We couldn't escape talking about Clubhouse
In this episode, we talk about Google AI Researcher Margaret Mitchell’s letter to the company about the firing of former AI Researcher, Timnit Gebru, Apple’s App Tracking Transparency, and smartphone data that was given to The New York Times that was used to track Capitol rioters. Then we chat with Casey Lau, co-host of RISE, one of the Web Summit conferences, and host of the RISE Offstage podcast, to talk about how Clubhouse will impact the future of tech conferences, and what developers' place is within the Clubhouse ecosystem.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Casey Lau is co-host of RISE, one of the Web Summit conferences, and host of the RISE Offstage podcast.
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:21] SY: This week, we’re talking about Google AI Researcher Margaret Mitchell’s letter to the company about the firing of former AI Researcher, Timnit Gebru, Apple’s app tracking transparency, and smartphone data that was given to the New York Times that was used to track Capitol rioters.
[00:00:38] JP: Then we chat with Casey Lau, co-host of RISE, one of the Web Summit conferences, and host of the RISE Offstage Podcast, to talk about how Clubhouse will impact the future of tech conferences and what developers’ place is in the Clubhouse ecosystem.
[00:00:52] CL: But actually the word is companion because definitely there’s no way that this audio, invisible heads talking to each other is going to replace an actual in-person conference.
[00:01:02] SY: We’re starting out this episode with some news relating to the firing of former Google AI Researcher, Dr. Timnit Gebru, who said she was fired after she sent an email criticizing the company’s efforts to hire underrepresented people in tech, as well as biases in their AI. We cover this back in Season 2, Episode 7 where we spoke to Julien Cornebise, an Honorary Associate Professor at University College London, and a former researcher with DeepMind, Google’s AI lab.
[00:01:30] JC: This came as a shocking news and in a lot of ways because Timnit is extremely respected in the field and is really a shining star. And because the person who was involved in the firing is none other than Jeff Dean, who has also been an inspiration to many developers and researchers. So there’s this clash here that just shocks.
[00:01:55] SY: Since this firing, others who’ve spoken out criticizing the decision have had various repercussions. One of these people is Dr. Margaret Mitchell, the Founder and Lead of the Google Ethical AI team, who co-lead the team with Dr. Gebru. On January 19th, Dr. Gebru wrote a tweet about Dr. Mitchell saying, “Guess what. Margaret Mitchell’s corp access is now locked. I’m wondering if she’s going to get an email to her personal email, accepting her “resignation”. I have not seen a company that has this little shame in a while.” Dr. Mitchell is still with the company. However, a Google spokesperson said that her corporate account had been locked because she downloaded and shared sensitive documents with external accounts and that they were currently investigating the incident. On Friday of last week, Dr. Mitchell sent a tweet regarding her being locked out of her account saying, “I am concerned about Timnit Gebru’s firing from Google and its relationship to sexism and discrimination. I wanted to share the email I wrote to Google Press the day my access was cut off.” The email goes through several points about why she views the firing of Dr. Gebru as a terrible decision. In it, she states, “The firing of Dr. Timnit Gebru is not okay and the way it was done is not okay. It appears to stem from the same lack of foresight that is at the core of modern technology and so itself serves as an example of the problem. The firing seems to have been fueled by the same underpinnings of racism and sexism that our AI systems, when in the wrong hands, tend to soak up. How Dr. Gebru was fired is not okay. What was said about it is not okay. And the environment leading up to it was and is not okay. Every moment where Jeff Dean and Megan Kacholia do not take responsibility for their actions is another moment where the company, as a whole, stands by silently as if to intentionally send the horrifying message that Dr. Gebru deserves to be treated this way, treated as if she were inferior to her peers, caricatured as irrational and worse. Her research writing publicly defined as below the bar. Her scholarship publicly declared to be inefficient. For the record, Dr. Gebru has been treated completely inappropriately with intense disrespect and she deserves an apology.” We’ll put a link to the email in our show notes. So Josh, you read the email, the Google Doc that had the email in it.
[00:04:20] JP: I did.
[00:04:21] SY: What were your thoughts on it?
[00:04:23] JP: This situation is really weird. I think that’s my first thought. I was very concerned like everyone else that Dr. Mitchell’s access was revoked for seemingly accessing her email. She had said that she was downloading a large amount of her email archives to kind of corroborate the timeline with the firing of Dr. Gebru and looked for patterns within there. And of course, access to your entire email archive is a hallmark of Gmail. It seems strange that she would be punished for accessing her own corporate email, unless of course Google really doesn’t want her digging around, which is really what this seems like.
[00:05:11] SY: Yeah. I mean, it definitely feels like a very defensive move, for sure, especially with Dr. Gebru being so vocal. Right? I was looking at the original tweet she sent out where she was like, “I’ve been fired and made it look like I resigned.” And I think that tweet alone got like well over a thousand retweets. So this has definitely been a big conversation in the tech industry. And I’m sure Google is completely on edge about like anyone talking about it and anything that might possibly be related. So I guess I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised that they’ve been on her and probably keeping tabs on what Dr. Mitchell has been doing and accessing. So not a complete surprise for a company that’s really come under fire for this.
