2020 had to be a year that brought us a swarm of new apps. We gladly welcomed the newcomers only to quickly forget about them and leave them in the dust as soon as another one came along—don’t feel bad, we were all bored out of our mind!
You’ve done pretty well if you still haven’t downloaded Zoom yet, or Houseparty, which are two apps that may not survive past the end of the pandemic. Clubhouse however, started without a bang or many downloads at all, and it’s only now that it is beginning to take off. What is this new app exactly? And why are people scrambling to be a part of it?
The app made its debut in March of 2020 when entrepreneurs Paul Davison and Rohan Seth released the first beta version of the app to a select pool of users. Its wake in current global fame took a while to reach simply because of the nature of it—being invite-only (by existing members only), which isn’t easy to score anyway. The fuel behind its unsurprising growth in success was intrigue. Big names in the music, entertainment and tech industry started to create accounts, Oprah, Ashton Kutcher, Drake and Jared Leto representing a few of them.
Some of you may have heard of the app, but due to its absolute exclusivity, most of you may not have actually joined it. Clubhouse is essentially a totally new kind of social media platform, it’s an audio-based app in which the company describes itself as “a new type of social product based on voice [that] allows people everywhere to talk, tell stories, develop ideas, deepen friendships, and meet interesting new people around the world.”
The idea and function of it allow users to basically jump in and out of different chats, on any kind of topics that are being chatted about in a way that can be most likely compared to what is a ‘free-flowing’ podcast or live stream event where you can either just listen or spark up some conversation yourself. Really, it’s kind of like a dinner party where you don’t have to stare at other people’s faces. It’s real-life live interaction but virtually.
Over the first few months of secret chatter among the thousands of ‘elite’ users and very lucky few, one group seemed to be missing: journalists. According to Bloomberg, a Clubhouse spokeswoman said that the company never intentionally excluded journalists, but “many users said the service’s rules—and its name—created a culture of exclusivity and secrecy.” Clubhouse’s terms of service made it clear that what happens on Clubhouse stays on Clubhouse.
Since launching, the app’s founders announced recently that there were now two million users, an enormous growth over the space of a few months. Clubhouse is already valued at $1 billion, having not even reached its one year anniversary.
They wrote that “musicians, scientists, creators, athletes, comedians, parents, entrepreneurs, stock traders, non-profit leaders, authors, artists, real estate agents, sports fans and more—came to Clubhouse to talk, learn, laugh, be entertained, meet and connect.” No matter what your background, your opinion or present situation, you can be in the room with any of these people, and effectively join a conversation, albeit with hundreds of others—which is a part of why the app is so successful, because of the proximity to chats that most may never be able to get anywhere near.
I wonder then, if the app were to abolish its exclusivity and opened up as a free for all of the population, would it still be worth the hype? Probably not.
That being said, the best achievements happen when people from all walks of life come together, don’t you think? Clubhouse hosts daily talk shows, stand up comedy, lectures—you name it, it’s happenin’. In December 2020 “forty strangers who met on Clubhouse auditioned, rehearsed, and hosted a full-blown musical production for thousands of people that made national headlines.”
None of the events thus far have been open to the public, but they also weren’t exactly private. With journalists predominantly being left in the dark, a few editors and reporters of some kind are finding their way through the secret doors. Well, not so secret, because one Clubhouse user, Sarah Szalavtiz, a research development consultant and entertainment attorney, has made it a personal mission to invite as many reporters as possible to the app with the goal of bringing transparency to conversations happening on there. Bloomberg reportedly said that Szalavitz “believes that Clubhouse is designed in a way that fosters hateful speech and radicalisation without enough moderation to mitigate it.” Sounds familiar?
The media attention that this inevitably brought on raised the question as to how much privacy is reasonable to expect on an invitation-only app, especially when speakers are notably well known. One of the reporters that Szalavitz brought in, Tatiana Walk-Morris, wrote an article in Vanity Fair, seconding Szalavitz’s opinion on how the design of the app could be flawed when it comes to allowing socially harming ideas to proliferate. She said that “I get that [Clubhouse’s founders] want it to be more intimate and for people to speak more freely and honestly…but it seems to be creating confusion between who is a public figure and who isn’t.”
Right now, the exclusivity of the app is beginning to crack, but whether we might all be able to join it anytime in the near future or not is still unclear. However, the recent and remarkably fast growth of the app from Silicon Valley, which is now especially exploding in popularity in Europe, because as Sifted nicely put: “the opportunity to eavesdrop on interesting conversations, connect with experts, and potentially run into people you know” is what has drawn many of Europe’s tech community to Clubhouse.
Clubhouse has in fact already collided with European data protection regulations, because one piece of fine print in the joining process is that to invite other people, users have to also share their address book. According to businessman Dragos Novac in his newsletter, this is one of the oldest “growth hacking” tricks in the book.
So, like any social network, problems are bound to be encountered due to the fact that society has such contrasted values and opinions by nature—and tend to use these platforms differently. Clubhouse is still relying on users to self regulate the app, which introduces an inevitable tug of war. The idea still holds the primary intrigue it first launched with, and it’s probably going to pave the way for an entirely new genre of community-based media platforms. What’s next for Clubhouse, then? Well, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, who probably doesn’t need an introduction any more, has invited the Russian President Vladimir Putin to join him in conversation. I don’t know about you, but if you were holding back on scrounging around for an invitation, now might be a good time to do so.
On Saturday 13 February 2021, Musk tweeted “Would you like to join me for a conversation on Clubhouse?” and tagged the Kremlin’s official Presidential Twitter account. Putin followed up with his own tweet, in Russian (of course he did) saying, “It would be a great honour to speak with you.”
Russia hasn’t ruled out the idea of Putin talking to the billionaire on the social media platform, and according to CNBC, a Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the proposal was “interesting,” but more details were going to be needed. The Russian media outlet RBC reported Peskov saying that “First, we want to figure it out, you know that President Putin does not directly use social networks, he personally does not run them.” While we wait for what Russia assumes Musk is genuinely proposing (what exactly will he ask?), I’m going to nab myself an invite.