The right time, the right medium and the right people make Clubhouse a hit

Interest in the invite-only social media app soared when Elon Musk appeared on it

Clubhouse is the brainchild of entrepreneur Paul Davison (pictured) and former Google engineer Rohan Seth. Photograph: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times

Clubhouse is the brainchild of entrepreneur Paul Davison (pictured) and former Google engineer Rohan Seth. Photograph: Peter DaSilva/The New York Times

 

Elon Musk almost broke it. Vanilla Ice dodged questions about Madonna on it. And it seems like everyone wants to be there.

If you haven’t heard about Clubhouse, where have you been for the past few weeks? The drop-in audio app has been hitting the headlines in recent weeks as users clamour for invitations to the newest social media platform.

Clubhouse is the brainchild of entrepreneur Paul Davison and former Google engineer Rohan Seth. It launched in April 2020, and a month later, it had only 1,500 users. Last month, it was downloaded more than 4 million times.

So why is it getting so much attention now? Perhaps it’s a combination of the right time, the right medium and the right people.

The iOS-only app has a bit of a captive audience at the moment. We can’t socialise. We can’t travel. We can’t go more than 5km from our own homes without good reason. We talk to the same people, day in, day out. So a platform that opens us up to a global conversation sounds good, right?

That’s essentially what Clubhouse offers. Users gather in virtual rooms to discuss topics from tech and world affairs to relationships and hobbies. But it’s not a free-for-all. Each room has moderators who control who can take the floor, a list of speakers, and the rest are listeners. Listeners can virtually raise their hand if they want to speak or ask a question; it’s all very civilised and controlled.

Like any good launch, there is the hype, and in time-honoured Silicon Valley tradition, its creators have adopted an invite model. You need to know someone to get inside – or pay someone for one of their invites. Tell people they can’t come in unless their name is on the door, and you have instant appeal.

You can sign up for a waiting list, too – the double whammy of hype creation. Make it scarce, make it desirable.

Future of social media?

Interest hit fever pitch a few weeks ago when Tesla’s chief executive drew a large crowd to hear Musk talk about everything from Tesla’s future and bitcoin, to questioning Robinhood’s chief executive and how he wired a monkey’s brain for video gaming.

The surge in demand caused by his appearance left many people unable to access the chat, and instead pushed them to pirate streams on YouTube.

Hype aside, could Clubhouse be the future of social media? Perhaps.

One of the early appeals of Twitter was how close you could get – metaphorically speaking – to celebrities and well-known figures. But now, unsurprisingly, some people have full-time social media managers to craft their tweets and schedule their Instagram posts, so how do you know that you are actually “speaking” to the person whose name is on the account?

You don’t. It could be an assistant or an intern managing the deluge of replies each day. Clubhouse is harder to fake though, primarily because the principle method of communication is voice.

With that comes a certain amount of responsibility. One of the chief criticisms levelled at social media platforms is how easy it is to hide behind an anonymous persona, firing off pithy tweets critical of everyone from the head of a tech company to the person who parked too close to you at the supermarket last week. With that perceived anonymity comes a certain level of boldness. People say things on Twitter that they may not necessarily say to someone’s face. It’s a rare person who can say that they have never been guilty of that particular offence.

Protection

On Clubhouse, the protection of that anonymity is stripped away. You can still fake your identity, that’s true; but it is more difficult to say something objectionable or rude to someone just because you feel like it when you have to say it out loud. And that’s assuming you can even get past the moderator in the room. You could create your own room, which isn’t an easy feat, and say what you like. Generating an audience is much more difficult.

Another plus point: there is no publicly accessible Clubhouse archive (yet) to come back and haunt you with your old objectionable opinions. It doesn’t stop users recording the conversations themselves, but it’s broadly a choice between listen live or not at all. That immediacy may work in its favour, generating a good bit of FOMO (fear of missing out), too.

But all the hype in the world doesn’t mean that Clubhouse won’t suffer from the same issues that other platforms have. It has a few obstacles in its path. Do we really need another social platform at this point? It’s tough enough keeping up with the widely used ones without adding another niche option. And though there is plenty of interesting content on Clubhouse, it can be hard to find it among the rambling chats that feel like being stuck at the world’s dullest party.

Still, it’s novelty for now. And if it does offer a less toxic environment, I’m all for it.

Now: who wants an invite?

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