[00:05:55] JP: I think the only part I found surprising is that Dr. Mitchell is still working at Google or seems to be still employed by Google. She has been a little quiet on her Twitter account, which I cannot blame her for. It’s pretty dangerous to be erring public laundry like this and still expect to keep your job. I frankly think she might be doing it as a defensive measure for her own position, which is smart, in my opinion, to make this a public.
[00:06:20] SY: Very understandable.
[00:06:20] JP: Shed more light on it helps, in theory, keep Google accountable. But this is a really weird situation. I get the sense that Google would just like their ethical AI team to go away, but not fire them, of course, because that would look bad. I really think Google just wants an ethical AI team that agrees with everything Google’s doing.
[00:06:39] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:06:42] JP: If you’re hiring ethical AI researchers like Dr. Mitchell and Dr. Gebru, that’s not what you’re going to get.
[00:06:48] SY: Yeah. I’ve heard about these ethical AI teams, a lot of the big tech companies and that’s always kind of the question that’s always been in the back of my mind. Here’s the thing, I trust and believe that the people who were hired for those positions have the best intentions. And I do honestly think that they’re working hard and trying to do right by their users and by the general public and all that. But I’m also like, “How has the company viewed them? Does the company view them as this kind of playing offense or kind of trying to get ahead of people criticizing them or response to people already criticizing them? Do they really support them?” If the ethicists come back and say, “Actually, we’re doing everything wrong and here are all the ways, and here are things we need to improve,” what happens? In this context and the story of Dr. Gebru, the result is that she got fired, which is a very scary message for anyone, frankly in any position and definitely in AI ethics, but it does make me wonder and frankly makes me a little more pessimistic that companies will back their ethicists if they say things that go against what the company is not only doing, but what the company is profiting off of. I don’t know if we knew exactly what products. Do we know what products Dr. Gebru’s work was directly impacting?
[00:08:07] JP: The general consensus is that Dr. Gebru’s and Dr. Mitchell’s work was not specifically for one product. Dr. Mitchell talks about this in her letter. They’re working from a potential future and working backwards to the present to see what changes need to happen right now, company-wide, to get to that good future. And their conclusion was we got to make some changes.
[00:08:29] SY: I get that’s a scary thing, but if you’re going to hire these people, you got to be able to back them. Otherwise, it’s just for show, which is unfortunate for everyone involved.
[00:08:38] JP: Right. Good luck Google hiring anybody for these teams in the future. Nobody that’s in this profession wants to sign up to just be a rubber stamp on a corporate entity.
[00:08:49] SY: It kind of hurts their recruiting in two ways. Number one, if you’re an AI ethicist or maybe working in AI, maybe you’re not an ethicist, but you care about the impact of your work. I imagine Google is probably not going to be the first place you go to, so it kind of hurts them on that front, but it also hurts them with just underrepresented people in general, in the tech industry. I was talking to a developer yesterday. He’s a person of color, incredible resume. He had a full-ride, studied computer science. He works at a really great prestigious tech company. He’s someone you want to hire. He’s someone you want to work with, super smart. He was telling me, he was like, “Yeah, I’m thinking about my next steps and kind of where I want to go from here.” And he was like, “I mean, it’s not Google.” And I was like, “Ooh!”
[00:09:37] JP: Yeah.
[00:09:37] SY: You know what I mean? He was like, “After all this stuff that has been happening with them, just the stuff they’ve done,” and he’s like, “I definitely don’t want to work there.” And I was like, “Yeah, I can hear a lot of people feeling that way.”
[00:09:48] JP: Exactly. Right. Well, we’ll be watching the story as it unfolds. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the situation and the Ethical AI team at Google at all.
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[00:11:03] JP: There was a really great piece in the New York Times this week about how thousands of smartphones were tracked around the US Capitol Building during the January 6th Riot, including many of those that participated in the attack, which led to the deaths of five people. We’ll put a link to the story in our show notes. Now apparently an anonymous source gave the New York Times a dataset showing a 100,000 location pings from smartphones, including 130 pings inside the Capitol Building during the attack. The times could also tell from the data who was at the Trump rally before going over to the Capitol Building and participating in the riot. The source who asked to remain anonymous because “the person was not authorized to share the data and could face severe penalties for doing so” told the Times that they were sharing this data because they were outraged by the riot. The article is a cautionary tale about user privacy and how not everyone with access to our data is going to be a good actor. In the article, the writers, Charlie Warzel and Stuart A. Thompson, go on to say, “The data presented here is a bird’s eye view of an event that posts a clear and grave threat to our democracy, but it tells a second story as well. One of a broken surreptitious industry in desperate need of regulation and a tacit agreement that we’ve entered into that threatens our individual privacy. None of this data should ever have been collected.” This is incredible to me and the first thing I want to ask you, Saron, is where do you think this data came from? Obviously, it came from smartphones, but who do you think leaked this data?
[00:12:35] SY: Oh, I don’t know. Who did?
