In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, two techies started a new social network built around an increasingly unloved feature of people’s iPhones: actually talking into it. The app, called Clubhouse, was at first niche. There are no posts, no pictures, no videos. As if to underline how little time you need to look at it, the home screen is a white-on-beige endless scroll of conference calls, called “rooms,” filled with people you might not know organized around topics like police brutality, music, sex, or whatever else was on people’s minds. Users can be moderators, hosting their own conversations and controlling who speaks. A digital audience can listen in, or ask to participate if they have something to say. The action happened all in your earbuds.
The app, started by Paul Davison, an entrepreneur who’d previously sold a company to Pinterest, and Rohan Seth, a former Google engineer, was a way to get people talking and trading ideas spontaneously, without filters or having to put on an outfit, they later wrote. At first, it was open to only a few thousand users — though they were the right users, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and others who controlled the flow of money and influence. And, true to its name, they prioritized an in-crowd by requiring invitations (they said this was to not grow too fast). Then the big money rolled in. VC giant Andreessen Horowitz pumped in $12 million weeks after it launched. By its ninth month of existence, it was worth $1 billion.
Now, with more than two million users and the app on the precipice of the mainstream, Clubhouse has become a flashpoint in the broader culture wars around censorship, online harassment, and the far-reaching powers of Big Tech. Its growth is undeniable thanks to figures as disparate as Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and, Trump consigliere Roger Stone — not to mention regular people craving conversation after nearly a year of lockdown. Now, tech giants like Facebook and Twitter are actively copying Clubhouse and doling out the new talking features for their billions of users, giving a preview of what the future of online life is likely to look like.
Many of the rooms focus on business, investing, entrepreneurship, and, of course, bitcoin. But they do vary. There are many dedicated to black issues, discussions about music and art, LGBTQ+ rights, and politics. One group of black signers organized a musical through its rooms. And even though the number of users is being tightly controlled by the company, it might not be long before anyone can join. Existing users are able to invite friends, and invitations are going for as much as $97 a pop on Ebay.
It isn’t all Kumbaya. There’s been plenty of trollish behavior and accusations of harassment, racism, and sexism. Each room has a moderator, and users can report others for abuse, the chats are happening in real time, and have been known to veer into ugly territory. Black women in tech have said that the rich, white-guy atmosphere is exclusionary. Anti-Semitism has been a problem, with one CEO logging off the app after listening to a room “that is literally just a bunch of people talking about why it’s ok to hate jews.” One woman complained she was targeted by men after talking about misogyny in a room, she told the New York Times.
Clubhouse’s harassment hasn’t happened in a vacuum — and in some instances has been amplified on other social networks until it’s spun out of control. New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz faced a barrage of Twitter and Substack trolls for her coverage of the app and what people say on it, which in one case included a tweet with an error that she later corrected. Spontaneity seems to have limits on the internet, where everything is recorded.
Clearly, though, it’s catching on. Some users report spending four to five hours a day on Clubhouse Rooms can sometimes feel like TED Talks or morning radio shows, without the filter or hesitancy that might come from hosts who have corporate sponsors to please. And it can lead to unexpected collaborations, like after former Boogie Down Productions DJ D-Nice and comedian Tom Green made loose plans to collaborate on new music, as they did just this morning. Like a lot of what happens on Clubhouse, it could be great or terrible. People will probably listen either way.