It’s not that hard to get an invite to Clubhouse anymore.
More than a year after its initial release in March 2020, the invite-only social media app is still technically in beta mode, but after a few appearances from the likes of Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, everyone wanted in—and most of them got in. The audio-only platform that was almost built for a global pandemic has exploded to host about 10 million users in nine countries and the European Union on both iOS and Android.
Conversations occur in real time about everything from international politics to watch parties, and you can dip in and out of rooms without saying a word or be invited “on stage” to be heard by 5, 50, 500, or 5,000 people (the current maximum—although Musk has blown past that before). It’s basically a virtual conference, about anything and everything, sold to users with a premium on real-time conversation. But now that Clubhouse’s users are beginning to step out of quarantine isolation and take their conversations offline, the app is being kicked out of the nest to see whether it can fly.
‘Intimacy at Scale’
Like Zuckerberg, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth of Alpha Exploration started their social experiment small, intending to "collect feedback, quietly iterate, and avoid making noise until we felt the product was ready for everyone." But as the buzz caught on in Silicon Valley, they soon learned that wouldn’t be possible.
“I think part of the appeal of Clubhouse is the scarcity of conversations that are only going to happen live and that you won't be able to catch anywhere else,” said Jordan Harrod, a user who joined in November 2020 after hearing about the app on Twitter. But after a while, she said, “I think the scarcity idea kind of wears off after you are in too many rooms and not necessarily hearing particularly novel information.”
Since conversations aren’t recorded, fact-checking is difficult, and users aren’t always held accountable for what they say. Sound familiar?
“I’ve been in many a room where I’ve hopped on and fairly quickly realized that the people who called themselves experts on some topic had absolutely no idea what they're talking about. But everyone in the audience was taking it as fact,” Harrod said.
At the same time, some users say the medium allows for more nuance and critical thinking than other social media platforms, where users can scan over an image or a post in seconds and like or share immediately. Without visual cues like videos, comments or even the infamous blue checkmark, says Abraxas Higgins, a self-described impact influencer and social audio strategist, the app truly is audio-only, and he likes it that way. And while some have compared the app’s content to podcasts, broadcasting live (as radio hosts will tell you) is not the same thing as recording content with the knowledge that you can edit it later.
“Thousands of people are listening to you, and it's just your voice—there is no image—and you’re having to think of things on the fly and be witty and funny and have lexical prowess,” he said. “If you’re lying, you get caught out pretty quickly. If you’re an idiot, you get caught out pretty quickly. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, you get caught out pretty quickly.”
So while a large following might bring an audience into your room, there’s no guarantee they’ll stay—especially when time is a premium in modern life. And you have to spend time engaging with users on the app, a lot more than you do to scroll through Facebook or Twitter and like someone’s content.
“The power of this app is intimacy at scale,” said Higgins, who said he has friends in cities all over the world today from the platform.
That’s not to say the app is free of disinformation or disingenuous people. Anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, and Covid-19 deniers have formed their own communities on the app, making unproven claims in their bios and conversations. And while some rooms hold space for conversations between Israelis and Palestinians during the ongoing crisis, the app has also struggled to shut down anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. In April the app shut down a number of rooms and removed users who violated the community guidelines, which ban discrimination, hateful content, or threats of violence or harm against “any person or groups of people.” The growing pains are unavoidable, but how the company handles them moving forward could make or break its future in the social media sphere.
The Evolution of Clubhouse
It wasn’t always this way, and chances are it won’t remain the same either. The app has gone through several evolutions, or cycles, as more and more people were invited on. Each user gets two invites when they join, but Clubhouse gives you more seemingly indiscriminately—which makes any perceived exclusivity short-lived. When it first opened up in July 2020, after three months of development and testing with a few friends, the company stated its intention to "foster a diverse set of voices"—and to a certain extent it managed to do so.
“It’s an app that was created for people in Silicon Valley, and there’s already a hierarchy in Silicon Valley, so that’s sort of how the app became popular. It also gained popularity because of the exclusivity: You wanted to be a part of something that everyone else wanted to be a part of, but only certain people were allowed to be a part of,” said Beth, an early user who did not want her real name shared due to her connections within the tech industry.
That hierarchy involves race, gender, and class dynamics. White men have long dominated the tech industry and white workers make up two-thirds of the workplace, followed by Asian Americans, who make up just under one-quarter of computing and mathematical occupations and are more likely to be found in technical positions than leadership positions. Black and Latinx workers each make up less than 10 percent of the industry and even less of the executive positions.
