2020 has been the year for tech companies rising to the new demands of a pandemic era. Many of us are now familiar with video call apps that helped us survive the lockdown. Ditching blurry Skype connections, we engaged with improved video call platforms such as Zoom and Discord to get us through work-from-home conferences, and long-distance calls.
One app is making waves right now with its decidedly simple concept. Instead of looking to bridge the gap between screens like everyone else, Clubhouse founders betted on audio content making a comeback. While video call apps were everywhere last year, Clubhouse went back to audio content and stood out as a simple adaptation of the good old-fashioned voice call, offering the comfort of social interaction to isolated people who enjoy talking and listening during the pandemic.
Clubhouse was launched in March 2020 by Alpha Exploration Co., amid the COVID-19 outbreak, when countries were going into lockdown. Riding on the increasing demand for digital communication platforms during the pandemic, the Clubhouse team created the app for the same audience that prefers audio-books and podcasts, allowing users without a following to start new conversations about various interests on the platform.
Known for hosting celebrities and Silicon Valley leaders, attention for the exclusive app soared after tech magnate Elon Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform on 2 February. In the call spanning an hour and 36 minutes, Musk joked around with fellow Clubhouse-users, who were all eager and excited to get a chance to speak to the newly-crowned richest man on Earth, getting his insights on artificial intelligence and his vision for the future of Tesla.
Tesla promptly posted a recording of Musk’s Clubhouse call on its YouTube channel, associating the experience of using the app with Musk’s relaxed energy and natural ability to engage an audience in a room. Naturally, this depiction of Clubhouse as a space for informal discussions with cool famous people quickly drew global attention to the app, catapulting it to international fame.
How does it work?
Clubhouse is a social networking app based on audio-chat. The exclusive app is essentially the audio-content counterpart of Houseparty, the video call app that helped us tide through the circuit breaker. The app is designed for those who like to talk, to have conversations, discussions, or simply, share their thoughts on an intriguing topic. Each chatroom consists of usually one or a few speakers, while other users can listen in on conversations, interviews and discussions between interesting people on various topics.
Upon gaining access to the app, users are shown a page full of conversational topics to follow, from sports to tech to world affairs to faith and so on. The conversation room is like a conference call but with some people on the call talking, and most listening in, like tuning in to a live-streamed podcast catered to an exclusive audience. In each conversation room, users will find people interested in the same thing, and you can follow them. The more topics and people you follow, the more conversation rooms and individuals the app will recommend you to follow or join.
The app is currently restricted to an audience of 5000 per room and features no pictures or videos, only voices. Apart from learning more about your interests in topics, the only information Clubhouse requires from its users are real names (theoretically), and phone numbers. Users can choose to sync their Twitter data or enter the information manually for a more private experience.
Just like a phone call, once the conversation is over, the room is closed, and the live audio-chats disappear. However, this doesn’t stop users from recording a conversation the way Tesla did, posting Musk’s Clubhouse session on Youtube.
By Invitation Only
While the idea behind it is not incredibly novel, the attractiveness of the app lies in its exclusivity. The fact that you can’t just download it off the app store and create an account makes it much like a real-life invite-only country club of sorts. New users have to be invited by an existing member. Every new user gets two invites, and greater participation earns you more invites to the app.
The application is also only available as an iPhone App, which is bad news for Android users at the moment. With Alpha Exploration Co. being a very new startup merely 10 people strong, it makes sense that they would want to scale up slowly, to maintain control over their growth. Starting with a large, uncontrolled number of users would have killed the Clubhouse servers after a publicity stunt of the Musk hosting calibre. And as there are more Android users than iPhone users worldwide, it makes sense that the developers would avoid the Android platform in its first year on the market.
While it is available on iPad, the app is not optimised for iPadOS, which means that the viewing mode shown on your screen will not be as user-friendly.
With its clever use of celebrities for its publicity stunts, the app’s growth in popularity has been incredibly rapid. At two months old, Alpha Exploration Co quickly received a US$12 million investment from Andreesen Horowitz. With only 1500 users at the time, Clubhouse’s worth ballooned to over US$100 million.
Just last month, the app was reported to have engaged 2 million users, and that number has since multiplied to 6 million users worldwide. On 21 January, barely 10 months following its launch, the app’s valuation hit US$1 billion, turning Clubhouse into a tech unicorn.
Since Musk promoted the app, the first week of February has also seen the trending app sweep across Asia. Japan and China are two of the most recent countries to experience the Clubhouse phenomenon. Despite having had similar versions of the audio-content apps launched in China, none of those platforms managed to take off. The US version, however, has managed to intrigue thousands of Chinese users with its freedom of speech and global reach, as compared to the restrictions and government censorship of local platforms in Mainland China.
A similar surge in demand for the app has also occurred in Japan. The Clubhouse app topped the country’s download charts with more than 440,000 new installs last week. Japan has been relatively slow to ride the global boom in audio content, with players like Asahi newspaper belatedly launching their own podcasts. With the ongoing pandemic, many isolated individuals are understandably lonely, and the platform offers opportunities for individuals to enjoy the company of likeminded individuals and enrich themselves through social interactions. The simple concept and growth in popularity of the Clubhouse app have thus led Japanese users to question why the country’s tech sector has not been able to produce its equivalent.
Clubhouse’s founder, Paul Davison, has spoken up on the need for moderation to be a top priority. Users are allowed to report conversations that violate the site’s policies, and moderators are equipped to step in on difficult conversations.
Despite strict guidelines on hate speech and harassment put in place, the main issue Clubhouse faces so far lies with the moderation of conversations held in chatrooms within the app. Users have reported misinformation on vaccination, as well as hate speech, with users reporting a chatroom that turned into a string of anti-Semitic hate speech during last year’s Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Judaism.
Just earlier this week on 8 February, access to Clubhouse was blocked in China, ending a brief window period that allowed thousands of mainland users to join in discussions often censored in China. This was following a report where the freedom of speech on the app made Clubhouse a platform for Chinese citizens to discuss various politically sensitive topics, including the Hong Kong protests and controversial issues relating to Taiwanese independence and detention camps in Xinjiang. The Chinese government responded by adding Clubhouse to the “Great Firewall”, blocking the app from being used in China.
A Bright Future Ahead
Even with the China market out of the picture, Clubhouse is projected to become the audio counterpart of the world’s next Facebook or Twitter-sized phenomenon. An Android app is currently in development, to make the app accessible to non-iPhone users. The tech unicorn also plans to allow users to make money directly from the site through subscriptions, ticketed events, and tipping.
The rapid growth and plans to add these functions pose a concern to current users, that the app will gradually lose its exclusivity, and become no different from an overloaded audio content platform. The exclusivity and authenticity of it, after all, is what makes Clubhouse so addictive. We can only hope that even as it grows, Clubhouse will remain the simple, streamlined platform for real conversations between real people from all over the world.