[00:12:37] JP: I was guessing it’s someone at a cell phone company. That was my guess or maybe a social media company.
[00:12:43] SY: Yeah. I can see either one of those. I think this is interesting because when we talk about privacy and when I hear the privacy conversations, I’m always thinking of protecting the good guys, like protecting the people, like the innocent citizens who are just going about their day. Maybe he did like a silly Google search on guns and now they’re being accused of planning a murder. You know what I mean? Just like something to that effect. And I guess when you’re protecting privacy of people, you’re protecting privacy of all people, right? Even the people who do bad things and try to destroy a sacred national monument. It’s kind of an interesting reminder of what privacy actually means that it incorporates and involves everyone equally. And when we fight for privacy rights, we are fighting for the people we may not agree with. This was kind of an interesting reminder of that.
[00:13:40] JP: Right. I mean, many of the founding principles of the country are supposed to be founded on that, like the idea that you shouldn’t be compelled to testify against yourself. Sure, that means that some bad guys are going to get away, but it means that a lot of good guys, I hate this terminology, it means a lot of innocent people are also going to be protected. And I think that’s part of living in a democracy. And if we value privacy and we value freedom, we have to take those potential bad effects with all of the defects.
[00:14:10] SY: Right. Right. Absolutely. Yeah. You can’t pick sides in this situation. Or I guess the side you’re picking are privacy for all or privacy for none, but you can kind of selectively give privacy to the people you like. Unfortunately, I wish I could do that, but I can’t. So I have to pick a side. And yeah, I got to take some of the good with the bad.
[00:14:30] JP: I’m really curious about this dataset. They don’t go into a huge amount of detail in the Times’ article, but they walk through how they were able to take these smartphone pings, and in the article, it makes it sound like their smartphone pings from a variety of different applications potentially. And they’re able to track individual people, not because of anything in the data, but they’re able to correlate it. So they could see someone who was at the rally stage. Then that same identifier was at the US Capitol. Then that same identifier went to Kentucky, and oh, look, here’s a social media post from someone in Kentucky posting about going to the rally, and you can kind of make those linkages, even though each individual app or set of data might be “anonymous”. When you start linking those sets together, you can very accurately pinpoint someone.
[00:15:25] SY: Yeah, it’s really fascinating. I mean, just the power of little data points put them together and you get something truly, truly powerful. It’s incredible.
[00:15:32] JP: Yeah. It also speaks to how I think we all take for granted or I think we all assume there’s a level of privacy and non-disclosure in our technology use that isn’t really there. I doubt any of these people understood this was going on.
[00:15:47] SY: Oh, I’m sure, I’m sure. They have no idea. Yeah. So speaking of privacy, I’m going to assume that all of you love your privacy. This might be some very exciting news for you. Apple announced that they are coming out with something called “app tracking transparency” for their iOS devices this spring. What this will do is force app developers to ask the app user for explicit permission to track their data. If developers don’t comply with this, they’ll risk suspension or removal from the App Store. So this is pretty serious stuff. Now a lot of apps allow you to opt out of certain tracking if you go into your phone settings and turn it off, but you can imagine that much more people would opt out of this tracking much more often if the option was much more clear and readily available. So Apple had planned to launch this in iOS 14 last fall, but delayed its release to give developers some more time to comply, which I think it was very nice. So Apple will also not allow developers to disable any of their app’s functionality if users opt out of the tracking, because that’s how they get you, right? They’re like, “Well, if you don’t let us do this, you can’t use the whole thing.” And they’ll prohibit any kind of incentivization like in-app perks for users who opt into tracking. So this is pretty serious. This is some hardcore stuff. It’s interesting because they’ve decided to do this thing and then I feel like they’ve covered the loopholes that developers would have used to get around it.
[00:17:08] JP: Right.
[00:17:09] SY: Do you know what I mean?
[00:17:09] JP: Yeah.
[00:17:09] SY: Or to encourage people to give them data, which really speaks to Apple’s commitment.
[00:17:13] JP: So in mobile advertising communities, this is being called the IDFA Apocalypse. IDFA stands for Identifier for Advertisers, and it’s a random ID. If you’re an iOS app, you can ask the phone, “Hey, give me a random ID, so I can track this person across multiple apps.” And that’s what’s going to be guarded against. Apps will be able to access this without user permission anymore. And mobile advertising, people are freaking out. Facebook is freaking out because this is going to severely impact their ability to track users and their actions across multiple apps. So think about last time you did a search for, say, I hate to throw an entire product category under the bus, but let’s say a mattress.
[00:18:01] SY: Okay.
[00:18:03] JP: Because that’s what that’s near and dear to my heart. I recently purchased, I shouldn’t say recently, several years ago I purchased a mattress. Yeah. Several years ago, I purchased a mattress online. I’m still getting ads for this. And if you do a search like in a browser, or you do a search on say like Instagram for a mattress, you start getting those ads on Twitter. You start getting those ads in different applications like Facebook and that’s because the IDFA is being used to track your activity across those multiple applications. You take that away and advertisers are concerned that they’re not going to be able to do anything on iOS.
