Tech

‘Let’s Do a Clubhouse’: Why the Social Network App Has Captured the Internet's Interest

The social network that has the Silicon Valley buzzing for a while is drawing attention among high-profile celebrities and beta-testing users. Here's why you might be interested in tuning it to the chatter.

It’s been called the new social media darling, a sought-after fad, the hot new app. Some have even likened it to a coffee shop or a podcast with audience participation. I’m talking about Clubhouse, the social media platform well on its way to becoming the next it thing. The app has taken centre stage among entrepreneurs, start-up shills, venture capitalists, even celebrities. The digital spotlight is shining bright on the social network, as it shimmers at a distance with an exclusive, clubby air.  

So, what is the hype about, and should you join in? Here’s looking at the world of Clubhouse, how it works, how to get on it, and why it’s paving a new vision of how social media works.

The basics

Clubhouse, at its fundamental level, is a voice-based social media platform that is currently in beta testing and open to a select few users via peer-to-peer recommendation. The exclusivity is the key to its appeal: you have to get an invitation to use the app and it is only open to iOS users for the time being. The platform is devoid of any visual cues – no text, images or videos.

The social network was launched less than a year ago by two Stanford University alumni, Rohan Seth and Paul Davison. “It’s a place to meet with friends and with new people around the world – to tell stories, ask questions, debate, learn and have impromptu conversations on thousands of different topics,” the founders say in a blog post.

Clubhouse shot to mass appeal – as many as 12,000 Indians have already downloaded the app, said a report published by data analytics firm Sensor Tower. The app raised $1 billion in its Series B funding last year, led by US-based venture firm Andreesen Horowitz. It’s most notable claim to fame was last week, when SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk hosted an audio chat on the platform and later shared notes on Twitter upon realising that many people couldn’t join the event. That was enough to cue thousands to flock there. 

How does it work?

Imagine a community radio – minus the passivity – tweaked to your multiple interests. Or an audio-only webinar, with similar functions, all compressed in one place. The platform allows users to create rooms based on their many proclivities and domain interests, wherein they can partake in discussions. There are listeners and speakers, and a moderator to ensure things go as per guidelines.  

As a virtual clubhouse, this is a particularly large one. Each discussion dominates a separate room – people can see who is speaking or listening, chime in themselves, click into profile pages and follow each other, and hold discussions on topics of their interest. It can be a book club, comedy show, fireside chat, debate – make it what you will. So effectively, you can host chat rooms to talk to friends, meet new people, plug into conversation with absolute strangers, or just listen to the steady stream of content as if it were a podcast. Like Zoom or Houseparty, you can mute or unmute yourself and take turns while talking based on social cues. Users can join audio chat rooms that disappear once the conversation concludes.

You can be part of the audience, you can raise you hand and join in the conversation, or you can choose to be quiet,” says Harnidh Kaur, a start-up enthusiast, who was one of the early users who got an invite when the app had less than 1,000 users. She received a notification to join a scheduled talk around a start-up discussion point as we spoke.

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Her entry overlapped with others interested in start-ups, entrepreneurial ventures, founders. She could instantly envision it as an elite audience app – referring to the dominating medium of conversation (which happens mostly in Engish) and accessibility (available only for iOS users).

On matters of privacy, Clubhouse does record chats in real-time, albeit “solely for incident investigations”. So, if someone reports abusive behaviour in a room, the recorded audio can be reviewed for action. But the app’s privacy policy notes that these recordings are encrypted while they are retained and deleted once the investigation concludes. Further, there is no way for a user to record an ongoing conversation using external devices or by taking screenshots of the app.

How do you join?

Since the app is in an extended beta testing right now, you need an invite from an existing user to board the social media bus. Every Clubhouse user gets two invites that they can pass on in the grapevine – the invites are reportedly being sold for money through various forums, such is the cachet around the network. The app is currently open only to iPhone users. 

