My Clubhouse club of 4,300 people who don’t talk

Or, why the social internet has become our best third place option during the pandemic

A circle of seven people sit in meditation in Regents Park, London.
A group meditation in Regents Park, London. Image CC BY-ND Mick Baker

It started as an odd experiment early in the days of Clubhouse, which in pandemic time means August, when the app was still in Testflight mode. My friend Jennifer 8. Lee set up a room called “Silent Meditation,” set her mic to mute, and people piled in. In an app designed explicitly around talking, no one talked.

Because there’s no video on Clubhouse, it’s unclear who was actually meditating. But maybe that’s not the point. The point was that we were together.

Back in September, I shared a few thoughts on Clubhouse, landing on the point that the app fills in the gap of weak ties that physical social life once allowed for. In the context of social distancing, in other words, people are generally prioritizing two things: (1) close friends and family and (2) work.

What’s gone away is the third option, also known as the third place: casual friends, parties, networking events, conferences and all the umpteen other forms of sociality that are neither home nor work yet play an important role in our lives.

As urban planning writers Stuart M. Butler and Carmen Diaz wrote recently, third places are essential for community building:

Third places is a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg and refers to places where people spend time between home (‘first’ place) and work (‘second’ place). They are locations where we exchange ideas, have a good time, and build relationships.

For young Americans, many third places are now virtual — from Facebook and chat rooms to group texts. But as Oldenburg notes, the most effective ones for building real community seem to be physical places where people can easily and routinely connect with each other: churches, parks, recreation centers, hairdressers, gyms and even fast-food restaurants.

Indeed, the idea of the internet as a third place is not a new concept, but it’s a concept worth revisiting in the context of a pandemic that has forced online so much activity previously in the physical world. As long ago as 2011, I wrote about Tricia Wang’s research into Chinese internet cafes as third spaces. That same year, Pew Research Center’s John B. Horrigan argued, “People’s use of the Internet to participate in organizations is not necessarily evidence of a revival of civic engagement, but it has clearly stimulated new associational activity. And, because they have been both physical and virtual, these group interactions are richer than those found in ‘tertiary associations.’”

So what happens when all that physical space goes away?

A screenshot of Jennifer’s first silent meditation group on Clubhouse, with everyone muted. Image courtesy Jennifer 8. Lee.

If Zoom and Slack are where we spend our working days, Clubhouse is like hitting up the bar after work. It’s the bar, the meet-up, the networking event, the party, all wrapped up into one. For me, video chat has become a place for work, and the audio-only quality of Clubhouse makes it more relaxing and casual. It’s important to remember that third places are not necessarily safe spaces for everyone, but they do occupy a different function from work and home.

And there’s one surprising side of Clubhouse that I’ve appreciated these past few months: when we’re not talking.

During these times of social distancing and for many years before, meditation has been an important part of my daily life. But I’ve missed having community, so I was inspired to start a Vipassana Meditators club, a group which has since grown to some 4,300 followers, small by Clubhouse standards these days but still a surprisingly large group.

And what do we do on this audio app focused on talking? We don’t talk. That’s the point. Instead, every so often, I sit down to meditate and invite anyone to join me. It’s a very simple, peer-led Vipassana practice: ring the bell, sit in silence for 15–30 minutes, then ring the bell again. Sometimes we recite a lovingkindness meditation.

Even though meditation can be solitary, it is also social, a classic third place activity that was once encouraged by in-person gatherings and practice circles. Perhaps that’s why it works (for me, at least) to gather online, even when we’re not talking. Copresence can be powerful. And Vipassana Meditators is not the only meditation club on Clubhouse, nor is it the only silent group. There are groups for silent coworking and groups for silent networking — just join, mute your mic, and follow people whose bios look interesting.

As I wrote earlier, it’s hard to know just how appealing Clubhouse will be after the pandemic. But one thing about the social internet will be a constant: its capacity to support third places, somewhere that’s neither home nor work. Whether that’s text-based forums or hip new audio apps, third place theory has been remarkably helpful for me to understand the how’s and why’s of socializing online, including, yes, when we’re sitting in silence.

author and technologist. words and commentary in ny times, bbc, atlantic, hyperallergic, etc. meedan. opinions my own.

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