As COVID-19 restrictions prompt people to embrace new digital communication tools, an exclusive invite- and audio-only discussion app named Clubhouse has been taking off in countries like the United States, India, and Germany. Last week, it even became the most downloaded app for iPhone in Germany. It is refreshing, engaging, and informative. By going from text-based social networks in the 2000s (Facebook, Twitter), then moving on to visual and video apps (Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok) in the 2010s, the 2020s could be described as the era of audio-based social networks. Podcasts have been increasingly growing in its popularity, especially among millennials. More people want to communicate by audio message leading to increasing adoption of the voice note feature of several apps, such as Instagram, Telegram, and Facebook after WhatsApp has introduced that feature in 2013. So, no wonder, that this exact format is hitting the needs of many people in these uncertain times with barely any physical contact.
What is it?
It is a combination of a podcast network, a virtual event space, and a live chat room, but with the energy, intimacy, and interactivity of a physical meeting. Users can set up virtual “rooms” on a topic of their choice, which any Clubhouse user can join and also virtually raise their hands to have their’s say. However, the host of the “room” can decide who is allowed to speak. Or the users can also create a “room” of their own. As Clubhouse’s website states, its goal is to be “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.”. You can sit in a “room”, listen, and talk to celebrities like Drake or Ashton Kutcher.
Who founded it?
The app has been launched in April 2020 by its founders Paul Davison, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and former Googler Rohan Seth who are stressing that Clubhouse was never meant to be “exclusive”. As Clubhouse is still a beta version and their plan to build it “quietly” hasn’t worked, they are currently working to make it available to the world as quickly as possible as they have stated that Clubhouse is for “everyone”, so it is not intended to be exclusive. They are not ready to release the general version yet as they haven’t finished building relevant features that allow them to handle more users. However, by late December 2020, the app had already 600,000 users worldwide signed up.
Will it really be the “Next Big Thing” in social media?
Currently, the rooms are mainly entrepreneur-focused or led by influencers. It is not clear, how the app will evolve. Will brands also participate? At the moment, there are rooms on Clubhouse with content that brands probably would not want to be involved with (“If you Wake up Early on Saturday, your Friday was washed up” or “My Oreos still fried”). However, rooms like “Daily Habits of High Performers” or “10 Mindset Hacks for Entrepreneurs” attract a large and knowledge-hungry audience striving for tips and tricks from experts in this field. Moreover, YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram continue to flourish meaning that visuals and videos continue to be quite powerful. Is long-term credibility to the app sustainable after the pandemic abates?
The FOMO effect
However, the exclusivity and ‘artificial scarcity’ of Clubhouse, which is very popular in the marketing field, has triggered immensely FOMO (“Fear of Missing out”) among netizens all over the world resulting in making the app even more appealing. Additionally, the engaged “free” reviews about the new app sensation on other social media such as LinkedIn by Clubhouse members increase the FOMO effect immensely as you can only be part of the app if you have received an invite. As each account holder can only invite two people to join the app (shortly after the launch in the US the number of invites has been at 5), some people get more and more desperate to get an entrance ticket in leading to offers for invites on eBay for over 82€. Hereby, the app plays off consumers’ FOMO. This fear is amplified by the use of well-known celebrities leading to media hype which in return leads to people being afraid of missing out on something innovative and new. In the last 10 months, Clubhouse has hosted celebrity talk shows, book clubs, passionate debates, and music performances, comedy shows, and seminars.
Downsides and controversy
Clubhouse is currently seen as a disruptor in the global social media landscape. Silicon Valley, VCs, and angel investors are highly interested in the new tech sensation and it is valued at $100 million.
However, an uncontrolled beta app and the radically free nature of the rooms also have a lot of severe dangers. Clubhouse has been slated for failing to moderate hate speech, in particular against Black people in the wake of Black Lives Matter, LGBTQIA+ community, Jews, and other ethnic minorities. It still lacks the tools to effectively control hateful conversations without permanently recording ongoing conversations in rooms. Moreover, the way the app accesses users’ data may also violate European law. Especially the option to share the address book when signing up is extremely discerning as it allows the provider to collect an enormous amount of personal data of the users and of those who do not even download the app on their mobile phone. Experts state that the app has grown too fast and doesn’t take the requirements of the EU regulation General Data Protection Act (GDPR) into account which gives users greater rights of how companies use their data. Also, the audio-only is not accessible for deaf people, there are no warnings that information might be false or misleading as well is no disincentive to de-platform known racists or other problematic actors.
Nevertheless, as the app is still in the beta phase, the founders are working intensively on more detailed community guidelines that will address for example the evaluation of complaints of abuse or harassment without recording user conversation. Moreover, the often-criticized safety features, as well as the lack of inclusion, have also been acknowledged and been further worked on as the Clubhouse website states.
Clubhouse is definitely made for this moment with lockdowns in many countries and millions of bored people. What happens when the pandemic is over, and people are busy with full schedules? That remains to be seen.
– Business 2 Community (2021), “A sensible view on the next big thing in social media – Clubhouse” https://www.business2community.com/social-media/a-sensible-view-of-the-next-big-thing-in-social-clubhouse-02378425
– Clubhouse Website (2021). “Check 1-2-3”, https://www.joinclubhouse.com/check-1-2-3
– Deutsche Welle (2021). „Hyped audio-networking app clubhouse thrives in Germany”, https://www.dw.com/en/hyped-audio-networking-app-clubhouse-thrives-in-germany/a-56284788
– Statista (2020). “Podcasting in the U.S.”, https://www-statista-com.eu1.proxy.openathens.net/study/38175/podcasting-statista-dossier/
– YourStory (2021). “Inside Clubhouse, the invite-only voice social network taking Silicon Valley by storm”, https://yourstory.com/2021/01/app-clubhouse-invite-only-voice-social-network-silicon-valley?utm_pageloadtype=scroll
– Figure 1 (2020), https://techcrunch.com/2020/04/18/clubhouse-app-chat-rooms/
– Figure 3 (2019), https://medium.com/the-message-io-dispatch/enterprise-messaging-fomo-how-fear-is-affecting-your-workforce-8cf349bb5385