SAN FRANCISCO – Robert Van Winkle, better known as rapper Vanilla Ice, was in the spotlight last week with over 1,000 fans online.
In one incoherent conversation, Van Winkle praised the demeanor of Bell Biv DeVoe, a band from the 1990s, and was shy when asked about his relationship with Madonna. Van Winkle gave advice on real estate and life: “You have to protect your happiness in order to protect your life.” At one point, a participant serenaded the meeting with an a cappella version of Van Winkle’s hit “Ice Ice Baby”.
A few hours later, Van Winkle confessed that he had to leave before his son’s mother got angry.
It was the kind of spontaneous and unpredictable event that happened day and night at the Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that was becoming increasingly popular with trendsetters in popular and tech culture and growing in popularity in a public space for debate about freedom of speech and politics.
The app, which allows people to gather in audio chat rooms to discuss various topics, was downloaded nearly 4 million times in the past month alone, according to Apptopia. Public figures like Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone have become a part of it, and the unreserved talks it has made possible have caused trouble in China, where the clubhouse was banned last week.
In doing so, Clubhouse has sparked a debate about whether audio is the next wave of social media, turning digital connections beyond text messages, photos and videos into an old-fashioned voice. Every day, clubhouse users have had free conversations in thousands of chat rooms on topics as diverse as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood, and even cosmic poetry.
“It’s a big change in the way the social internet works,” said Dave Morin, who founded the Path social network more than a decade ago and is one of Clubhouse’s investors. “I think it’s a new chapter.”
Clubhouse has a quick track record – it only had a few thousand users in May – although the app is by invitation only and not available everywhere. The invitations are so popular that they are listed on eBay for up to $ 89. Media companies like Barstool Sports have also created their clubhouse accounts, and at least one company has announced plans to hire a “top clubhouse manager”.
The attention has overwhelmed the tiny San Francisco startup that has a dozen employees and was founded by two entrepreneurs, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Although Clubhouse raised more than $ 100 million in funding last month and was valued at $ 1 billion, it has struggled to cope with the surge in traffic. The app crashed on Wednesday last week. Facebook and Twitter are also working on similar products to compete with them.
The clubhouse is also exposed to complaints related to harassment, misinformation, and privacy. In an incident last month, a user promoted conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines and discouraged people from getting vaccinated, which was reflected in a situation of harassment of a doctor.
This month, German and Italian regulators publicly questioned the ability of Clubhouse’s data practices to comply with European data protection laws. In addition, China blocked the app after political talks broke out outside the country’s strict internet controls.
Clubhouse follows the classic path of Silicon Valley startups that social media companies like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook have followed – viral growth followed by the chaotic problems that come with it. It’s the first American social media company in years. The last big social media hit in the world was TikTok, a Chinese app that catapulted 15-second videos into cultural discourse.
Davison (40) and Seth (36) declined to allow an interview. In a conversation at the clubhouse, Davison discovered that the company was in a hurry to recruit new employees, create new features and launch the Android version of the app.
“It was just crazy, a lot of people joined us,” he said.
Davison and Seth, who were studying at Stanford University, had already started ventures. Davison has created several social media applications, including Highlight, that allow users to view messages and send them to people close to them. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founder of a company, Memry Labs, that built applications. These startups were bought or closed.
In 2019, the two men who met in tech circles in 2011 created a prototype podcast app, talk show, which they defined as “one last try”. Talk Show felt too much of a formal broadcast, however, so they decided to add a mechanism for people to join the conversation on the fly, as Davison mentioned in an interview on the Hello Monday podcast last month.
Davison and Seth started the clubhouse last March. They included a mechanism that allowed multiple attendees to broadcast at the same time, and they managed to move people between digital spaces like walking from one stage to the next at a music festival or business convention. To avoid overloading the startup process, they gradually distributed the invitations.
The app caught on as people looked for ways to connect with each other during the pandemic. Some of its early users were Silicon Valley venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen and his partner Ben Horowitz, who introduced Clubhouse into their networks. Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer and John Mayer have teamed up.
“There is a sense of access that is very difficult to reproduce,” said Andy Annacone, an investor with TechNexus Venture Collaborative, which runs a fund that has invested in Clubhouse.
In May, Andreessen Horowitz-run venture capital company Andreessen Horowitz invested $ 10 million in Clubhouse, bringing its value to $ 100 million. At the time, Clubhouse only had two employees.
Influential TikTok personalities, YouTube stars and actors from “The Bachelor” soon became active in the app. It has also spawned its own stars: there are people on its “suggested user list” who garner over 1 million followers. In December Clubhouse started a “Creator Pilot Program” with which power users can earn money with the app.
“People are already building brands,” said Sheel Mohnot, 38, founder of Tomorrow Ventures, with 1.2 million followers on the app. “There are many events in the clubhouse. Some of the ones I’ve seen have sponsors. “(Davison and Seth stated that the company plans to make money through paid 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 skin color are frequent targets of abuse and that conversations involving anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny have increased.
Porsha Belle, 32, an influential figure at the Houston clubhouse, said after speaking about misogyny on the app, people had set up rooms to encourage each other to report their account in order to ban it. His account was blocked last Monday.
He said he tried reaching out to the company but found few resources. “My side is locked while the thugs can roam freely,” he said.
Rachelle Dooley, 40, is a social media manager in Austin, Texas who suffers from deafness. She was blocked and thrown out of some clubhouse rooms.
“I can see what’s in the captions. People say, ‘Why is a deaf woman on an audio app?'” He said. “It paralyzed me and I started crying.”
The clubhouse has a lock function so that users have more control over their rooms. This, in turn, has sparked disputes over access, including with a New York Times reporter.
Kimberly Ellis, 48, an American and African studies student at Carnegie Mellon University who leads workshops on digital security, said she had also been to clubhouse rooms where people apparently gave financial advice, but was in fact “multi-level marketing.” did.
“Some would like to advise you and take your money with their courses,” he said.
In a conversation on Sunday at the clubhouse, Davison said the company had explicit rules against the spread of misinformation, hate speech, abuse and intimidation. Last year the company announced it was adding consultants, implementing security measures, and giving moderators more power.
However, the clubhouse has also made it possible for people living under the strict censorship of countries like China and Turkey to speak freely on many topics. Some users said they were addicted.
Brielle Riche, 33, a Los Angeles brand strategist, said the clubhouse has opened up her world since she opened it in November.
“The clubhouse gives us the opportunity to interact with strangers,” he said. “Only the clubhouse can turn you off TikTok.”
A week after Clubhouse announced its final funding last month, Musk was ecstatic when he appeared on the app interviewing Vlad Tenev, CEO of the stock trading app Robinhood. Musk has promised to return to the clubhouse with Kanye West and invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the app.
A few days later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg attended a talk on virtual and augmented reality. Then China banned the app.
On Sunday, 5,000 people, the maximum capacity in a clubhouse room, attended a weekly meeting with the founders. Davison was late because he’d been in another room and invited Tim Kaine, a Democratic Senator from Virginia, to apply.
“We’re just trying to keep up,” said Davison.
Adam Satariano contributed to this report.
Erin Griffith reports on tech startups and venture capital firms for the New York Times San Francisco office. Prior to joining the Times, she was a senior writer for Wired and Fortune magazines. @eringriffith
Taylor Lorenz is a Los Angeles-based tech reporter specializing in internet culture. Before joining the New York Times, she was a technology and culture writer for The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. @ Taylorlorenz