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Clubhouse May Be Social Media's Future. What's All The Hype About?

Clubhouse launched in March of 2020, just in time for lockdown orders. Now, other tech companies are rushing to make Clubhouse clones.
Sheldon Cooper
Sheldon Cooper/Getty Images
Clubhouse launched in March of 2020, just in time for lockdown orders. Now, other tech companies are rushing to make Clubhouse clones.

Oprah Winfrey, Drake, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and even White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain have signed up. So have comedians, relationship gurus and self-styled big thinkers armed with hot takes.

They are among the millions who have downloaded Clubhouse in recent weeks — the invite-only app that, judging from the hype, Silicon Valley says is the future of social media.

For those of you still waiting for an invitation, here's a primer to Clubhouse.

What is Clubhouse?

Clubhouse is an audio-only app where friends and strangers alike hold court on all kinds of conversations. Users peruse the app's "hallway" and drop into virtual "rooms" to listen in as moderators and guests talk — and there's no telling what might you eavesdrop on.

Tech analyst Jeremiah Owyang, who was one of the first to sign up for Clubhouse, said the serendipity of the app --"that pleasure of not knowing what's next" — is part of the draw.

You may get to hear Musk speak alongside Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev about the GameStop craze. But be warned: so many of the unfiltered, unedited, hours-long chats can be, well, dull. They can feel like rambling TEDtalks. Or, as Nilay Patel of The Verge tweeted, a "poorly-moderated, more aggro SXSW with no booze or tacos," referring to the Austin-based music and tech conference, South by Southwest.

Here are some recent Clubhouse rooms: "Are you an influencer because you call yourself one?" "Are humans naturally good?" And "Focus Your Mindset and Manifest Your Future."

Kat Cole, a former branding executive who now spends hours every day on Clubhouse, has fallen in love with the app. She hosts a weekly room called "Office Hours," where she and many others gather for "workshopping just tough decisions in life and business and focus really on leadership, on people decisions," she said.

As many have observed, it's as if your LinkedIn could talk. Sound like a blast to you? Well, it sounds good to the more than 2.3 million people in the U.S. who have downloaded the app since March 2020, according to data analytics firm App Annie, which notes that Clubhouse rose to the No. 1 most-downloaded app in Italy the first week of February.

The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz has valued Clubhouse at $100 million.

Clubhouse declined to make its founders available for an interview.

Kinda public, kinda private. What's the deal?

Driving the buzz is this country club-meets-Silicon Valley vibe. You need an invite to get on the app, and once there, Clubhouse has privacy rules.

Clubhouse records every room but deletes the conversations after a short period. The company says the recordings are "solely for the purpose" of investigating an abuse complaint to help determine whether a user should be disciplined on the app.

People in the rooms, however, cannot record or even transcribe the conversations. The idea is to keep the chats ephemeral and unable to look up later. What's said is said, and that's the end of it.

But, it turns out, people on the Internet break rules. Snippets and even entire conversations have publicly leaked, much to the chagrin of the mostly tech- and venture-capital types hoping for more private conversations.

Owyang said with Clubhouse rooms becoming increasingly public, there should no longer be an expectation of privacy.

"Yes, you should 100% assume your words will go public," he said.

Swatting away trolls on Clubhouse

Unlike on other social media apps, it's easy for Clubhouse chat moderators to boot trolls or block people from joining conversations. Controversy erupted recently when a venture capitalist blocked a journalist for coming into Elon Musk's room. The audio leaked anyway.

Musk fielded softball questions and pontificated about cryptocurrency and his go-hard work ethic.

"This was awesome," Musk said of the Clubhouse experience. "I didn't even know this existed a week ago. This seems cool."

He tweeted Wednesday that he's planning a Clubhouse chat with Kanye West.

"The most entertaining outcome is the most likely," Musk said.

In China, where Clubhouse had been used for rare, freewheeling discussions about political and social issues, the government has already blocked the app. But in the U.S., tech companies are keenly interested, rushing to build Clubhouse clones.

Owyang has so far counted25 tech companies attempting to launch Clubhouse competitors. By year's end, he expects there to be more than 100.

"The cost of entry is low," he said. "Everyone is trying to give Clubhouse a run for their money right now."

Companies working on Clubhouse imitators include Twitter and, reportedly, Facebook.

But Owyang said he expects an at least 30% decline in activity on Clubhouse once pandemic-induced lockdowns begin to ease. In other words, an app for spontaneous conversations may become less appealing when people have more options.

"This is not a great experience when you're out in the world and you have people in front of you who you want to speak to," he said. "But expect many variations on Clubhouse in all sorts of technology."

Right now, an individual Clubhouse room has a maximum capacity of 5,000 people, something the founders of the app say they will eventually lift.

Yvette Wohn, a professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, said with more users in each room will come a new set of issues.

Already, there have been examples of misogyny, anti-Semitism and other offensive comments. Clubhouse, Wohn said, has not shown that it has an effective way of policing such inflammatory speech in real time. But eventually, the app will have no other choice but to figure it out, she said.

"It's very common for a social media company not to think of moderation from the get-go, but I think this is something that they need to be very aware of and make sure they are providing those tool or whoever is creating a room in Clubhouse," Wohn said. "I think quickly people will realize that this is no different from any other situation where actually you have to be careful because there might be some social consequences and there might be somebody who is acting in bad faith."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.
Claire Miller