Clubhouse, a Tiny Audio Chat App, Breaks By


SAN FRANCISCO – Robert Van Winkle, better known as rapper Vanilla Ice, held court with over 1,000 fans online last week.

In a long chat, Mr Van Winkle praised the poses of the 1990s band Bell Biv DeVoe and declined when asked about his relationship with Madonna. He gave advice on real estate and life and said, “You have to protect your happiness to protect your life.” At some point, one participant serenaded the gathering with an a cappella version of his hit “Ice Ice Baby”.

A few hours later, Mr Van Winkle confessed that he had to leave before his child’s mother got angry.

It was the kind of free-running and unpredictable event that happened around the clock at the Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that grew in popularity with tech and popular culture tasters, and is quickly becoming a town square for free speech debates and politics.

The app, which allows people to gather in audio chat rooms to discuss various topics, has been downloaded nearly four million times in the last month alone, according to Apptopia. Public figures like Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone have joined him, and the unreserved talks they made possible sparked the wrath of China that banned the clubhouse last week.

In doing so, Clubhouse sparked a debate about whether audio is the next wave of social media and switched digital connections beyond text, photos and videos to old-fashioned language. In thousands of chat rooms, the clubhouse users had unreserved conversations every day on topics as diverse as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood, and even cosmic poetry.

This is a major change in the way the social internet works, ”said Dave Morin. who founded the Path social network more than a decade ago and invested in Clubhouse. “I think it’s a new chapter.”

The clubhouse’s development was rapid – in May there were only a few thousand users – although the app is only available by invitation and is not generally available. The invitations are so sought after that they are listed on eBay for up to $ 89. Media companies like Barstool Sports have also set up clubhouse accounts, and at least one company has announced plans to hire a senior clubhouse executive.

The attention has overwhelmed the tiny San Francisco start-up that has around a dozen employees and was founded by two entrepreneurs, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. While Clubhouse raised more than $ 100 million in funding last month and was valued at $ 1 billion, it has struggled to cope with the increase in traffic. The app crashed on Wednesday. Facebook and Twitter are also working on similar products to compete with them.

The clubhouse is also grappling with increasing complaints about harassment, misinformation and privacy. In an incident last month, a user promoted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccines and prevented people from getting the shots, resulting in harassment of a doctor.

This month, German and Italian regulators publicly questioned whether Clubhouse’s privacy practices complied with European data protection laws. And China blocked the app after political talks surfaced outside of the country’s strict internet controls.

Clubhouse is following a classic Silicon Valley start-up path that social media companies like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook have also embarked on: viral growth, followed by the chaotic problems that come with it. It’s the first American social media company to break out in years. The latest global social networking hit was TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that catapulted 15-second videos into cultural discourse.

Mr. Davison (40) and Mr. Seth (36) declined to be interviewed. In a clubhouse discussion on Sunday, Mr Davison said the company is rushing to retire new apps and release new versions of the app.

“It was just crazy, we had so many people with us,” he said.

Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth, who both attended Stanford University, are repeat entrepreneurs. Mr Davison created several social networking apps, including Highlight, that let users see people nearby and send messages. Mr. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founder of Memry Labs, which developed apps. These startups were either bought or closed.

In 2019, the two men, who met in 2011 in tech circles, built a prototype podcasting app, talk show, which they described as “one last try”. But talk show felt too much like a formal broadcast, and so they decided to give people the chance to join in on the conversation on the fly, Davison said in an interview with the Hello Monday podcast last month.

Last March, Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth founded the clubhouse. They added a way for multiple speakers to broadcast at the same time, allowing people to switch between digital spaces like walking from stage to stage at a music festival or business conference. To avoid overwhelming their start-up, they slowly distributed invitations.

The app caught on as people looked for new ways to connect with each other during the pandemic. Some of the earliest users were Silicon Valley venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen and his business partner Ben Horowitz, who introduced Clubhouse into their networks. Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer and John Mayer followed suit.

“There’s this sense of access that is really difficult to reproduce,” said Andy Annacone, an investor at TechNexus Venture Collaborative, which runs a fund that has invested in Clubhouse.

In May, Mr. Andreessen and Mr. Horowitz’s venture firm Andreessen Horowitz poured $ 10 million into the clubhouse and valued it at $ 100 million. It had two employees at the time.

TikTok influencers, YouTube stars and actors from “The Bachelor” soon became active in the app. It also spawned its own stars, with some people garnering over a million followers on its “suggested user list”. In December, Clubhouse launched an invitation-only pilot program that enables so-called power users to earn money with the app.

“People are already building brands,” said Sheel Mohnot, 38, founder of Better Tomorrow Ventures, which has 1.2 million followers on the app. “There are all of these clubhouse shows. Some of these shows that I’ve seen are sponsored. “(Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth said the company plans to make money from ticketing events, subscriptions and tips, but will not sell ads.)

Recognition…via Agence France-Presse – Getty Images

The growth has been accompanied by criticism that women and people of the same color are frequent targets of abuse and that discussions about anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny are on the rise.

Porsha Belle, 32, a clubhouse influencer in Houston, said after speaking about misogyny on the app, people had set up rooms to encourage each other to report their account so it would be banned. Your account was suspended last Monday.

She said she tried contacting the company but found little recourse. “My site is locked while the bullies are free to roam,” she said.

Rachelle Dooley, 40, a deaf social media manager in Austin, Texas, said she was blocked and kicked out of some clubhouse rooms.

“I can see it show in the subtitle. People say, ‘Why is this deaf woman on an audio app?’” She said. “I would freeze and start crying.”

The clubhouse has a blocking feature that gives users more control over their rooms. This, in turn, has sometimes led to disputes over access, including with a journalist for the New York Times.

Kimberly Ellis, 48, an American and African at Carnegie Mellon University who leads digital security workshops, said she had also been to clubhouse rooms where people appeared to be giving financial advice but were instead doing “multilevel marketing”.

“Some want to coach you and get money from you for their classes,” she said.

In the clubhouse discussion on Sunday, Mr. Davison said the company had explicit rules against the spread of misinformation, hate speech, abuse and bullying. The start-up announced last year that it would add advisors and security features and enable moderators.

The clubhouse has also made it possible for people who live under strict censorship in countries like China and Turkey to speak freely about many topics. Some users said they were addicted.

Brielle Riche, 33, a Los Angeles brand strategist, said Clubhouse has opened her world since she started using it in November.

“Clubhouse gives us the opportunity to interact with strangers,” she said. “Only the clubhouse can turn you off TikTok.”

A week after Clubhouse announced its latest funding last month, Mr Musk was ecstatic when he appeared on the app and interviewed Vlad Tenev, the executive director of the stock trading app Robinhood. Mr Musk has promised to return to the clubhouse with Kanye West and has invited Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to the app.

A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, showed up to chat about virtual and augmented reality. Then China banned the app.

On Sunday 5,000 people – the maximum in a clubhouse room – took part in a weekly “town hall” meeting with the founders. Mr. Davison was late because he’d been in another room and welcomed Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, to the app.

“We’re just trying to keep up,” said Mr. Davison.

Adam Satariano contributed to the coverage.