Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that has exploded in popularity with the tastemakers of tech and popular culture and that is quickly becoming a town square for debates over free speech and politics.
The app, which lets people gather in audio chat rooms to discuss different topics, has been downloaded nearly 4 million times in the last month alone, according to Apptopia. Public figures as various as Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone have joined it, and the unconstrained conversations it has enabled have incurred the wrath of China, which banned Clubhouse last week
In the process, Clubhouse has generated debate about whether audio is the next wave of social media, moving digital connections beyond text, photos and videos to old-fashioned voice. In thousands of chat rooms every day, Clubhouse’s users have conducted unfettered conversations on subjects as varied as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood and even cosmic poetry.
How Was Clubhouse Created?
In 2019, the two men — who had met through tech circles in 2011 — built a prototype podcasting app, Talkshow, which they called their “one last try.” But Talkshow felt too much like a formal broadcast, so they decided to add a way for people to spontaneously join the conversation, Davison said in an interview with the “Hello Monday” podcast last month.
Last March, Davison and Seth started Clubhouse. They added a way for multiple speakers to broadcast at once and allowed people to bounce between digital rooms as if they were going from stage to stage at a music festival or business conference. To avoid overwhelming their startup, they doled out invitations slowly.
The app caught on as people sought new ways to connect with one another in the pandemic. Some of its earliest users were Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen and his business partner Ben Horowitz, who introduced Clubhouse to their networks. Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer and John Mayer joined.
In May, Andreessen and Horowitz’s venture firm, Andreessen Horowitz, put $10 million into Clubhouse, valuing it at $100 million. It had two employees at the time.
The growth has been accompanied by criticism that women and people of color are frequent targets of abuse and that discussions involving anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny are on the rise.
Clubhouse has a “blocking” feature to give users more control over their spaces. That has in turn sometimes created disputes about access, including with a New York Times journalist.
Kimberly Ellis, 48, an American and Africana studies scholar at Carnegie Mellon University who leads workshops on digital safety, said she had also been in Clubhouse rooms where people appeared to dispense financial advice but were instead “doing multilevel marketing.”
In Sunday’s Clubhouse discussion, Davison said the company has explicit rules against spreading misinformation, hate speech, abuse and bullying. The startup said last year that it was adding advisers and safety features and empowering moderators.