If you’ve noticed the buzz around an exclusive, voice-only forum called Clubhouse, you’re not alone. As well as attracting a lot of hype and FOMO among regular users, its casual, drop-in setup is popular with big names in the music industry, like Drake, and has attracted other high profile users such as Oprah, actor Jared Leto, and model Jodie Turner-Smith in a short space of time.
With much of the world having lived with pandemic-related restrictions for almost a year now, Clubhouse’s USP of intimate, relatively unmediated interaction is reaching far beyond its Silicon Valley origins, recently becoming the most downloaded iPhone app in Germany (it’s only available on Apple devices for now) and generating excitement elsewhere. With worldwide interest going through the roof, Clubhouse was valued at USD $100 million mere weeks into its beta launch and is backed by high profile VC firms.
So what’s all the fuss about? We decided to investigate.
Where did it all start?
Billed as an app for “drop-in audio chat”, Clubhouse was founded by ex-Google employees Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Quietly launched in its beta phase in April 2020, the app was “very rough and we didn’t know what to expect,” the founders write. “Our goal was to collect feedback, quietly iterate, and avoid making noise until we felt the product was ready for everyone.”
By 10 July the same year, though, enthusiasm was so great that they had to create a waiting list. There were 600,000 Clubhouse users as of December 2020 (and many more on the waiting list). Let’s just say that “the ‘build quietly’ approach didn’t work.”
How does it work and who is using it?
Clubhouse is made up of “rooms”, in which people talk to one another about any topic they please. It lends itself to a variety of formats, from book clubs and comedy shows to meditation exercises and political debates. Anyone can start one and all rooms are open, “so you can hop in and out, exploring different conversations,” explains the company’s website. “You enter each room as an audience member, but if you want to talk you just raise your hand, and the speakers can choose to invite you up.”
In marked difference to other interactive apps, there is no simultaneous chat, “like”, or “respond” function – discussions are kept to audio only. It is strictly forbidden to record anything, so conversations are protected, at least in theory. There’s also space for private conversations that take place in “locked” rooms.
Another thing that distinguishes Clubhouse is that everything takes place live. An algorithm based on your interests and who you follow determines which scheduled chats show up on your homepage, with suggestions and notifications for what to tune in to. “I was instantly hooked: names of celebrities who were normally out of reach were suddenly a click away,” writes Eni Subair for Vogue.
Turn on, tune in, drop out
Clubhouse seems to be attracting (and launching) a new kind of savvy influencer, different to other platforms. “The top creators are people with magnetic personalities who attract audiences not just because of their titles and accomplishments, but because listeners want to spend time intimately hearing their thoughts with a chance to weigh-in themselves,” Josh Constine, an early-stage investor at the venture firm SignalFire, told the New York Times. “These creators are generating big audiences on Clubhouse even if they don’t have large followings on other social platforms.”
DW reports that in Germany, a room fast gaining traction is “Mittag im Regierungsviertel” (“Lunchtime in the government district”). German politicians have been meeting there to discuss a topical issue, or simply to share what they’re having for lunch that day.
Many users have also reported its utility as a platform for gaining career advice in sectors like startups, marketing, and finance. “This is an amazing concept, like an interactive podcast,” reports one user. “It allows networking with well known professionals to underground/upcoming creatives.”
The chance to interact with favourite speakers – and pay nothing for the privilege – is a huge part of Clubhouse’s appeal, and echoes the way in which some podcasters entice and reward Patreon supporters with more intimate access to the hosts.
Seeing the myriad ways Clubhouse is being put to use, it is not difficult to see why it has become so popular so quickly – the possibilities for lively, impromptu conversations on any possible topic seem endless.
The value of voice
In a year when many people have spent more time in front of screens than ever, you might think that every communication tool and niche has been tried – and perfected – already. While it’s preferable to talk to a face over a black box, there are downsides to always having your camera on, and increased time videoconferencing has even led to a “Zoom boom” in requests for cosmetic treatments. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that Clubhouse seems to have tapped into a need by making all interactions voice-only.
As the founders explain, “[W]e think voice is a very special medium. With no camera on, you don’t have to worry about eye contact, what you’re wearing, or where you are. You can talk on Clubhouse while you’re folding laundry, breastfeeding, commuting, working on your couch in the basement, or going for a run.”
Audio is having something of a golden era. WhatsApp introduced a voice recording function in 2013, and this has been followed by Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Signal. Notably, high levels of trust in radio and the booming popularity of podcasts, especially among millennials, attest to the power of audio as a medium.
People are drawn to it not only for the intimacy of human conversation, but for the way the format – much more than social media or written news articles – enables lengthy, nuanced, respectful discussions about thorny issues, rather than soundbites or rushed arguments.
“I’ve always wanted to describe [what we do] as more light, not heat,” said Talking Politics’ producer, Catherine Carr, in a recent episode looking back on five years of the popular podcast.
It could turn out to be a flash in the pan – but so far at least, Clubhouse seems to be channelling that same hunger for good conversation very successfully.
No filter: potential content issues
Clubhouse bills itself as a space where users can connect directly with topics they care about, but as with any platform that is completely open (and as shown by ongoing debates about the censorship power of social media platforms), it could become a hothouse for problematic speech. What’s more, real-time voice conversations and group discussions present unique challenges to content moderation. With nothing recorded, it’s hard to see how adequate investigations into offensive, dangerous, or criminal content could be carried out.
Some users, like New York Times tech and internet culture reporter Taylor Lorenz, have condemned the app for hosting potentially toxic discussions and enabling harassment. Lorenz had joined a conversation where she was the topic, and was unable to report it when she found herself besieged by trolls, according to The Verge.
Clubhouse has taken some steps to address the controversy. A statement on its website from October 2020 reads: “We unequivocally condemn Anti-Blackness, Anti-Semitism, and all other forms of racism, hate speech and abuse on Clubhouse”. Furthermore, they say they are investing in scaling up trust and safety operations, and taking action on every incident report. Those who violate the app’s community guidelines and terms of service “will be met with warnings, suspensions, or permanent bans”.
Where will it go next?
For now, you still have to join a waiting list or receive an invitation to Clubhouse, generating an air of exclusivity – and a lot of FOMO. Nonetheless, the company is taking it slow for other reasons: in addition to being a very small team, “We just aren’t ready to ship the general release version yet,” reads the website. “We think it’s important to grow communities slowly, rather than 10x-ing the user base overnight. This helps ensure that things don’t break, keeps the composition of the community diverse, and allows us to tune the product as it grows.”
It’s probably too soon to say whether the hype around Clubhouse will continue. With conversation being one of the most fundamental human traits, it’s not difficult to see why the app has got us talking. But this is still a very young app that has shot to success remarkably quickly, and questions about its long-term potential may emerge as it moves past its honeymoon phase.
As user Mark Schaefer points out, what makes Clubhouse different to, and more exciting than other social platforms, is its synchronicity – but this may turn out to be its fatal flaw in the long run. “To fully participate in a certain Clubhouse conversation, you have to drop what you’re doing and join in that moment. There is no recording, no archive, no way to discover who was there and what was said,” he writes. As with live events of all kinds, ephemerality is a key part of the Clubhouse chat experience – you had to be there – but they also depend on busy people making them a priority.