[00:18:43] SY: That’s pretty big. I mean, that’s big for content creators who rely on ads, game developers who rely on. I mean, ads are, unfortunately for users, such a huge part of the app experience that I feel like there’s two possible things that might happen. Number one is you just get worse ads. You get ads that are not tailored and more generics, which maybe you care about, maybe you don’t. Probably don’t. And then the other thing that could happen is apps on iPhone, like the value of it can decrease so much that maybe the apps have to come up with different business models to survive. Like if it’s drastic enough of an impact, maybe the app developer is like, “Now I have to charge a subscription and I have to charge for this app,” or do something else to kind of stay afloat or keep making their money. So I’m wondering if it’s going to be a small impact where like the ads aren’t good or a big impact where people have to really rethink how they develop and stay sustainable.
[00:19:43] JP: Right. I hadn’t thought about that. This is going to really tank the prices for ads, I think, on ad networks.
[00:19:50] SY: Exactly.
[00:19:50] JP: The way they kind of work now is that you pay more for an ad, the more targeted it is. I dug into this a little bit on Facebook. The level of targeting you can do in an ad is incredible. You can pick a particular neighborhood, a ZIP code and an age range and a certain interest, and really hyper target that ad to people. And you’re not going to be able to do that anymore because Facebook’s not going to have reliable information about who these individual people are if they’re not able to track them across the apps.
[00:20:20] SY: I heard this story. I think it was in one of my classes like a year ago where the targeting tools, I think it was on Facebook, were so targeting and were so specific and so good that there is this one guy who was trying to market to this one CEO of this one company and was able to put an ad directly in front of him. I think it was like only him because he was able to just slice that demographic down to the point where he got his ad. I don’t remember what happened or what came of it, but I thought that was incredible. He placed exactly one ad and it was to that one person because that’s how targeted Facebook ads were. It was mind blowing.
[00:21:05] JP: So I think we’re all assuming that the first time you launched Facebook or Instagram after this update goes out and there’s a big box that will appear and it’ll say, “Hey, would you give permission to Facebook to track you across multiple sites and apps?” I think we’re all assuming everyone in their right mind is going to click that no button so quickly.
[00:21:26] SY: Yeah.
[00:21:26] JP: Okay. I’m a little conflicted by this.
[00:21:29] SY: Oh!
[00:21:30] JP: Right. Okay. So here’s my pitch. This is kind of a strong ad, but here’s my pitch. I love the targeted ads I get on Instagram. I will admit now, I’m an Instagram shopping addict. I know the ads are targeted specifically to my interests. But there’s something about these products.
[00:21:52] SY: They’re really good. They’re really good.
[00:21:53] JP: They hit my sweet spot. I was advertised a sweater the other day with a cow on it. I live in Wisconsin. I love big chunky sweaters. This thing ticked all the boxes. I ordered it so fast. It arrived. It’s glorious. I never would have found this product without these ridiculous targeted ads. Is it enough to give my privacy up over? I don’t know. I was just complaining about getting these old mattresses three years later.
[00:22:22] SY: Totally, I’m with you. I do really appreciate those ads. I think I bought like only two things, but I bookmarked like all of them, just in case, just in case. But if the question is, “Can we track?” No. You know what I mean?
[00:22:35] JP: Okay, fair enough. Yes.
[00:22:36] SY: Because literally the words track you, that’s just too creepy. I don’t know what the wording is, I don’t know if there are rules on what the wording literally needs to be, because if they said, “Can we give you targeted ads?” Sure. That’s fine. But if you’re like, literally, “Can we use your data to track you across multiple devices?” Absolutely not. That is just too creepy. Can’t get down with that.
[00:22:59] JP: We should also point out this feature only applies to advertiser identifiers used between applications. So Instagram somehow has a dataset built up of me looking at pictures of sweaters and cows. They still can use that information to target the ads totally within Instagram. It’s just across apps. So maybe my shopping is safe.
[00:23:21] SY: Okay. Good. Good. As long as you’re shopping.
[00:23:25] JP: So Saron, the time has come. We could not escape it.
[00:23:29] SY: Oh, boy!
[00:23:30] JP: We have to talk about Clubhouse.
[00:23:32] SY: Oh, boy!
[00:23:34] JP: That’s the live chat social media platform or you can drop in and listen to people’s conversations about a variety of topics. The app is currently invite only. I know, I’ve been on it. You’re on it as well. Right?
[00:23:46] SY: Yup. Yup.
[00:23:47] JP: It has around six million users right now. So it’s invite-only in like a Gmail. It was invite-only for 10 years’ kind of sense.
[00:23:54] SY: Yeah.
[00:23:56] JP: Now there are so many people itching to get on this app. There’s even a little economy of people selling their invites. There’s an entire subreddit for selling these invites, which I just found out about, with invites going from 20 to 125 dollars an invite.
[00:24:09] SY: Wow!
[00:24:10] JP: And the company itself has raised $110 million in funding without even being public.
[00:24:14] SY: Wow!
[00:24:15] JP: Crazy.
[00:24:15] SY: That’s insane.