Screenshot of the app

Those who haven’t been invited yet can download the app and register their usernames in the database. The app reserves the login details for you, which can be used when the platform opens up curtains for mass usage. 

Why it’s making headlines

The premise around the app is simple, but alluring. So much so that the app’s audience has gone from 600,000 users in December last year to over two million about a month later. Keep in mind this is when the app is not open to public yet. 

At the surface level, the exclusivity is working in its favour. While the app has existed since 2019 – and has had Silicon Valley abuzz ever since – the recent celebrity entry has raked the public’s interests. This creates intrigue because unlike other platforms, users can actually converse with eminent personalities. The app doesn’t make distinctions along the lines of popularity – one can be in the same room as Ashton Kutcher and talk to him about shared interests. Who doesn’t want to be in a virtual room with the likes of Oprah, Kanye West, Drake, Kevin Hart? Elon Musk’s Clubhouse talk speaks volumes: it broke the 5,000 person limit for a room, prompting the creation of secondary listening rooms and live streams on other platforms. Even Mark Zuckerberg has made an appearance on the network, further propelling its appeal. 

“It comes down to content,” Andrew Hutcherson, content editor of Social Media Today, tells The Wire. “In that sense, Clubhouse has definitely benefited from its invite-only, exclusive club approach. By getting early invites to high profile people, that’s amped up the FOMO factor, and made Clubhouse invites something to be desired in themselves, increasing the buzz around the app.”

The voice-only medium further pursues a human connectivity – eschewing the need to worry about how you look or who you are. The ability to tap out when you’re done; or do a volley of tasks while listening to a stranger’s reflections on the future of storytelling or Instagram’s new features, carries convenience and ease. There is liberty to pick content, tune in and out at a click.

The Indian startup industry has taken particular interest in the network – Cred founder Kunal Shah and Razorpay’s Harshil Mathur are among those shifting base. The Indian Startup Club emerged to be one of the biggest groups on the app within the country, with a participation of almost 4,000 members, according to a report by the Economic Times. The attraction is evident: discussions and conversation along the lines of product marketing, how to grow your start-up, hacks and tips, entrepreneurial insights.

Recently, Chinese users flocked to the app to get a feel of free speech without restrictions – early users registered debate and discussion around sensitive political and cultural topics restricted on other platforms.  This included democratic assault on Hong Kong, the ongoing crackdown against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and the sovereignty of Taiwan. After a brief uncensored period, the Chinese government banned the platform on Monday. 

What makes it different from other apps?

The platform has been christened by high-profile celebrities, marketers, investors. But why the need to single it out, what sets it apart from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (to name a few)?

For Harnidh Kaur, the fact that it is new and centres an experience around user engagement holds the reins. She notes that beyond the start-up sphere, communities are quickly emerging around Twitter users, music. “Even a PCOS room exists,” she says, hinting at substantial diversity as users join in. An initiation into the app echoes this: one can swipe through rooms about wealth building, “future of work”, “Data and AI”, therapy, astrophysics, history, the spectrum seems to expand as we speak.

The focus on listening and interaction defies the social media mould focused around passive watching or scrolling through similar content. The fact that it is devoid of visual elements also signals a subtle shift: ideas gain precedence over appearances; interests over carefully curated personalities. 

Technologically speaking, the app’s algorithm also cultivates an individualised experience for the user. While the likes of Twitter and Instagram depend on one’s network of friends and acquaintances in directing recommendations, Clubhouse brings in an interest-focus perspective that shields topics and lets users dive into at will. Users can create communities around domains of their interest and engage in conversations. Theoretically, the focus falls on the quality of engagement rather than the quantity – it could boast of being a tad more authentic than its counterparts. Andrew Hutcherson, however, cautions against heralding it as ushering change in content consumption. “It adds another element, in some respects, but it’s largely the same content, just in a different form. I doubt it will have any significant, long-term impact on consumption trends.”

