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.

Thinking About People Who Have Less Than You Before Writing/Bragging About It

If you’re writing about your life on social media and want to be considerate of the feelings of people who are not lucky enough to have what you have, be cautious about how you write about your highly desired, hard to obtain things and experiences like a second home in the country, a shiny new Tesla, beautiful well-adjusted kids, and a loving spouse.

Self-aware people tend to exercise this restraint when it’s about material wealth. I don’t see a lot of compassionate, aware people writing Facebook posts like, “It’s so glorious to have a second mansion in Napa. It just feels great to jet over there and relax in wine country.” The people I know who maintain multiple fancy residences either don’t write about it publicly at all, to self-express with subtlety: “Beautiful day in the Hamptons” might be the caption of a single photo of a beach; they choose not to include a 6 photo slideshow of their fancy kitchen and $5 million re-model.

Yet with respect to one’s personal life, people tend to be less restrained when writing — and bragging — about their triumphs.

“So blessed to be married to the most amazing man in the universe, who loves me every day, pushes me to be stronger, and makes me a better human. He’s my rock.” How do singletons feel when reading this? How do people in shitty marriages feel?

It’s especially noticeable when it’s about kids. Parents frequently post odes to their perfect offspring without regard to all the people who may be reading it who are unable to or cannot have children for whatever reason.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating how amazing your spouse or child is, or for that matter, how much you love that second home in Napa, or your thousand dollar bottle of wine, or brand new Tesla. But there’s a time and a place for those celebratory words and photos. Private journal? Private email to friends? Private iCloud photo stream group?

Our social media presences by default broadcast public to the world, indiscriminately. If it’s low cost to self-express without making those who are less fortunate feel badly, it’s worth doing, in my view. Many people already do this with their material trophies. If my Facebook feed is any indicator, people could do better when tooting their horn about their personal life wins.

Keen on Resurfacing Interesting, Old Articles? Paid Internship

I’m not able to blog as much these days (busy with work and a bit more private than I used to be), though I hope that changes, and I expect it will over the next 6-12 months. In the meantime, I’ve got thousands of posts buried in the archives of this blog and on other platforms, and I want to re-surface and re-edit them for present-day consumption.

I’m looking for someone to help me do that. It’ll be a 2-3 month project, probably 10 hours a week, with very flexible work hours and fully remote. If you’re familiar with my writing over the years, that will be helpful, as you’ll be exercising judgement about which of my archived content to include in this project. Strong familiarity with Twitter, Facebook, and Linkedin is required.

You’ll receive a paid retainer for this work, which includes the perk — if you view it as such — of sorting through and summarizing certain interesting blog posts and articles on the web.

If you’re interested, please email me at: [email protected] with a little about who you are and any links to your existing social media presence. Thanks.

The Wisdom and Wonder of Kevin Kelly

One of the most interesting people alive, for sure. Here are my extended notes from his epic book What Technology Wants. Here are his three appearances on Russ Roberts’ Econtalk.

And here’s his recent interview with Tim Ferriss on Tim’s new podcast. All three parts are worth listening to. Kevin is a very wise man, and his perspective on the good life resonates deeply. Find yourself by creating yourself. Think through writing. Be the best version of yourself. And much more.

Felix Salmon on the Economics of Online Content

Over the past year, Felix Salmon of Reuters wrote a masterful five-part series on the economics of content online. Worth reading for anyone interested in the topic. I link to each part below and excerpt my favorite paragraphs (all Salmon’s words, but emphases are my own).

Part 1: Advertising

Do advertising dollars ultimately end up where people spend their time, he asked, echoing Kleiner Perkins’ Mary Meeker says, or, pace Bernstein Research’s Todd Juenger, is that a “fallacy”?