[00:24:16] JP: So coming up next, we’re going to speak with Casey Lau, co-host of RISE, one of the Web Summit conferences and host of the RISE Offstage Podcast, to talk about how Clubhouse will impact the future of tech conferences and what developers place is in the Clubhouse ecosystem after this.
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[00:25:51] SY: Here with us is Casey Lau, co-host of RISE, one of the Web Summit conferences and host of the RISE Offstage Podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:26:00] CL: Thanks for having me guys.
[00:26:02] SY: So tell us a bit about your career background.
[00:26:04] CL: Okay. I thought you said this was only going to be 30 minutes, not three hours. Well, I guess you’re more interested in it as it pertains to the conference industry. Right? So I guess about 10 years ago, I just started organizing these conferences in Hong Kong, not even conferences, just meetups, having people come together, just talk about startups and technology and things like that. And it just grew and grew from there because a lot of people are looking for ways to connect and meet other people. I guess 10 years ago, the startup industry, at least in Asia, was just starting out. So anywhere that you could meet co-founders or investors or just tell people what you’re working on, demo, what you’re working on, getting feedback. That was a big thing. It just organically grew from that into these kinds of bigger things. And then the Web Summit is already existing around this time in Dublin, Ireland. The founder, Paddy Cosgrave, was starting to expand it. So he expanded his conference from Europe to North America with Collision that first started in Las Vegas, and then he branched into Asia and started RISE in Hong Kong. And he asked me to be the co-host of the event and I was thrilled because Web Summit has such a huge reputation of being this really high quality, high class tech conference. So that’s how I kind of got involved and that’s been like the last five, six years of doing that. And now Collision is our other conference, which is now the host cities now, Toronto and Canada. And Web Summit moved from Dublin to Lisbon, Portugal. And RISE has moved from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. So it’s kind of like the Olympics of tech conferences. They kind of move around to different host cities and kind of explode that tech ecosystem there.
[00:27:40] SY: Wow! That’s amazing. So let’s open up the discussion about Clubhouse. So I’m on Clubhouse. Josh, you’re on Clubhouse. Casey, obviously, you’re on Clubhouse. So I’d love to hear from everyone actually. What was your initial impression of Clubhouse? Casey, let’s start with you. What were your thoughts when you first heard about the platform?
[00:28:00] CL: Had a friend invite me last fall. There weren't that many people on it, but I thought it was very good because, yeah, I’m sure everybody will tell you this. You feel like a fly on the wall in a conversation with Marc Andreessen talking about his barbecue. I thought that was something that you’re not going to get at our conference, right? Just these very intimate talks about nothing. Of course, you’re swaying into maybe an investment discussion or what’s hot in Silicon Valley discussion. But it’s just about people hanging out at the water cooler. So I think that was the initial attraction. But of course, as more people got on that, the discussions got more diverse. And then to me, I talk about tech all day long. Right? So having a place that you could talk about other things or listen to conversations that you normally wouldn’t be involved in to me was amazing. That’s why I really like about it.
[00:28:48] SY: Josh, what were your thoughts?
[00:28:49] JP: Oh, well…
[00:28:54] SY: I think they’re probably different, different from Casey’s thoughts.
[00:28:57] JP: They’re way different because I am definitely not in the VIP section. I am a relative late cover to Clubhouse. I think I just joined like two weeks ago. And I can sympathize with people that joined Twitter very late. I joined Twitter very early and I was like, “This is amazing. There’s all these conversations going on. I feel connected. I’m meeting people that I haven’t met before.” And joining Clubhouse now later, I am completely lost. There are a lot of conversations happening and I’m really struggling to find the conversations I want to be a part of on Clubhouse. I think that’s my biggest problem so far. I can definitely tell there’s interesting conversation happening, and there’s really interesting people, but I’m struggling to find them. Maybe that’s just a by-product of so many new people coming into the platform.
[00:29:43] SY: Yeah. So I’ve been on the platform since fall as well of last year. I don’t know how I got an invite. I don’t remember anyone giving it to me. I remember finding some links somewhere. I got on some waiting list and then I got accepted. I don’t know how I did it, but anyways. But when I first got on there, I went into a couple of the rooms and I just felt so uncomfortable. What you were saying, Casey, about being a fly on the wall, I didn’t like that feeling. I felt like I was eavesdropping on people’s conversations that I wasn’t supposed to listen to. And it just made me so uncomfortable. I was like, “Ah, I don’t like this feeling of listening.” And also because the conversations are very unstructured. It’s people just kind of rambling, going off on tangents. And I was kind of like, “What am I listening to? What am I doing here?” So I never really got into it. And it wasn’t until recently where I actually hosted a room and I organized a chat. It was about community in tech and building up tech communities and developer tools and that was a lot of fun. I do a lot of podcasting. I host three shows, three podcasts, and being able to just sit on my couch with my crappy headphone, mic, and there’s no set up, there’s no nothing. I’m walking around, cooking food while I talk. It was a lot of fun. It was just like talking to a crowd while you just walk around your apartment. So I really enjoyed hosting. I did not enjoy being in the room.
