Why is Clubhouse so addicted to notifications?

The buzzy app sends constant notifications.

I’ve learned to dread Clubhouse notifications. They blow up my phone dozens of times a day, at all hours of the day and night.

My childhood neighbor just joined the app, do I want to “welcome” them in? How about the guy I went on three dates with six years ago? Someone is talking about podcasting. Someone else is discussing crypto (there’s always someone talking about crypto). The notifications are constant.

Sometimes, I wake up to a stream of notifications about conversations I missed because I was asleep. The worst is when I attempt to swipe a notification away and I accidentally tap on it instead, which launches me straight into the room I was trying to avoid. I cringe at the thought that one day I might accidentally join one of those dreaded “welcome” rooms for an ex or an elementary school acquaintance.

It’s not that I dislike Clubhouse, the buzzy audio chat startup that’s exploded in popularity in recent months. Even as a somewhat infrequent participant, I’ve enjoyed many of the conversations I’ve been a part of. But the app sends a lot of notifications. Even by thirsty growth-hack-at-all-cost Silicon Valley standards, Clubhouse notifications are on a whole other level.

Here are a few occasions when you might see a Clubhouse notification:

  • The moment anyone you’ve ever saved in your contacts list joins the app

  • When anyone you follow in the app starts a room

  • When anyone you follow speaks in a room

  • When someone you follow schedules a future conversation

  • When a conversation is scheduled for a club you follow

  • If someone you know pings you to join a room

Sometimes, notifications come for no discernible reason: Someone you don’t know and don’t follow is talking in a room about a subject you have no interest in and never followed. “It’s like the app is nagging me every time someone I follow is doing anything on Clubhouse,” says Jane Manchun Wong, an app developer and Clubhouse user.

A Clubhouse spokesperson pointed to the app’s “new user guide,” which states that “notifications are important in Clubhouse since everything is live, and we encourage you to manage them to suit your preferences.” It notes that users who feel like they get too many notifications can change their settings to “very infrequently.”

Screen time stats show Clubhouse delivered more than 400 notifications in a single week.

It’s true that the app allows you to adjust the frequency of notifications, ranging from “never” to “very frequent.” But even seemingly modest notification settings can result in an endless stream of alerts.

I follow about a hundred users and 10 clubs on the app, far less than any of my other social media accounts. Yet I get two or three times as many Clubhouse notifications as I do any other app. With notifications in the app set to “normal” — the app’s default setting — I received 50-60 notifications a day, according to my iOS Screen Time reports. When I dialed the frequency up to “very frequent,” my daily notifications shot up to more than 70. Sometimes I would get several notifications within a few seconds of each other, often about the same conversation. In a single week, I received 414 notifications from Clubhouse. That was more than I received from any other social app, and hundreds more than any app except Messages.

Even people who are fairly active on the app report being overwhelmed with the number of notifications. So much so that complaining about the frequency of Clubhouse notifications has become a kind of meme.

The problem isn’t just that the constant alerts feel spammy and disruptive, but that the nature of Clubhouse and its miss-it-and-they’re-gone chats is that notifications can end up being a source of stress. “The amount of notifications even when set in the ‘Normal’ frequency level is quite high,” explains Wong, who regularly participates in Clubhouse chats. “Sure, it keeps me updated on what my friends and the people I follow are up to, but it gets quite distracting and keeps me in a constant FOMO state of mind.”

The FOMO dynamic isn’t an accident. The nature of Clubhouse, which requires users to tune in live, capitalizes on users’ fear of missing out. Forget to check your notifications, and you might miss the next Elon Musk moment. It’s a tactic that’s been particularly successful over the last year when a global pandemic has upended our social lives. At a time when so many are starved for social interaction, Clubhouse can be a welcome distraction.

Even so, there are consequences when any app goes overboard on notifications, says Pamela Pavliscak, a faculty member at the Pratt Institute and author of Emotionally Intelligent Design: Rethinking How We Create Products.

“There's a ton of research on the psychology of notifications, and how they stress us out and leave us feeling overwhelmed,” says Pavliscak. “They leave us feeling FOMO. They have a physical effect on us that can drive up our heart rate, our breathing. So there's psychological effects, there's physical effects... there's a lot of potential layers where notifications can disrupt us and in negative ways.”

The fact that Clubhouse is so notification-happy also goes against the idea that our phones really shouldn’t be pinging us at all hours of the day and night. Features like Apple’s Screen Time controls and Google’s “wellbeing” tools on Android were born from growing concerns that our devices were taking up too much of our attention. Facebook and other social media apps were some of the main culprits, in part because of their reliance on excessive notifications to keep us hooked on their platforms.

But Facebook at least offers pretty granular (if somewhat obtuse) notification settings so you can opt out of the ones you don’t want. Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok offer similarly detailed notification settings. Clubhouse does not. You can change the frequency, though the app offers no explanation on the difference between “frequent” or “normal” levels of notifications. You can also “pause” them all together, but there’s no clear way to say, opt out of notifications when your contacts join or mute notifications from specific users.

Granted, Clubhouse is a very different app from Facebook (though Facebook is trying to create its own version of the service). For starters, you don’t need to spend a lot of time physically looking at your screen to use the app. There’s also no way to “catch up” if you missed something. But that’s hardly a good reason to not give users more control over the notifications they receive. Simply adding more detailed settings could go a long way toward making the app feel less spammy. It might also reduce our collective FOMO.