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Serverless / Tech Life

A Guide to Clubhouse: Is Anybody Listening?

A look at Clubhouse, an invitation-only drop-in audio-chat app or a community forum.
Mar 26th, 2021 10:23am by
Featued image for: A Guide to Clubhouse: Is Anybody Listening?
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In the absence of live theatre and concerts, and in an inundation of queues of things to stream, podcasts to listen to, and Kallaxes of books yet to be read, Clubhouse fulfills something else for many: It’s temporal, spontaneous, intimate and organic, right when a lot of us are finding life monotonous and socially distant.

Much of my work as a writer is to create artifacts. A written — or in the case of podcasts oral — history. Clubhouse is something different.

It’s for the moment, for the individual listener. That makes it a medium more than a platform.

Only on this unique app can I spend Sundays interacting with the intersectional struggle of periods. I can gain empathy at a sight-reader walkthrough of Clubhouse for blind users. Or relax on a Saturday afternoon in the Reading Room listening to DesignJuJu’s dulcet tones reading from Maya Angelou’s “All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes.” I’m beyond eager to finally catch a live radio-style theatrical performance and enjoy starting my day with an affirmation or laughing yoga class.

Clubhouse is all about the now.

I can’t pause Clubhouse. There’s no replay. No queuing it for later. Either I experience it now — with a dozen or thousands of other listeners — or I don’t.

But that unto itself — and the fact that it’s by-invitation and only available on iOS mobile devices — means that Clubhouse has a lot of inclusion problems, alongside some serious security questions. Today we will give you an overview of how to use the app — if you can — and the ups and downs of what could just become another internet echo chamber.

Some Basics of the Clubhouse App

Flashback to when there were nightclubs and you queued and hoped you were on a list. Or maybe you knew someone on the list but they could bring along four or five friends. Then you get in and there’s a sort-of vaudeville happening where people can get kicked off or dragged onstage. Clubhouse is kind of like that — if you didn’t go anywhere or see anyone.

Clubhouse describes itself as an invitation-only drop-in audio-chat app or a community forum. It launched about a year ago and currently has about ten million users — quintupling since the start of 2021. It’s still in so-called private beta, but is valued at almost $100 million.

You can only get on the app currently if you have an iOS mobile device and you have a friend who can invite you — think GoogleMail circa 2006. The more active you are in the platform, the more invites you get to giveaway.

“It’s a platform that offers intimate conversations on display. You’re in a dinner party that’s being broadcasted.” — Yin Mei

You log into the app and enter the Hallway — your main home feed. Here you will find a series of Rooms, which is what they call live conversations that can be scheduled or impromptu.

Rooms can be within Clubs. Akin to Facebook Groups, a club can have rooms open to anyone, by invitation or approval only, or a mix.

If you host regularly scheduled rooms, then you can create your own club. Similarly, like a higher level authorization, you can decide who to let into your club.

Each room has people “on stage” with the ability to speak. The rest is the audience, which can size up to 5,000 participants. Audience size dramatically varies. Audience members raise their hands to be called up to the stage to speak.

All of these in-app conversations are not intended to be recorded, but there are many ways outside of the app to do just that.

Since there are no comments, no direct messaging, no external links besides Twitter and Instagram, and no reaction emojis, this nascent community is already loaded with workarounds. The limitless character bio and, to a lesser extent, the profile picture play an important role in communicating beyond a live conversation.

The first thing you’ll probably notice is that the app comes with a lot of different push notifications to opt-out of. A lot. And when you click on one of those notifications, you’re already entering a live room.

So now that you have a very basic overview, what’s happening all up in da club?

Clubhouse Has Some Serious Inclusion Issues

Any time you’re having exclusive conversations that only certain people can access that’s going to be literally exclusive. Add to that, the app is still invite-only. It’s also intentionally designed to benefit the speakers more than the audience. But these aren’t the only ways Clubhouse eludes a lot of inclusion.

Unfortunately, Clubhouse is still iPhone and iPad only. Supposedly an Android app is in the works, but that roadmap hasn’t been released at the time of this posting.