[00:31:11] JP: So you and a couple other folks are having a chat on the evening of February 10th, right after the recording of this podcast, called, “How Will Clubhouse Impact the Future of Tech Conferences?” What’s been your experience creating content on the app?
[00:31:24] CL: Yeah. So I also host a few podcasts as well, and I like the conversation, but it’s like always one or two guests and I do have a focus. I don’t want to make it too long. Right? So these Clubhouse groups go on for hours and hours. I host another one called StartupYumcha on Clubhouse and I want to keep my contacts around Asia in the startup industry, because we haven’t been able to fly and see them. And that is a totally different experience than the podcast, right? I invite a bunch of people, the community leaders that I know come in, and so we started off and then people in the audience raise their hand or join in that are like either super successful founders or brand new startups and they have questions for everybody and just that kind of interactive engagement is great. Yeah, to me, I think you’re right. When you go into rooms that maybe you don’t understand too much and you might be like, “What are these people talking about? I feel uncomfortable.” I get it, but yeah, when you control the compensation, and also I’ve found like the moderation skill is like, I mean, if we’re all hosted podcasts, you know you have to ask the questions. You have everything in front of you ready to go. Whereas yes, in Clubhouse, they’d debate the rails in two seconds. As a good moderator, you have to pull it back as fast as possible or people will leave. And they’re like, “What’s going on in here?” And that I find the biggest challenge. And that’s why I saw a lot of Clubhouse rooms are teaching people how to be mods, which is just crazy, right?
[00:32:46] SY: That’s so meta. Interesting.
[00:32:49] CL: But I guess for us, it’s like a scale, right? It’s kind of an innate skill that you learn, just trying to control the conversation, making sure that it’s on time because that’s for us, a conference business. It’s usually a 20-minute talk. We have to be on the dot. Otherwise, the next speaker is going to be waiting and you don’t want to do that. Everything is on point. So keeping people together, I think, is one of the greatest skill sets you can have now in this audio era.
[00:33:12] SY: Absolutely.
[00:33:13] JP: Do you think Clubhouse will impact the future of tech conferences? Do you think this is a new format using Clubhouse as kind of a companion to tech conferences?
[00:33:23] CL: Oh, absolutely. I think, like you said, exactly. I mean, I’m going to use the, “How Clubhouse will impact?” It was going to be like disrupt. It’s going to be kind of these negative words, generate some people like, “Ooh, I got to listen to this.” Right? But at the end of the day, impact was the softest word I could use. But actually the word is companion because definitely there’s no way that this audio invisible heads talking to each other is going to replace an actual in-person conference. I think a lot of people know that. One of the exciting things of going to Lisbon is that they have dinners and the drinks with everybody. And you can’t take that away even if you deliver UberEats Portuguese food to everybody. It’s not going to be the same. So definitely I feel like making those connections before you see them in real life is going to be a big win and learning about the discussions people are having before you drop into a live conference, I think, is really good. I met a lot of new friends on this thing already, which I’m just obviously in the last year, we haven’t traveled a lot. So you don’t meet these new people that are coming up in the industry. And so getting a chance to talk to them and hear their insight and seeing what kind of rooms they’re leading, that means you know the conversations they’re starting. Wow! You learn a lot more people than you can from a tweet or from a Facebook post. So I think that this is a very good companion piece and a good introduction before you go boots on the ground at any conference, hopefully in 2022.
[00:34:41] SY: How does that work kind of logistically, structurally? Because I hosted Code Land last year. It was very long. It was 12 hours of being on camera, but it was definitely a marathon. It was fun though. Honestly, it was way more fun. I thought I was going to be more tired than I had fun, but I had more fun than I was tired. So that worked out really well. But when I was doing it, I mean, there was a whole backstage crew. There’s an editor. There’s a video person or a sound engineer person. There’s just so many different parts. It’s a huge production, surprisingly huge production when you’re doing an online conference. And there’s the platform, there’s the chats, and the conversations happening on the platform directly. Where does Clubhouse fit into all of that? Is there just a link to go to Clubhouse that you do before the conference, during the conference? Logistically, where does it fit in?
[00:35:36] LC: Yeah, I don’t know. I kind of also see like the back room for like Twitter. I remember going to South by Southwest a few years ago and there was way more chatter on Twitter than was one stage. It’s kind of a similar thing. I’m sure you guys have seen that experience as well. When you see the hashtag for a panel at South by and then you go to Twitter, oh, wow! I was very impressed by that, but it’s only how fast can you type. But you can type and listen at the same time. But listening and talking, I don’t know how that’s going to work. That might be a bit confusing. That’s why I feel like it’s more of a companion. So you have the conversation between two big founders and then it’s like what were you seeing in Clubhouse now. Elon Musk came on. He talks about his thing. And then there are these spill-out rooms and then there’s these recap rooms and then there’s these conversation rooms about what he said that lasts for days after he was on the platform. I think that’s what’s going to happen as well. You’re going to start these conversations in conferences, on stage, and then you’re going to continue talking about them in a Clubhouse or Twitter spaces. I popped in there the other day to take a look at what they were doing. It’s also very exciting. So the conversations are, I think, going to be interesting. And one person told me, and this is one thing I always remember just recently. You can’t misconstrue what somebody’s saying if they’re saying it to you rather than when you read it in all caps or sarcastically or whatever. Plus, all the bots that are like liking and retweeting like hate speech and stuff like that, that that voice will be very, very quiet now. Or maybe not very quiet. I mean, they’ll come out, but they’ll have a face behind them, right?