Does it work in direct opposition to social media platforms? Perhaps. But the thing which it singles it out doesn’t always work in its favour. “In the beginning, I was on the app a lot – like three-four hour. But it has reduced a lot. It’s very time-consuming and attention hogging,” Kaur says. “At the end of the day, it is a conversation you have to focus on. You can’t passively engage in a conversation.”

Needless, Clubhouse users get dibs on bragging rights, which assume importance during a pandemic when homebound has been a prolonged status update. The social network feeds on in-real-life elements: spontaneity, interaction, and encounters with friends and strangers alike. Can its success be attributed to the pandemic? “It’s hard to say,” notes Hutcherson. “But there’s definitely a need for more human connection in the absence of IRL meet-ups. Video live-streaming saw a huge rise last year, and Clubhouse is likely riding the same wave.” 

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The hold it has over the music industry speaks volumes. There are rooms dedicated to indie songs, performances and collaborations amongst DJs and singers, artists trying out new beats, and song sharing and listening as a community.

Hutcherson notes that the key aspect here is maintaining the momentum is the same as live-streaming – keeping quality at scale to keep audiences engaged. “With a small group of influential, popular speakers, that’s easier, but the bigger it gets, the more the room quality will dilute,” Andrew Hutcherson cautions. Measures will have to be taken to ensure effective content discovery to maintain user engagement. “If Clubhouse can keep regular users coming back, that’s where it will win out.”

The platform has, however, recorded a fair share of complaints. It came under scrutiny over moderation concerns previously – as the discussion is happening live, it can be logistically tedious to manage it, especially if it is at a large scale. Issues have been recorded underlining its capacity to handle racism and harassment. Clubhouse says that it is working on both improving content discovery and user safety, so it is well aware of these issues. But again, the app is currently only dealing with 2 million users. 

Limitations also include integrating users with disabilities and diversifying interest topics. As of now, the content that floats across rooms in India is particularly niche, Kaur says – and the saturation point might be on the horizon. “Right now you’re seeing a reiteration of similar subjects – how to grow your start-up, how to look at product marketing and growth hacks. Very interesting for a person like me who is in the circuit but I can see it could not appeal to someone who is not a start-up person.” 

Kaur further notes that a lot like other digital spaces, it stands the risk of being dominated by male voices. “It’s very much a boy’s club – a lot of men talk on it,” she reflects wryly. And other times, it doubles as a self-endorsement platform that might defeat the agenda it set out to achieve. “Because of the function of the audience and people involved, it ends up being a self-promotion gimmick.” She hopes that this aspect sheds off away with the novelty of the platform.

Is it the next big thing?

The founders plan to open the platform up for users, to reel in Android users and add in localisation features — building an experience that feels “native” to them. Would a curtain’s up mean that the interest might wane, reducing it to a fad that comes and goes? 

While that has been the characteristic way of social media, Clubhouse’s traits may lend it some immunity. It is the current idée fixe, and attentively driving the interest is the audio-focused approach. Listening may as well be the new reading, lightly commented one user. Kaur agrees with this, noting that “audio is definitely the next big thing globally.”

“It is a social tapping that we haven’t done before.” Her observation overlaps with the booming interest in podcasts across India. Audio streaming platforms recorded growth in usage by 42% in March last year – pushing avenues like Spotify, Gaana and JioSaavn to diversify their podcast collections to respond to demand. Pandemic favourites – webinars and Instagram lives – may have something to worry about.

Moreover, fleshing out an interest-based social network has been the thing to watch out in social media for a while now. TikTok’s rise to popularity can be partly attributed to its focus on individual interests rather than latching on to social circle preferences. Such a network offers users novel ways of expanding their networks and chancing upon different ideas. The more users it will have, the more rooms and domain discussions, and the more diversity the platform can boast of.

The current social media fixation is a medley of podcasts, song-sharing, round tables, friendly meet-ups, and more. Clubhouse has our attention – the question is how well it can retain it.

Saumya Kalia is currently an editorial intern at The Wire. She has previously written for The Caravan, Outlook, Arré and LiveWire, amongst other platforms.