The Psychology of Audio Chat Apps

Fiona Waters

March 21, 2021

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If you've ever paid extra for a limited edition product or made sure you were one of the "first 1,000 callers" so that you would get a discount, you've been targeted by the economic principle of scarcity. If a customer thinks they might never see a product again, they are willing to buy it when they see it -- and at a higher price.

Scarcity breeds desire

The scarcity principle explains the recent popularity of Clubhouse, a social networking app that hosts rooms where speakers can discuss any topic they want, "whether it's sports, wellness, art or why Bitcoin is headed to $87,000." In the actual app, you can create a room with various levels of openness. They can allow anyone on the app to join, allow anyone you follow to join, or allow only those you invite to join. The most public rooms can host up to 5,000 spectators. If you're one of those 5,000, you're one of a privileged few, feeding the psychology of exclusivity.

Let's get technical

A Clubhouse room operates similarly to a real life event. Every room has both a stage category and an audience category. The main speakers on the stage are highlighted and able to unmute themselves. If someone in the audience has a comment or question, they can "raise their hand" which displays an icon next to their image. They can then be temporarily added to the stage to unmute themselves, and then be placed back in the audience. There's no hiding in the Clubhouse app, but ironically, inconspicuousness is another reason it's gained popularity.

In real life, you can't just exit a conversation whenever you want to. In Clubhouse, it's a feature. The ability to "leave quietly" means your exit doesn't draw attention from the speakers on the stage. You can actively participate by raising your hand, but at the same time, there is little pressure to remain in the room for longer than you want to. It is both "intimate and extremely detached."

Feeding on FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)

Knowing that the events in Clubhouse are exclusive is already motivation enough to be on the app, but so is the fear that you might miss out on an event. To join the app, you have to be invited by someone else who only has two invitations to start with. If you aren't one of those people, the fear that you might be missing out can eclipse your own desire to use the app.

It also helps that many of the users are celebrities including Oprah, Marc Cuban, and Ava DuVernay. Some of its most attended events include a room highlighting Elon Musk and a live production of The Lion King. This wild popularity explains the rush for copycat apps that are popping up on Facebook and Twitter with the same rules Clubhouse has regarding invitations. What's interesting is that these apps are based in audio mediums and not video.

A study by Sherman, Michikyan, and Greenfield (2013) found that video chatting is the most similar to interacting in real life. In a video chat, you can read faces, gestures, and body language. Somehow, though, an audio-based app has begun to dominate. The reason might lie in the fact that many video chat apps, like Zoom, also offer voice chat only, but aren't viewed in the same way.

The road to the podcast-ocalypse is paved in soundbytes

Video chatting is exhausting and it's become the standard for remote work. Rather than a relaxing social escape, it has become associated with meetings. Voice conversations take the pressure off of dressing yourself (or your room) up.

Similarly, you aren't free to move around during a video chat. Apps like Clubhouse free you to multitask, making it easier to integrate into your life. Going for a jog? Drop into a room. Long drive? Jump into a lecture. Any situation where you would listen to a podcast, apps like Clubhouse offer the same, but for a live conversation that takes place in the moment.

Last but not least important is the quality of audio chat apps, both in terms of their design and their responsiveness. In Clubhouse, you can jump in and out of a room, drag someone "on stage" or "off stage," or start your own conversation easily. Zoom, Skype, and even Google Meet have a bit of a learning curve and may not even offer these features.

There's also not as much information travelling from one phone to another in an audio chat. It's less likely you'll experience the irritating lag that plagues many video chat apps.

A new app with old problems

Sometimes, the Clubhouse app is a bit too reminiscent of real life, including the need for moderators who will make sure that women and women of color are given a platform. Women in Technology International wants to provide that platform.

When conferences, concerts, club meetings, and other gatherings are impossible, apps that allow us to be social thrive. They depend on humankind's FOMO and psychology towards scarcity to gain popularity. Mostly, though, they take advantage of our desire to be social.

Join our private WITI community on Clubhouse:

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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