to the conversation, like a bird plucking a fish out of the water, the moment my interest is piqued. My attention is all or nothing.

Well, that’s not often true. I’m no focused zen saint: My attention is horribly fractured in a million pieces most of the time. But when I hear humans in conversation or song, I can’t multi-task even if I try.

But I aspire for “all or nothing with my attention” to be true in more parts of my life. I’d like for one of my superpowers to be the ability to focus, to be fully present, to be able to direct my attention to one thing with great intentionality. I’m fairly persuaded by Buddhist literature on this point: “We may believe that it’s the quality of the sunset that gives us such pleasure, but in fact it is the quality of our own immersion in the sunset that brings the delight.”

I also aspire to cultivate this attention superpower for balder career reasons: Rare skills, if valuable, are especially remunerative, and no one in tech seems to be able to focus anymore. Zig when others zag, perhaps?

So Clubhouse for me is a complicated experience. I’ve enjoyed some of the content a great deal, especially the conversations that you can’t find anywhere else, such as Elon Musk’s remarkable grilling of the Robinhood founder days after the Gamestop fiasco.

But I worry that for a user to benefit from what makes it a uniquely compelling product requires practicing a form of continuous partial attention. This may or may not matter much to you in that particular Clubhouse moment—perhaps those emails you’re archiving as you listen with vague awareness aren’t terribly important. But I worry it can have knock-on consequences to the underlying muscle of focus. That it will erode your ability to pay attention to one thing at a time when you actually want or need to.

Not that many people will pay attention to this concern, of course. Right now, Clubhouse rules. And Cal Newport weeps.


I reviewed Tyler Cowen’s The Age of the Infovore some years ago and wrote approvingly of the pleasures of multi-tasking and distraction… And here’s a search result for my writing and experiences with Buddhism.

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