I’m with Juenger on this one. As he says, “time spent is supply, advertising spend is demand… Just because there is a large and growing supply of Internet inventory doesn’t mean advertisers have a correspondingly large desire to deliver more Internet impressions.” Indeed, as the price of online inventory continues to fall, it seems just as likely that online ad spend will go down (because the ads being bought are getting cheaper) as that it will go up…

Moreover, if you’re running a news site, you’ll be even more sobered to learn that just 2.7% of the time that people spend on the internet is spent on news sites. You think you’re competing against a lot of other news sites to attract advertisers? You don’t know the half of it. In reality, you’re competing against the other 97.3% of websites, andthey are competing against TV. It’s a fight you can’t hope to win, especially since non-news websites are so much better at delivering people primed to buy stuff (search) or delivering large numbers of people in narrowly-targeted demographics (Facebook)…

According to Meeker, some 67% of all ad dollars are spent either on TV or in print. And according to Juenger, ad spend on TV actually went up, between 2009 and 2012, even as Americans’ attention moved away from TV and towards other screens. That makes sense to me, mainly because of the point I was making back in 2009, drawing the distinction between brand advertising, on the one hand, and direct marketing, on the other. TV is brand advertising; online ads, by contrast, are closer to direct marketing….

When people like Meeker look at ad spend, they’re looking mainly at brand advertising. Brands are valuable things, and billions of dollars are spent every year to keep them that way, mostly on TV and in print. And if you have a big national brand, there’s really only one way to reach a big national audience: you need to buy ads on TV. Doing so is expensive, but it’s necessary, and it works, which explains the huge sums of money which still flow into TV every year…

So if the internet is not going to displace TV as a medium for mass-market brand advertising, might it at least be good at direct marketing? Can publishers not deliver certain readers, in certain demographics, to marketers who want to reach them? To a certain extent, yes. But the fact is that Google and Facebook, between them, are extremely good at delivering as many of those readers as any advertiser could ever want: all that Facebook needs to do is turn a dial, and billions of new impressions get added to the stock of global inventory, targeted at any demographic that any advertiser could want. Google, similarly, owns search, especially mobile search. It’s conceivable that some marketers might prefer to reach an audience some other way — but this is a race to the bottom, with a finite amount of demand chasing an essentially infinite amount of supply. That’s a buyer’s world, where the sellers have no real leverage at all…

Some very large proportion of the websites on the internet have a pretty basic business model: “we will publish great content; millions of people will want to read or view that content; advertisers will want to reach those people; and so we’ll be able to sell our audience to advertisers and make lots of money”. There are people out there who have succeeded with that model, but the number of successes is dwarfed by the number of failures, and the amount of scale you need to even get your foot in any media buyer’s door has been rising dramatically for years. By the time you’ve paid for your content and for your ad-sales infrastructure, the chances that you’ll have any money at all left over for your shareholders are slim indeed, and getting slimmer year by year…

All of which means that smart online publishers are looking beyond advertising, to other forms of generating revenues.

[In a recent exchange with Marc Andreessen, during Marc’s tweet storm about online journalism, Felix wrote: “Pot at end of rainbow = advertisers who aren’t buying on a CPM basis.”]

Part 2: Payments (Alternatives to Advertising)

Which brings up a fundamental rule of online subscriptions: there is zero correlation between value and price. There are lots of incredibly expensive stock-tipping newsletters which have a negative value: you’d be much better off if you didn’t subscribe to any of them at all. And of course there’s an almost infinite amount of wonderfully valuable content available online for free, starting with Wikipedia and moving on through the sites of organizations like Reuters, Bloomberg, the Guardian, and the BBC

But there’s another consideration, too: the more formidable the paywall, the more money you might generate in the short term, but the less likely it is that new readers are going to discover your content and want to subscribe to you in the future.

