Over the pandemic, against a backdrop of global lockdowns, limited IRL communication and screen-time reports going through the roof, a flurry of emerging apps have established a virtual stronghold over users around the world.
Remember, er, Houseparty? In April, 50 million of us downloaded the face-to-face video app in wake of sheer loneliness. And desperation. Zoom reported 300 million daily users in March alone, followed by Discord, a blend of Slack and Reddit, whose valuation has doubled since the pandemic started.
But now, in the time of lockdown: the sequel, it’s Clubhouse that has everyone talking. A start-up app turned projected Silicon Valley goldmine, its premise is to connect users via one thing: audio.
Think of Clubhouse as Houseparty on acid, minus the visuals. It allows users to converse with anyone around the world and operates via rooms: each one has a set topic attached to it and is moderated by its creator(s). If you spot something that takes your fancy (relationships, literature, Eastenders) you can hop right in and out, or go off and start your own room to talk to somebody one-on-one.
These rooms range from small-scale, fairly intimate affairs to much larger events, with a select number of (sometimes famous) speakers there to talk and connect directly with their audience. This is the spark that ignited the Clubhouse wildfire. Celebs like MC Hammer, Chris Rock and Jared Leto started using the app, while Silicon Valley hotshots and members of the Twitterati were crumb-sprinkling online about the “cool” conversations taking place there.
But here’s the Clubhouse catch: it’s still in beta mode and access to the app exists on an invite-only basis – which, of course, has only bred more hype. Already a not-wholly-functional app which only emerged in April this year has been dubbed more exclusive than Berghain by Wired. A month later it was valued at $100 million, despite the fact the San Francisco-based company generates no revenue and currently only employs two people: Clubhouse co-founders Rohan Seth and Paul Davison, as reported by The Verge.
Hana, a London-based writer who recently started using the app, explains that “it gives you a chance to connect with people who have the same interests or passions as you. If used in the right way, it can give you the opportunity to directly connect with people you’ve followed on other platforms for several years.”
Meanwhile Amina, a software developer also from the UK, has been using the app for just over two weeks, tells THE FACE that she has “already built an amazing network within the tech and entrepreneurship industry. It has also allowed me to participate in discussions that Black and Muslim women such as myself don’t always get to have in a nuanced way.”
It’s the spontaneity of Clubhouse that is its core appeal. Unlike other, more vanity-driven platforms like Instagram, TikTok and Twitter, it cuts out the middleman. There’s no fussing over capturing a winning selfie, shooting a well-lit, one-minute video, or sounding dead smart in 140 characters. Rather, you can happily jump into a conversation – in your pyjamas! – that interests you and mimics a much more tangible feeling of connectivity.
The other crucial fact: the app came along during a pandemic, which ultimately compounded its popularity. People are craving contact and Clubhouse hits the sweet spot.
New York City-based rap collective If The Shoe Fits have been using the platform for about a month, alerted to it by their manager.
“It’s a great way to connect with people who share your interests and have conversations that are usually reserved for in-person networking functions,” they explain via email. “And because the app is still so new, the ‘clout barrier’ that usually keeps fans from interacting with their favourite artists or creators is virtually non-existent.”
Apparently, a common technique for individuals to “shoot their shot” (aka pursue something you’re interested in) with potential collaborators is to start a one-on-one private chat, creating “endless possibilities”. The collective recently started a Clubhouse group called Anime Anonymous, a safe space for anime and manga enthusiasts of colour to debate and reminisce about their favourite movies or graphic novels.
The first Clubhouse room they hosted was a fiery debate about Dragonball Z.
“We discussed the plot, the character development and the writing on the show,” they tell THE FACE. “The group gained almost 100 members within a week, so it was clear to us that there are people out there who want to engage in these types of conversations. The best thing about hosting rooms like this is hearing the excitement in people’s voices when someone loves the same shows they do.”
This gives you an idea of what Clubhouse aims to be: a wholesome space that can allow for constructive intergenerational or intercultural conversations to take place.
But it can also be the complete opposite. Another user, New York-based Kelli, says she started using the app “because people I think are cool were tweeting about it and I wanted to be nosey”.
Although being active on Clubhouse has improved Kelli’s confidence in her creative pursuits, she’s recently stopped using it as much due to it “magnifying societal problems in a way that is more difficult to escape compared to other social media platforms”.
So does that mean more beefing than actual conversation?
As it turns out, sometimes much worse. For all of Clubhouse’s potential to seize opportunities and chat to people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, there has been growing concern over a lack of user moderation on the app, specifically when it comes to hate speech and harassment. Users can join any chat room and change their names or profile pictures at will, removing any sense of accountability in the process. Currently, there is no option to block or report individuals via the app.
This is where things get murky for Clubhouse, as a lack of regulation puts content first and user safety second. This is an issue that came to the fore in July, when New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz got into an argument on the app with investor Balaji Srinivasan, which led to her being harassed and trolled for days with zero opportunity to report either. Lorenz has since been continuously adding to a Twitter thread, seeking to highlight the often toxic nature of the app.
Last month, Clubhouse released a post on their website titled On Community Moderation, assuring users that they condemned any and all forms of hate speech. It stated: “The world is not a monoculture, and we want Clubhouse to reflect that […] Some communities come together to debate. Some come to relax and joke around. Others hold listening parties and fireside chats.”
Regardless, Clubhouse as a platform is far from under control. At best, it presents an opportunity for genuine connection. At worst, it amplifies conflict and creates a breeding ground for harassment, trolling or doxxing. What we do know for sure, though, is that Clubhouse has outlived Houseparty – and when it goes public (rumour has it that’ll be in the spring) the fun and fireworks will really begin.