But a lot changed when the entertainment industry got on the platform last September, including a wave of Black creatives, ushering in a new era for the app.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to use this platform the way that maybe some people would,’ in the sense that there’s an opportunity here to use this outside of just speaking,” said Noelle Chesnut Whitmore, the chief marketing officer at Geojam and founder of More in Music.
Within a few months, Whitmore pulled together the now-viral and critically acclaimed performance of The Lion King: The Musical as the executive producer and director. When she joined the app, like other Black users, Whitmore invited her community into the wave of users of color joining the app, from cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta.
“My Clubhouse experience has always been inclusive of very, very diverse groups, like extremely diverse groups, so much so that it was ironic, because some of these people I would never have talked to just based off of location, based off of some of the sectors in which they worked. The beautiful thing about Clubhouse is it put all of us in one space and forced us to talk to each other,” said Whitmore.
Higgins, who is based in London, joined this wave in October last year, calling it a “music renaissance,” and said the user base—at least to him—was much more Black at the time than it is today, diversifying from the mostly white tech base of its early days. Now the app is taking off in India, having spread to the UK and other parts of Europe as well as Africa, Australia, and South America.
“Each of those cities had some kind of cultural impact on the kinds of rooms we would see,” said creator Minh Do, who hosts clubs like Crazy Good Fun and the Movie Club, which often have more than 500 users in the room. One example he gave was the green moderator signifier, which Atlanta users began calling the “green bean”—and it stuck.
“In the very beginning, it was fairly tech-heavy, but I also came in after George Floyd, and my impression of what happened then is that there was a push for diversity from the user base at that time, and I think that has continued ever since,” he added. “I don’t think that Clubhouse has a strong amount of control over the demographic changes on the app, because it's kind of in the hands of the users to invite who comes on.”
Clubhouse doesn't collect demographic information from users when they create an account, so there’s no way to know quantitatively how diverse the platform is. A spokesperson for the company pointed to several top creators of color, some of whom are based in other countries, with audiences of more than 1,000 users.
Other social media platforms with an international base are similarly diverse, and users can turn Clubhouse into an echo chamber of sorts, but the app’s algorithm—while somewhat a mystery—heavily relies on user-selected “interests'' to populate your hallway, making it more likely that you’ll find users outside of your bubble. With only a single profile image and a username to identify users, the app also sidesteps some of the racial bias built into artificial intelligence that has gotten apps like Twitter in trouble before. Still, while there are plenty of examples of what not to do, the question remains: Does the company know what to do next?
What Does Growth Look Like?
In recent months, Clubhouse has started to cater more to creators, rolling out a "Creator First" initiative to support selected creators by providing resources, services, and a stipend. The app also added a payment feature using Stripe that allows users to monetize their audience—with 100 percent of the money going directly to the user, unlike other platforms, which take a cut of the money.
Features like these are encouraging, especially for creatives of color, who are often cut out of the profits made online. Beyond the user base, however, part of the inclusivity equation as the app grows is biased by the people behind the technology. One of the app’s two male cofounders, Seth, is a person of color, while the other, Davison, is white.
“There’s definitely an air of strong male energy. The more popular rooms tend to be the rooms where it's mostly white, male tech speakers,” said Beth, noting that other voices were present as well—if you went looking. “When two men start an app with roots in Silicon Valley, with this agenda of being inclusive, it's a different air than when a woman starts an app to ensure that women feel safe in that community. With Clubhouse, perhaps the exclusivity was once a marketing tactic, but at a certain point it can become their Achilles’ heel.”
The small company of roughly 50 employees is hiring, however, and would double in size if it filled all currently open positions. If they follow through on opening the platform, as the website says they intend to do, they’re likely to need the help.
“The beautiful thing they have on their side is that there is some sense of culture that they had early on. I think the hard part, though, is how do you establish and communicate and share that culture as it scaled,” said Whitmore. “People are just getting dumped onto Clubhouse and are unfortunately bringing some of those norms from other platforms without realizing that there is a unique opportunity for us here to develop a new standard, a new culture, and new ways in which we use this platform.”
Correction 7/6/21 2:30pm ET: A previous version of this article said Clubhouse had a few dozen employees. They now have roughly 50 employees, and are still hiring.