Part 3: Costs

If [Bezos] didn’t want an established property, he could have invested $250 million to create a brand-new journalistic outlet. To put that sum in context, the total amount of money raised by Business Insider, since inception, is $21.6 million; Vox Media has raised $23.5 million; BuzzFeed is on $46.3 million; andHuffington Post raised $37 million before it was acquired by AOL. Throw in Gawker Media, Mashable, Politico, Pando Daily, Breaking Media, Weblogs Inc, and just about any other new journalism company you can think of, up to and including Bustle; you’re still nowhere near $250 million…

The result is that the journalistic outlets seeing the biggest profits are the ones where costs are kept incredibly low. At one extreme lies the Bleacher Report, which was sold for a reported $180 million; it consists primarily of stories written by unpaid contributors, expertly optimized to maximize pageviews at the expense of accuracy or quality. Or look at Summly, which Yahoo bought for $30 million: it produces news summaries entirely by algorithm, with no editorial costs at all… 

Here’s a statistic worth dwelling on: “A senior editor at The Washington Post recently told me that he killed an average of three advanced investigations a year, usually over the protests of the reporters, who couldn’t see that they didn’t have the goods.” Outside ProPublica — and even inside it — how many online-only organizations can say the same?

Part 4: Scale

Henry Blodget: “I do think that over the next five years, what you’re going to see is a lot of consolidation. The fact is, there are way too many digital news and media organizations out there right now. There will be a lot of consolidation. As they come together, you will get huge economies of scale on the sales side, on the tech side, and on some of the other areas as well. And then you’re going to see these companies produce good profits…”…

It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the CMS when it comes to the question of who’s going to win the online-publishing wars. As Blodget said on Friday, if you’re going to make serious money in this business, you need serious scale. If you want serious scale, you have to be able to expand not only organically but also by acquisition. And if you want to be able to scale up through dealmaking, you need to have a technology and sales platform which can support large-scale acquisitions…

The difference between the Glam view of the world, which comprises thousands of publishing brands, and the Blodget view of the world, which involves only a relative handful, is that while it’s true that consumers like brands, it’s no longer true that one big brand is going to beat thousands of small brands. Smaller websites can feel much more targeted and personal, and can build up a much more loyal following, than sites which have millions of users. If advertisers can get their ads onto that kind of site, and reach just as many people as they would buying one huge site, they’re better off for it. …

The question, however, is whether Bankoff would want Business Insider to be part of Vox. News is always a tougher sell, but at the same time it confers priceless legitimacy: BuzzFeed, for instance, is investing an enormous amount of money in its journalism, not because that’s a particularly cost-effective way to generate traffic, but rather because it means that both readers and advertisers take the site much more seriously as a result…

Looking at Medium, along with Vox, and Glam, and even AOL, I think I can begin to discern the vague outlines of how digital publishing might eventually be able to deliver the kind of scale and impact that brand advertisers demand from TV and glossy magazines. I don’t know who the winner is going to be. But I do think that Blodget is right about one thing: whoever the winner is, they will have to have some very deep pockets. Winning this game won’t come cheap.

Part 5: News

The most enjoyable part of blogging, in the early days, was putting things up on the internet and seeing people respond to them — by clicking on your links, or linking to you, or engaging you in the comments section. But it wasn’t easy. Twitter and Facebook — and Pinterest, for that matter, and the rest of the social media universe — did two important things. Firstly they made publishing incredibly easy; and secondly they rewarded publishing by giving contributors immediate likes and replies and favs and other evidence that people really cared about what you were publishing. It was the endorphin rush familiar to old-school bloggers, democratized and accelerated…

Right now might also be a very brief window of opportunity for roll-up strategies. The idea behind such things is simple: if you have a powerful CMS, then it makes sense to take existing sites (like, say, the Curbed Network) and move them onto a more powerful system (like, say, Vox Media’s Chorus). Everybody wins. But as web technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, and sites start looking very different depending on the device used to view them, it becomes increasingly difficult to port an entire website over to a brand-new platform. You can’t just import the HTML and tweak the CSS any more. Up until very recently, there hasn’t been the money available to prosecute such a strategy; it won’t be all that long before such a strategy becomes technically much more difficult. (I can’t imagine, for instance, merging the Vox Media and BuzzFeed back ends without enormous headaches and difficulty.) So if you’re going to do it, then you should waste no time.