[00:37:07] SY: Yeah. I think the thing that makes comparing hashtag Twitter conversations with Clubhouse conversations is I feel like Twitter democratizes the stage because everyone gets their say. Every tweet is me contributing to the stage. You know what I mean? And you can have all these conversations with hundreds, thousands of attendees, all in one place. Whereas Clubhouse, as a participant, it’s very passive. You’re just listening, right? There’s two people in the room who are actually having the conversation and all these people are just kind of hanging out. So I don’t think you’d get the same level of self-expression and kind of this opportunity to contribute and say your piece on Clubhouse the way that you do on Twitter. So I’m interested to see what that experience is like. As an attendee, I’m thinking I go to Twitter to say like, “I like this speaker.” Right? “Do I go to Clubhouse to then listen to other people’s opinions about that speaker?” You know what I mean? What’s the poll? How does it fit in to the attendee experience?
[00:38:10] CL: Yeah. I think that is exactly right. I think a lot of people though, well, okay, so in RISE, we do it in Asia, right? I feel like the conference is a bit more passive and that people are a little bit more shy to raise their hand and be heard as they are and say North America. But definitely I see people raising their hands all the time on the stage. It’s a totally different vibe for sure. That’s another thing you have to consider as well, because we have a stage called “Startup University” at RISE, which is all about founders talking about how they got there. And that is one of our most popular, actually it’s the most popular stage in all of them. People just love to hear how somebody who made it made it. Listening to that conversation is already enlightening to these people because some of them don’t have access to these kinds of talks. Our conference is three days every year. I mean, what are you going to do with the rest of the time? Right? So having this conversation or being able to listen in on these things, I think, is super exciting for a type of person that’s on social media, right? As long as they’re getting the straight information from, say, a big investor or a big founder, I think it’s very exciting.
[00:39:10] JP: What do you think the future of Clubhouse is going to look like after the pandemic hopefully wanes a little bit and we see people start to go back to traveling for in-person conferences?
[00:39:21] CL: That’s one of my main questions for the Clubhouse tonight. Even one of my friends is in Seoul, Korea. They’re just as bad as everybody else, how many people can be in a restaurant, how many people can be at conferences. They’re finding new connections in that community on Clubhouse. So exactly, when we go back, do we need to use it as much anymore? I still think it’ll be pretty good. It’s like Twitter, right? It’s like Twitter and Facebook. It’s not like you don’t use it anymore because you can tell people what you had for lunch, what you had for breakfast or whatever, right?
[00:39:50] SY: Very important.
[00:39:51] CL: Using social media for that kind of thing and to get involved in those conversations. And I think when something happens in the news, either international news or just tech news, I think people love to discuss it right away. They’ll just jump on it, create a room and go, “What do you think of what Bitcoin’s doing today?” That whole GameStop thing I thought was fascinating. I don’t know. Well, if I have a lot of friends who are traders, they don’t go around and brag about it. Right? So hearing from like 15 different rooms every day about that last couple of weeks has been very educational for me. So I don’t think it’ll go away. Because if we can meet in real life, people still have these conversations on Clubhouse.
[00:40:25] SY: Taking a step back from tech conferences specifically, how do you see the tech ecosystem, the tech industry evolving Clubhouse right now? And I can’t tell if this is just my Clubhouse or this is just other people’s experiences too, but my Clubhouse is dominated very much by startups, VCs, entrepreneurship. Okay, those topics. When I hosted our chat with a couple of friends, it was one of the few like dev-focused topics that I’ve seen. And there’s one other, I can’t remember where the conference is, but there's one kind of conference companion chat that I’ve seen on Clubhouse as well. And I’m wondering when you think of getting more developers, getting more tech people onto the platform, how do you think we’ll use it? What do you think the Clubhouse tech will look like?
[00:41:17] CL: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t know. I think what happens is that you have to push it out there and just keep doing it. So when I started doing startup meetups in Hong Kong 10 years ago, the first time we did it, five people showed up. Then the second week three people showed up. Then the third week 20 people showed up. So it really depended on how you keep it going. So people are like, “Oh, I need to have a club in Clubhouse.” I’m like, “Not really. Just set a room and just keep it going and set the same time and then people will join in all the time.” I really believe, if you can find those like-minded people there. But yeah, exactly. I hadn’t seen any like specific developer language rooms, but I bet you, that people started opening up.
[00:41:55] SY: I think they’re coming. I think they’re coming.
[00:41:56] CL: There would be a lot of interest in that. Especially if you just do interviews with people who are working in it or the people who run those companies. I think it’d be huge.
