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After a year of ‘Zoom poisoning,’ will we ever love chatting online again?

I think it’s safe to say that most of us started 2021 with a severe case of Zoom-poisoning (as my wife puts it). I would attribute this malaise not just to the social isolation we are experiencing during the pandemic, but to the monotonous design of Zoom, Skype, and their peers in the video meeting space. These checkerboard platforms trap us in little surveillance cubicles, making our virtual meetings feel even more emotionally isolated and fragmented, not less.

At this point, our expectations are so low that the “lipstick effect” is enough to set the Internet on fire. So, just when we needed an excuse to spend more time in online chatrooms, along comes Clubhouse. Is it the answer to our prayers or just another virtual waste of time, increasing (not decreasing) our sense of desperation for real, meaningful connections? Some recent data suggests the latter: After a spike of 9.6 million downloads in February, Clubhouse dipped to 900,000 downloads in April, as vaccination rates picked up and COVID-19 safety measures relaxed in many wealthier countries.

Still, it would be a shame if this time of radical change in our online (and offline) lives did not produce a new paradigm for how we stay (and feel) connected – and not just a polished up version of the same chat interfaces we’ve been trapped in for years. It is telling that Clubhouse, which launched in April 2020, is already inspiring clones from Twitter and Facebook. In this piece, I will look at the question from the perspective of a designer who has been crafting and studying online chat environments since the mid-1990s when I joined the Virtual Worlds Group at Microsoft Research as a design fellow (led by the amazing Lili Cheng): Does Clubhouse represent the paradigm shift we need to communicate effectively online, during the pandemic and beyond? With Facebook and Microsoft investing heavily in the next wave of “Clubhouse Killers,” how should brands think about showing up in these audio-first hangout spaces?

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