Why Clubhouse has been thrust into the social media spotlight

15 Feb 2021371 Views

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The live audio discussion app has attracted the attention of figures such as Elon Musk, but remains limited to invite-only for now.

With a mix of social media, live podcasting and an air of exclusivity, Clubhouse has skyrocketed to being the app du jour in recent weeks.

The invite-only app lets users set up live audio discussions – akin to panel discussions at tech conferences, when they were a thing – with users jumping in and out of rooms to listen in and check out what’s going on.

So far, the app has proven popular in the tech industry, with investors, founders and journalists kicking off discussions on politics, the future of media and health trends. Celebrities including Oprah and Jared Leto have taken to the app as well.

There is an intended ephemerality to the discussions as the audio is only available live and isn’t archived for playback, unlike videos on Twitch for example. But that hasn’t stopped people recording talks and uploading them to YouTube.

Clubhouse was launched in early 2020 by founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth and was valued early on at $100m after securing funding from investors including Silicon Valley titans Andreessen Horowitz.

Much like GameStop and bitcoin, the app attracted even more attention after Elon Musk tweeted about it. The Tesla founder recently joined the app and hosted a discussion with Robinhood chief executive Vlad Tenev while the ripples of the GameStop-Reddit rally were still being felt.

Over the weekend, Musk extended an invite to Vladimir Putin to join him in a discussion on the app – an invite that the Kremlin has acknowledged. What they would discuss, who knows.

Security

Although it is only in its infancy, Clubhouse has already attracted some controversy.

A report by the Stanford Internet Observatory claimed that some of Clubhouse’s data was potentially vulnerable to snooping from the Chinese government.

The researchers said they found evidence that some metadata from Clubhouse was being transmitted to Chinese servers via a Shanghai-based company called Agora, which provides real-time engagement software. That data could be subject to access requests by Chinese authorities.

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In response to the study, Clubhouse said it is “rolling out changes to add additional encryption and blocks to prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers”.

The company had not made the app explicitly available in China for users there but people found ways to access the app.

The short time it was accessible saw Chinese users flock to the app to join in discussions about the government, the treatment of Uighir Muslims in the country and China’s relations with Taiwan. These are all banned topics of discussion on other social media platforms in China, so it came as little surprise that government censors swooped in and blocked Clubhouse.

Opening the clubhouse doors

The latest round of funding that Clubhouse raised in January valued it at $1bn, in a swift journey to ‘unicorn’ status for the start-up. With some big-name VCs throwing their weight behind the start-up at this still relatively early stage, it is likely that more investors will take an interest.

Clubhouse said it is exploring revenue streams on the app like ticketed discussions, subscriptions and means for users to tip creators.

The company has about 2m users and is still in beta stage. For now, the app is only available on iOS with Android users on the outside looking in. Invites remains elusive too, with many still waiting behind the velour rope.

As the beta stage and invite-only period ends, Clubhouse may expect to see a wave of users come to the app, if only to satisfy their curiosity. How many of those users it will retain and monetise, or whether it’s truly the next Instagram, TikTok or whatever you’re having yourself, remains to be seen.

But when it opens the doors to a wide audience it will face a common recurring problem for all social media platforms: content moderation.

Discussions go largely unchecked and there have already been dubious chats about Covid-19 vaccine efficacy. Clubhouse will not be impervious to the conspiracy theories and harassment that afflict other sites. Its staff remains small for now and any expansion will require a robust content moderation strategy.

Clubhouse may be a new face but it will have old problems.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin

editorial@siliconrepublic.com