[00:42:04] SY: The other thing I’m wondering is, I feel like every platform has like the category of influencers, right? There’s like Instagram influencers and Twitter there’s influencers. And what is interesting to me is figuring out who the influencers are going to be in Clubhouse and how they become influencers. You know what I mean? One thing that was interesting to me is there is this woman, I think she’s a VC. She must have been one of the first people on Clubhouse because her Twitter following is pretty small. Well, small for I think like her job and where she is. I think it’s like a thousand, maybe less than a thousand, but she has a million followers on Clubhouse, a million people. And I’m like, “Whoa! How did that happen?” And so I’m kind of wondering, how do people gravitate to specific people? Because if you look at the way the rooms are structured in the app, at least the way I look at it, it doesn’t really highlight the host as much as the topic. Right? It’s like the topic is like the main thing that stands out. So when I’m looking at the rooms, I’m not really thinking about like, “Oh, who’s the host? And let me pick the host I like. I’m picking what topic do I want to listen to.” And so I’m wondering, how do you become an influencer, especially if you’re a developer? What does that look like?
[00:43:16] CL: Hey, that’s a great point. I think that it will start to change eventually that it’s around the host rather than the topic because I was in a room today where the moderator, the host was fantastic. I’ve been into so many rooms that I’m just like, “Okay, it’s just people talking.” You don’t really know what’s going on. But there’s one that just the host is engaging, bringing speakers, asking the speaker, reading their bios before they ask the question. I was like, “Whoa! This is definitely a talent that we need to have to make everyone feel welcome.” Because I was just kind of cruising, listening, then I get invited on stage, and then the guy starts calling me out because he read my bio. I was like, “Whoa!” I mean, that’s how you get people engaged because you know if you have that in your bio, that you’re probably going to say something as well. So they don’t put you on the spot, you don’t feel out of place. Why some people have a lot of followers is because I think Clubhouse does spotlight them. So I had two friends already that have been the icon for the app.
[00:44:12] SY: Yeah. They rotate the icon. Yeah.
[00:44:16] JP: That’s such a clever thing.
[00:44:17] SY: It’s so cool.
[00:44:18] JP: Was there anything else that you’d like to talk about that we haven’t covered yet?
[00:44:21] CL: No. I wanted to hear more from you guys. How are you guys going to use this platform to reach out to developers and things like that? And how do you think that this platform will help the podcast as well?
[00:44:32] JP: Oh, that’s an interesting question. We kind of talked about like, “Should we host something at Clubhouse?” It would be a really interesting way, I think, to talk to listeners directly, which is of course something you don’t get that immediacy when you’re doing a podcast. You can ask for people to call in or send in their emails, but there’s such a time delay. Yeah.
[00:44:52] SY: It’s just different. Yeah. I don’t think weekly is very realistic. I think it’s too much commitment, but maybe it’s the way we kick off a season. You know what I mean? Maybe it’s like our teaser for the season and you can ask these questions and maybe we’ll have a little guest or a way to end the season. It might be a good way to kind of sprinkle that in without giving ourselves another job.
[00:45:14] CL: Yeah. Would you record a podcast in Clubhouse?
[00:45:17] JP: I think that’s like a technical challenge because they kind of limit…
[00:45:20] SY: You’re not supposed to.
[00:45:21] JP: One audio you can record. Yeah.
[00:45:24] SY: Which I like. I like the fact that me, on the one hand, I think it might introduce people saying things maybe they shouldn’t say. But on the other hand, it’s very freeing just to be like, “I have this conversation. It’s one-off. You’re there or you’re not.” And also encourages people to tune in. Right? Because if you know it’s going to be recorded, then listen to it later. So I really liked that it’s not recorded. I think that’s great.
[00:45:43] JP: I think the format really lends itself well to not only conferences, but like AMAs, Asked Me Anythings. I would much rather listen to an AMA with a celebrity or a tech visionary, than read their responses on Reddit. I think Reddit’s AMA format is like on the rocks after Clubhouse and I can definitely see it’s sticking around. It’s so much more intimate to hear a person respond to the questions immediately.
[00:46:11] SY: Absolutely.
[00:46:11] CL: I totally agree with that. And you know it’s definitely them.
[00:46:13] JP: Yes. Yes. It’s not they’re like publicist or an assistant that’s like typing responses.
[00:46:18] CL: Yeah.
[00:46:19] SY: Well, thank you so much for joining us.
[00:46:20] CL: Yeah. Just one more quick thing. Since it’s the developer podcast, I just wanted to say that we’re doing Collision again this year online, which will be the second time, and we have complimentary tickets for all developers and open source contributors in the network. So on March 1st, we kicked that off and you can apply to become a developer at Collision from home and we’re giving out the tickets to enjoy like the talks, the developer focus, masterclasses, round tables and all the networking sessions. So if they want to take a look at what’s happening at our conference, we’re really excited to welcome the community that’s listening to this podcast now.
[00:46:53] SY: Awesome! That’s really great.
[00:46:54] JP: Thank you so much, Casey.
[00:46:55] CL: Thanks everybody.
[00:47:07] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at email@example.com. Please rate and subscribe to this show on Apple Podcasts.