The service’s uniquely temporal nature is by effect less inclusive. You need to have enough bandwidth, and a big enough data plan, to listen to something live. Even more so to speak in a room. It being live-only implies the user has to have free time. And you never quite know when a room is going to end — some last for hours.

Most crucially, like all social media, it can be a petri dish to breed toxic speech.

For example, the Clubhouse I’ve experienced has been a wonderful platform for Black voices. But, like most things with my white privilege, I see a different side.

Clubhouse Super User and Moderator Abraxas Higgins refers to the app as an accelerator, which means it will be quick to amplify both good and bad conversations.

A recent episode of the podcast Fanti gives an important intersectional examination of these “intimate conversations that you can just dip into,” as podcast guest Corece Smith describes this service.

Smith talked about how he got kicked off the stage twice. Once when the moderator didn’t like his song he shared and another when “this super racist problematic white dude kicked every Black person off the stage.”

The power of club or room moderators is quite omniscient and thus you can kick people out that disagree with your views. That means bigotry already runs rampant in some parts of the platform.

Fanti co-host and journalist Tre’vell Anderson said,

“Clubhouse gives a lot of power to Joe-Schmo in the middle of nowhere. And the transphobia, the homophobia, the misogyny just runs rampant on this app, but, because the moderators and the creators of these sensational rooms are the transphobes and the homophobes, they are able to 1: Perpetuate their foolishness to however many people are in their audience and 2: Silence the trans folks and the queer folks who are out there trying to hold them accountable. And so it really ends up being an echo chamber of sorts, if you will, for those folks who are small-minded, have problematic viewpoints and so forth.”

Anderson points out that there’s no way to moderate those issues as an audience member besides just leaving the room.

You can block an individual user from joining any room in which you are a speaker. This could protect you from an individual, but not their bigoted friends, and it doesn’t help protect others from their abuse. Clubhouse also has a Report an Incident function, but it’s notoriously unclear how they actually deal with those reports.

Yin Mei is a software engineer and director of strategy and curriculum design at Per Scholas. She has been building cross-sector tech-enabled international communities in Europe, China, and the U.S. since 2010, and she’s an early adopter and engaged user of Clubhouse, frequenting cybersecurity, education, and Asia and Asian American topic rooms.

Mei says some of Clubhouse’s flaws are an intentional part of the design of the application, which cultivates an environment of influence.

“But intimacy by design, in the way that Clubhouse has executed it, is in a way that creates pockets for people to be excluded from conversations by accident, — but not really by accident, but as a consequence,” she explained.

While Clubhouse is one of many platforms where stories are shared, she says that Clubhouse is unique in its user engagement.

Mei says it comes with “a sense of intimacy with an audience to preserve the authenticity of conversations without stage fright. I believe this is an effect of its design.”

However, she continued that some of Clubhouse’s decisions around user management on the digital platform can also be exploited for intentional exclusion.

Clubhouse Has Some Serious Security Issues, Too

One of the reasons for rapid growth of the platform was, until February 2021, it was allowed in the Republic of China. It offered an uncensored attempt at private yet public discord. Clubhouse users were openly discussing topics prohibited in China including the Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang and the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, as well as exchanging personal experiences of police interrogations.

Both China and Oman have banned the app now. Even before these bans, there were questions of how “free” free speech actually was in this quasi-private platform. After all, according to the Clubhouse privacy policy, all user audio is “temporarily” stored for the duration of any investigations of Trust and Safety violations while a room is still active.

“Clubhouse rooms are ultimately public, but they feel intimate. Just being aware helps people avoid giving away their personal information.” — Yin Mei

Agora, a Shanghai and Silicon Valley-based provider of real-time engagement software, supplies backend infrastructure to the Clubhouse App. The Stanford Internet Observatory recently found that Agora’s servers are located in China and thus behind the Great Firewall. Also, according to Agora’s U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the startup has agreed to assist the Chinese government with criminal matters.

The post continues: “SIO has determined that a user’s unique Clubhouse ID number and chatroom ID are transmitted in plaintext, and Agora would likely have access to users’ raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government.”

SIO said it chose to publish its findings because these security issues were “relatively easy to uncover,” which can put users at risk — especially those in mainland China. Furthermore, it’s highly reasonable to be able to connect a user ID with a real person.

