The social audio app Clubhouse is pictured near a star on the Chinese flag. File picture: Reuters/Florence Lo
The social audio app Clubhouse is pictured near a star on the Chinese flag. File picture: Reuters/Florence Lo

Clubhouse: What you should know about the invite-only, audio social app

By The Washington Post Time of article published Feb 12, 2021

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By Heather Kelly, Nitasha Tiku

Celebrities are on it. People have to score an invite to join. China has blocked it. Investors think it's worth a billion dollars.

And now it has gone viral, picking up 2 million installs in the first week of February, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower.

Meet Clubhouse, an audio-only social networking app that has recently hit several milestones that typically suggest an insular Silicon Valley obsession might actually go mainstream.

New social media apps routinely bubble up and fizz out. Some fail because their features are shamelessly copied by larger companies. Others are bought only to be killed, like the short-form video app Vine, which was acquired by Twitter. It's hard to hold people's attention long enough to become a habit.

But Clubhouse has broken through, at least temporarily, thanks to a swell of support from some of Silicon Valley's biggest names and an influx of other communities around the world, including Black creators, bitcoin peddlers, Gen Z moguls in the making, music agents, self-help gurus, and linguaphiles.

Here are answers to a few questions about the new app.

Q: What is Clubhouse?

A: Clubhouse is a free, voice-based social media app where people discuss predetermined topics or whatever's on their mind in "rooms." It's a bit like being on a semipublic Zoom call with all the cameras turned off, occasionally struggling to keep track of who is talking.

The types of rooms are potentially endless, but the very format of Clubhouse - disembodied voices trying to hold a conversation without dissolving into shouty chaos - means the most popular rooms are often a handful of people presenting to a silent crowd. It can feel like a mixture of TEDx talks and conversational podcasts, with the disorder of a heated community meeting and the cringe factor of a call-in radio show thrown in. The format can lead to more spontaneous and revealing conversations than you'd find elsewhere but also rambling and cross talk.

Clubhouse niches (craftaprenuers, singer-songwriters, people wondering how to survive an avalanche) can be a fun way to pass time - listening to interesting people talk about topics you care about, often with no pressure to participate. Users can hop between more serious traditional conversations about topics they're intrigued by or test out different Clubhouse formats. Some are like concerts and others set up like old-school dating shows, and in one case a room was 40 cast members recreating the entire Lion King Musical. In a time when many people feel isolated, a cacophony of strangers chatting, singing and even fighting can be comforting.

Q: How does it work?

A: Currently, Clubhouse is only available as an iOS app, and its rooms can't be accessed via Android devices or the web. It's also invite-only for now, meaning you need to know an existing user to use the app. And existing users need to give the app access to their entire iOS contact list to send any invites.

Unlike Twitter or a Facebook group, Clubhouse rooms aren't complete free-for-alls. They're more like conference calls, with a set group of people acting as moderators on a virtual stage. The moderators, who can speak freely, can also call on members of the audience who want to participate. You can tell who is talking by looking for a subtle gray halo around a participant's photo. Anyone can start a room and set it to be "open," meaning any other users can pop in. A "social" room means only people you follow can join. And "closed" is for invited guests only. The app also has "clubs," which can create reoccurring rooms and have members.

You can follow people or clubs to find out when they are moderating or participating in rooms. Click on the calendar icon and you can see a suggested or unfiltered list of rooms happening at any given time. Visually, the app isn't much to look at (lots of overly long profiles, rows of people's faces), which makes sense given its focus on audio.There's no way to delete an account in the app or online, but you can email the company to request deletion.

Q: Who is on it?

A: Elon Musk incited a fanboy frenzy at the end of January when the Tesla and SpaceX chief executive made his Clubhouse debut as a guest star on a nightly tech and culture show. Almost instantly, Clubhouse "hallways"-the app home screen equivalent of a Facebook news feed or Twitter timeline- transformed into a raucous bazaar of rooms offering pregame entertainment or an alternate place to listen to Musk in real-time, when the main room inevitably hit Clubhouse's 5,000 person cap.

Mark Zuckerberg appeared on the same show the following week, but the Facebook chief executive inspired much less of a ruckus and the room was shut down because of server issues.

Both the tech titans, however, were a little late to the party. Oprah Winfrey, Drake, Chris Rock, designer Virgil Abloh, comedian Tiffany Haddish, CNN's Van Jones, rapper 21 Savage, and Shark Tank's Mark Cuban had already appeared on the app. In the past week, Lindsay Lohan showed up to talk about her time in Hollywood with Perez Hilton. This past weekend, Walking Dead actor Daniel Dae Kim and CNN's Lisa Ling moderated a room raising awareness about the rise in violence against Asian Americans, the same day that former Trump campaign adviser Brad Parscale talked Republican strategy and whether Donald Trump Jr. might join Clubhouse.

But the app's staying power might well come from ordinary users. This weekend, some users in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan waited hours for a turn to speak about issues about Uighur detention camps and Taiwan's independence. By Monday, the Chinese government had blocked the app, as well as searches of "Clubhouse" on apps such as Weibo.

Q: Why is it getting big now?

A: Clubhouse owes its fast rise to a few proven growth hacking strategies - deployed by start-up founders to drive downloads and hook users - and good timing. The app launched in March 2020, just as shelter-in-place orders cut off access to in-person interaction, events, and entertainment.

Some early adopters willing to spend hours on a glitchy app with no visual stimulation beyond blinking avatars were no doubt looking for serendipity and human connection in the midst of a pandemic. But Clubhouse's decision to go invite-only also attracted Silicon Valley insiders, who treated the app like a safe space to speak to their acolytes.

The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz valued the company at $100 million when it was a few months old, had less than 5,000 beta testers and asked would-be users to sign-up via Google form to wait for an invite, Forbes reported.

Some of the firm's partners also helped Clubhouse attract its other key demographic: bringing on Black creators, entertainers, and others on the cultural vanguard, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and CNBC. The company recently introduced a plan to potentially pay some creators for their content, taking a page from TikTok and Snap.

The approach has attracted criticism as well. In a recent article, strategist Chris Lubin wrote, "[I]f it weren't for Clubhouse's Black users, it may have never actualized as anything but LinkedIn but with audio."

The app is also growing overseas. Clubhouse has been installed 5.5 million times around the globe, with roughly 42 percent of downloads in the U.S., 16 percent in Japan, and 10 percent in Germany, according to Sensor Tower.

Q: What issues is it facing?

A: Clubhouse is at a tricky stage in its young life. It's getting attention and listeners but also the increased scrutiny that comes when a massive influx of users meet unclear moderation policies. The company's leaders have been criticized for not investing resources in policing harassment or hate speech. The company now allows reporting of specific people in an incident report but will not specify how many people or what automated systems it has devoted to moderation.

Users, in particular women and people of color, have raised concerns about antisemitism, misogynoir, cyberbullying, spreading misinformation around covid-19, and harassment. Clubhouse says any hate speech and bullying are against its Community Guidelines.

The Washington Post

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