After just two months on Clubhouse, I finally understand how Theranos happened.
While articles, books, and films have covered the saga in excellent detail, some of my curiosity lingered: How could we be bamboozled by bullshit of that size and scope? I am curious no longer.
After surfing hundreds of rooms on the popular new social media app, I’ve been exposed to dozens of clones of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes, some of them running companies that have (allegedly) raised tens or millions of dollars.
Clubhouse is a sort of audio Reddit, a throwback to the internet’s message board days, when exchanges were confined to singular spaces rather than the open-air experiences of Twitter and other platforms. Its distinct use of audio communication also creates unique opportunities and challenges.
Clubhouse users interact in “rooms.” In each room is a “stage,” where individuals can talk, and an “audience” full of people just listening, muted. Audience members can “raise their hand” and be brought onstage. Perhaps most important, rooms are started and governed by “moderators,” in charge of setting the stage, and ideally, curating the conversation.
The tech sector was the first to migrate to Clubhouse during the spring and summer of 2020. Though it has since expanded to many different subcultures and millions of users, the Silicon Valley signature remains strong. Among those who frequent the scene are the biotech companies that I’ve come across, the ones I call clones of Theranos and Elizabeth Homes.
On stage, these startup owners confidently utter things that either cannot possibly be true or are based on technologies with logical gaps so enormous that no informed person would bother investing as much as a Monopoly dollar.
I hear about reversing the aging process based on broken knowledge of cell biology, gene modification based on wild takes on quantitative genetics, artificial intelligence to cure Covid-19 without either a decent handle on the natural history of infection or the basics of how AI actually works.
When on stage during these exchanges—and able to speak—I mostly hold my tongue, even as my eyebrows undulate in skepticism or confusion.
Occasionally I’ll ask a C-level executive a probing (but friendly) question or two about basic, foundational things about how the technology works, and I’m greeted with a barrage of “I’ll get back to you,” “that’s a good question,” or the best: “Well, we’ll be able to address that after the next round of fundraising.”
The biotech sphere isn’t Clubhouse’s only arena of Theranos-level bullshit. Charlatanism lives in many rooms, including the ones that brought me onto Clubhouse in December: debates around Covid, and especially the vaccine. Since late fall, panels of physicians and scientists have utilized Clubhouse as a way to answer questions and keep communities informed. This is especially true for Black physicians and scientists, who spread information after early data that suggested that African Americans were relatively resistant to getting the vaccine.
Much of Clubhouse’s dynamism can be found in a lively Covid-19 discussion. There are eager and curious people with perfectly valid questions about the safety of the vaccine. There are skeptics who have been lost in a web of YouTube-inspired science fiction about vaccines infused with nano robots. And then there are people who actively attack medical and scientific expertise, and its purveyors. For example, I’ve been threatened with physical harm, criticized for pushing a “European education agenda,” and chastised for pushing a “Stalinist medical agenda.”
The misinformation and grifting doesn’t end there: On Clubhouse, there are “geneticists” whose main claim to fame is in putting a battery in the back of white supremacists, “quantum experts” who speak of alien intelligence, and “scientists” who argue that aging is a singular disease whose death burden can be compared to that of Covid.
Among Clubhouse domains, science might not make the top five categories where foolishness is in abundance. The gold-medal winner here would be the financial advising section, where genius entrepreneurs promise audience members tips to raise a million dollars within the span of a few Clubhouse hours. These rooms can charge participants actual money to get on stage (even more to be a moderator), and trick naive participants into pyramid-scheme-adjacent business hustles.
Well-known scam artists have magically rebranded as business savants on Clubhouse and use their following as fuel to dismiss people who bring attention to their real-life scamming.
The silver medalist for bullshit would probably be the Clubhouse dating world, where I can take relationship advice from celebrities, some of whom openly list the famous people they claim to have slept with as evidence that they know what they are talking about. Even stranger are the relationship topic rooms where you can find 30-year-old-men condescendingly telling prominent 50-year-old-women that the cause of the relationship woes is their financial success and that they should do a better job of catering to the egos of potential male suitors.
And on it goes. Conversations on race are dominated by an oppression olympiad, where groups compare and rank their respective plights; rooms on politics are like bad Facebook exchanges but with annoying voices behind the bad takes; sports conversations sound like a cacophony of Stephen A. Smith clones, shouting over each other about LeBron’s lack of a “clutch gene.”
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The nonsense is so endless, so thorough, so diverse, and, through the audio format, more resounding than on any other platform. A hydra of bullshit that has had a net positive effect on my psyche.
For one, I’ve now learned to better appreciate my real-world friendship circle, as the world of strangers and avatars is full of people who are at least delusional and perhaps more likely psychopaths. That I can dial up dozens of actual people who are decent, generous, kind, and smart in hundreds of ways is something that I appreciate more with every Theranos-y Clubhouse experience.
Most selfishly, the app’s nonsense has made me feel more confident in my own ideas than ever before. I now know that the only thing between me and a successful company is the right nest of connections. Because unlike what I’ve come across on Clubhouse, I know the ins and outs of the technologies that I would like to produce and would only surround myself with colleagues who could say the same.
Sure, great science can often be conquered by elaborate lies, but it’s been comforting to know just how full of shit everyone else is. No longer will I doubt my ideas as reflexively as I used to.
In some ways, however, what I’ve offered so far isn’t entirely fair. The good that I’ve extracted, that has helped to conquer my imposter syndrome, isn’t just about making lemonades out of Clubhouse lemons.
For all of its quirks, the app has charm, and lots of positive.
The “club” part is both where the problems and the opportunities live. “Clubs” can be synonymous with “clique.” They have the power dynamics of any gathering with a hierarchy. They can have gatekeepers, silly norms, and are often driven by the cult of personality. These are the places where we find the most bullshit, the attitudes that create Theranos and countless other stupid, toxic spaces on and off of the internet.
“Club” can also be synonymous with any gathering of folks united under whatever topical umbrella—“Anime Club,” “Kung Fu Club,” “Denim Lovers Club”—where there are more than two people interested. And the point of these groupings is to remind ourselves that we’re not alone, that someone else is into weird shit.
In this vein, Clubhouse introduced me to, for example, people interested in improving composting practices in the Black community; Asian American anti-violence activists discussing recent violent attacks on their community; and a famous rapper who taught me the modern history of Afghanistan, told me to read the Book of Five Rings, and has publicly, and jokingly, shamed me for dodging his questions about picozoa, the “real” potential cure for all viral diseases.
These bonds don’t live in a Twitter thread. I actually get to speak to these people.
And despite my ignorance of many of these topics, I’ve enjoyed these spaces, wholly because the people in them have made me feel comfortable in my ignorance.
Real life has recently caught up to me, and my Clubhouse time has fallen off. When I do engage, I see most of the same dynamics as in months’ past (even if the number of people has grown exponentially): broken ideas, bullshit artists, and grifters, who remind me that whatever I’m working on cannot possibly be that stupid, and that I’m grateful for my friendship and professional circles.
More important, I also see the birth of new spaces full of new ideas and curious people, who allow me to sit, listen, and ask questions about parts of the universe that I know nothing about.
Such is a paradox of belonging: We shouldn’t judge how well we fit in by our similarities to others, but rather how we are treated when we are obviously different.
Insofar as Clubhouse, and the world that it is supposed to be a microcosm for, allows me to feel comfortably out of place, then maybe I’ll never feel like an imposter again.
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