Last week, I found myself hacking all kinds of VPNs in order to binge-watch the infamous Meghan Markle-Oprah debacle. While the interview itself was predictable (mostly because I had previously seen every clip circulating the internet), the more interesting part of my night began when I found myself joining a Clubhouse room dedicated to discussing Oprah’s interviewing style. Clubhouse, the new audio-based, invite-only, social media app, has been unavoidable—and after months of consciously refusing to get involved, I finally caved and shamelessly begged for an invite.
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Clubhouse was launched back in April of 2020 by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Coinciding with the onset of a global pandemic and multiple rounds of national lockdowns, the app has been steadily increasing in popularity, with its current value estimated at $100 million.
The general idea behind this new form of social media communication is rather simple: users can enter chat rooms pertaining to specific topics that interest them and engage with hundreds of other users in a phone-style conversation. Think conference calls but with a little more structure. There are room moderators who, upon request, allow members of the ‘audience’ to speak, while everyone else stays on mute. Most interestingly, these rooms are erased once the discussion is over, leaving no trace of any such conversations taking place. So if you missed it, you missed it.
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Although the hype surrounding Clubhouse hasn’t dwindled yet, a series of problems have come to light. The app is still in its beta-testing phase (the final round of testing), because of which many users have mentioned their inability to register any complaints. In fact, misinformation is rampant on the platform—ranging from 5G covid conspiracies to theories about vaccines—and there have also been allegations of racism, antisemitism and misogyny. Although the app is in the process of updating its community guidelines, the inability of chat rooms, its participants and moderators to be traced makes it impossible to allow for any accountability—even if app users could lodge complaints.
So what makes this app so appealing? If the purpose of social media apps is to have a democratising effect on communication, then on paper, I would assume anything touting itself as an elitist, invite-only (and currently only available to iPhone users) platform with the opportunity to hear Elon Musk speak would naturally fail. And while celebrity appearances can draw the rest of us plebs in for a hot second, I would imagine the fanaticism of hearing Drake speak would eventually (possibly?) fade. But with over 10 million sign-ups, Clubhouse is doing something right—something unique in an extremely saturated social media landscape. I believe the founders of Clubhouse have located and monetised human beings’ most favourite hobbies: hearing their own voice and charting their thoughts and opinions. It doesn’t matter if anyone or everyone is in agreement (or even engaged for that matter,); just the thought of having an audience—virtual or otherwise—tugs at our innermost narcissism, the most defining quality of generation social media.
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A fellow journalist recently described her Clubhouse personality as not another ‘Clubhouse Warrior’—and of that, there are many. There are those who speak to get their point across, those who speak to get in the last word and those who speak for the sake of speaking. From venture capitalists and angel investors to queer creatives and ‘soul-activists’ (you can’t make this stuff up), a myriad of professions, topics and issues are addressed on this platform. But, not all chat rooms are filled with self-proclaimed experts. Some of the smaller, more specialised rooms are not only allowing like-minded individuals to network, but they are also opening up a space for conducting much-needed discussions on challenges plaguing their field of interest—such as how journalism has failed those from a working-class background or why VC’s need to invest in female-led startups.
Having been around for barely a year, it is too early to predict whether this app will become a mainstay—arguably, it already is. Whether it is a very vocal manifestation of an echo chamber, a democratising space to give voice to marginalised communities, or just another silicon valley venture is yet to be determined.