Launched in April 2020, the voice-based and invite-only social media app Clubhouse has quickly evolved from a trend within Silicon Valley circles to a sensational platform worldwide, attracting major news headlines and some two million users. As many are still searching for an invite to join the platform, some have begun to explore what the app has done right to reach a $1 billion valuation in less than a year.

 What is Clubhouse?

Unlike ever-growing major social media platforms that strive to develop an eclectic mix of affordances, Clubhouse makes its name with the focus on one medium: voice. Logging in to the app after receiving a text invite, users are directly presented with chat rooms of ongoing conversations that are free for anyone to join. 

Once you are in the room, you can either listen as an audience member or raise your hand and be invited up to join the discussion. Users are free to enter or leave any room at any time. Sonia Baschez, a 33-year-old digital marketing consultant, told the New York Times that “It’s like walking into a party where you know people are ready to mingle…You can just listen to other people talking about interesting subjects and jump in when you want.”

Clubhouse: An Audio-Based Social Networking App

On Clubhouse, using audio is not just the main way to communicate, it’s the only way. A photo-sharing app such as Instagram still reserves the function of direct messaging, but if Clubhouse users wish to chat with a friend one-on-one, the only option is to start a social or closed room and talk there. As a result, many are creatively utilizing profile pictures for QR codes and bios for information that came up during a discussion.

The Guardian introduces Clubhouse as a social networking app that is “part talkback radio, part conference call, part house party.” Clubhouse does not market itself as a platform for specific kinds of content, and the founders, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, take great pride in the wide range of topics being discussed on the app. “We’ve seen people host book clubs, fireside chats, passionate debates, and comedy shows,” the two founders wrote in the company blog. 

Clubhouse and Social Justice

In the meantime, a platform structured around dialogues also breeds advocacy for social justice. Most recently, actors Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii Five-0The Good Doctor) and Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) have successfully hosted multiple chats to address rising anti-Asian hate crimes.

Why Is Clubhouse So Popular?

There is no shortage of hot new things when it comes to social media apps in Silicon Valley, but why Clubhouse is the one that blew up? Intentionally or not, Clubhouse heavily plays on FOMO and exclusivity. Being in its beta stage, the app is invite-only with current users given only two invites when they sign on. 

Exclusivity: Clubhouse is Invite-Only

Celebrities like Drake, Kevin Hart, and Oprah Winfrey have joined and are raving about their experiences on the platform. “Real talks with real people…this is the direction social media is now going to. Pretty dope,” Kevin Hart tweeted. Avid social media users have resorted to eBay, where an invite priced at $125 has been sold 15 times. For the general public who are interested in exploring the app, there is good news – the founders have set the goal of opening up Clubhouse to the whole world in 2021.

Ephemeral Chat Rooms and FOMO

Beyond the process of joining the app, FOMO also captures part of the user experience on the platform. The algorithm of Clubhouse recommends a mix of rooms based on the people and clubs users follow. As a result, even knowing the name of a popular room, users have to follow the right people or be “pinged” by someone in the room to join the conversation. 

The ephemeral nature of the rooms also plays a critical role in keeping people engaged. Alex Taub, co-founder of the professional networking platform Upstream, describes that “You don’t want to leave Clubhouse because you feel like when you leave, something crazy is going to happen.”

Clubhouse Provides “Unfiltered Access” to Tech Giants and Celebrities

With the relatively exclusive group on Clubhouse, for many users, the platform provides “unfiltered access” to celebrities and tech giants as well as networking opportunities. Most notably, Elon Musk’s chat room with Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev thrust Clubhouse into the mainstream, maxing out the room limits and prompting fans to stream the chat in overflow rooms and on YouTube. 

TechCrunch went as far as publishing a semi-live blog of the session, documenting Musk’s views on space travel, crypto, AI, and more. The access Clubhouse provides can also translate into personally initiated networking efforts. 

Joanna Stern, senior personal technology columnist of the Wall Street Journal, notes that the few rooms she hosted attracted both regular users and high-profile personas such as Perez Hilton. Most of the time, as soon as the room ends, people would connect or exchange information with her via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Clubhouse’s Audio-Based Model Enables a New Level of Intimacy

When digging into the appeal of Clubhouse, one cannot overlook how the medium of choice, voice, enables a new level of connection and intimacy. In addition to the convenience and liberation of not having to be on camera, the founders of Clubhouse believe “the intonation, inflection and emotion conveyed through voice allow you to pick up on nuance and form uniquely human connections with others.” 

However, the key to Clubhouse’s success is not just voice. Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor for The Verge, describes the product as “Medium for podcasts.” Newton recalls the struggle of Anchor, a startup hoping to “democratize radio” by offering simple creation tools and a platform for do-it-yourself podcasts. Compared to low-quality Anchor podcasts, Clubhouse’s approach of utilizing live audio makes it easier to overlook its unedited format and enables a sense of serendipity.

Why is Clubhouse Controversial?

The flip side of encouraging live dialogues is the difficulty of content moderation. A number of discriminatory incidents have been reported, including anti-Semitic remarks and attacks on Black women. New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz told the Verge that when she was harassed and trolled on the app, there was no way to report it. 

Clubhouse Has Issues Surrounding Content Moderation

Even after Clubhouse co-founder Davison called Lorenz to discuss the issue and ask for suggestions, none of the suggestions Lorenz offered has been implemented so far. 

In October 2020, Clubhouse asserted that “we unequivocally condemn Anti-Blackness, Anti-Semitism, and all other forms of racism, hate speech and abuse on Clubhouse,” committing to taking action on all incident reports and adding new safety features.

Clubhouse Has Privacy Issues

Privacy is another major concern when it comes to joining Clubhouse. As every member has to be invited through their phone number, allowing access to contacts is highly encouraged and a vital step to build connections on the app. 

However, Vox found that even when you don’t grant access to your contacts, Clubhouse still notifies others when you join the platform as long as someone has your information in their contacts. 

Existing users also have no control over how private their accounts are. Clubhouse assumes every account is an open account, meaning everyone can be found based on their username, and their friends can see when exactly they are online. 

Furthermore, data privacy and content moderation intersect as the company claims that it might temporarily record chats when a room is live “solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations.”

Clubhouse: A Refreshing, Alternative Platform

As a work in progress, Clubhouse is scaling up at a rapid pace, but whether the app is just a fad or can continue to grow remains to be seen. In the meantime, with issues of moderation and privacy in mind, Clubhouse is an interesting alternative platform to explore as it provides a refreshing way to communicate on social media.