SIO also wrote that they discovered other security flaws that they, for now, just reported to the platform.

To sum, data is not private on Clubhouse. If they don’t encrypt data going in, then it won’t come out encrypted.

Mei says she doesn’t believe privacy is even the priority or intention of the semi-public conversations the app facilitates. And that’s OK so long as Clubhouse doesn’t try to tout privacy as part of the brand.

She said, “We are all responsible for our choices. We need to remember that Clubhouse is still a public platform. When on a public platform, speakers and participants need to ask themselves: What is the value of your voice, and is this the best place to place to share that value?”

Another security red flag in Clubhouse is that you invite friends via phone numbers and they get an SMS. Theoretically, this should limit people who are banned from coming back, at least a bit more than an infinite array of email addresses. On the other hand, Clubhouse puts a lot of onboarding effort into getting you to permit it access to your address book. If someone — the vast majority, surely — imports their address book into the app, that means the app has access to all the phone numbers of those who are not on the app, without their permission.

Is Clubhouse — and Spaces, for That Matter — Just Another Tech Bro Echo Chamber?

While both audio conversation tools Clubhouse and its Twitter knockoff Spaces may have been conceived pre-pandemic, their early success is intrinsically linked to Zoom fatigue and screen burnout. Both are also still in beta. Clubhouse is invitation only, while Twitter Spaces seems to be doing a gradual release but who gets it first isn’t clear. Spaces is being rolled out to both iOS and Android, and is expected to fully launch in April. You find Spaces happening in Fleets — Twitter’s version of Facebook and Instagram Stories — which is where Spaces reside.

The main difference is Twitter has a 14-year-old audience of almost 200 million users, while Clubhouse is still a newborn social medium.

On-trend between the two is that, at least in tech, they seem to be dominated by white men. More than that, it becomes a bit of an echo chamber for investors and tech analysts of a certain age.

Unsurprisingly Clubhouse’s most popular tech topics are crypto, AI, marketing, VR/AR and venture capital.

Only two out of 11 tech topics to explore are about actually creating — engineering and product. Only three of the top 25 influencers in tech are women. This list is again predominantly white and almost all venture capitalists and angel investors.

Some clubs boast hundreds of thousands of members. The largest club is called “Human Behavior,” but its bio reads: “Silicon Valley innovators have increasingly used behavioral science for optimizing health, building tech products and make decisions.”

Other mega clubs center around Bitcoin, marketing, and startups — again the discussion led and dominated by VCs. Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Marc Andreessen and Simon Sinek have all recently been on stage.

At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be the place to be for the traditional The New Stack readers — developers, architects and technical leadership looking to build at scale. But there are unique, inherently unscripted conversions going on with the CEOs and CTOs of a lot of tech organizations. And, theoretically, the platform may be your best chance to actually talk to these people. It’s a logical source of inspiration for tech startup founders.

Clubhouse is also a place for communities, and the tech community is one of them. There are clubs for mob programming like Dev and Chill. Mei particularly recommends the popular The Cloud Club by executive IT coach Antoni Tzavelas, which hosts multiple rooms daily on all cloud computing-related topics.

Clubhouse is a new platform and definitely brings a different audience and way of communicating about technical issues than the industry staples Twitter and LinkedIn.

Should You? Could You? In a Clubhouse?

As the other Fanti co-host, journalist Jarrett Hill, put it, “Everybody has a voice but not everybody has a platform.”

Since Clubhouse is still a new platform, the ability to gain a large following is still attainable. In Clubhouse anyone can be amplified versus, for most folks, if you’re just joining Twitter or Instagram now, you’ll never be able to build that big of a following. You have a better chance of creating a big presence on Clubhouse.

Still, by default, search settings are by followers, so it’s already showing preference to its influencers.

With all of this in mind, Clubhouse seems to have a lot of potential — and, like all social media, a potential to trigger the downfall of humanity.

As Mei puts it:

People will always have conversations, but Clubhouse has introduced conversations with strangers as a habit and provided these conversations with free rooms. I think that Clubhouse has enabled these engagements to have a room — some rooms leave their doors open, some rooms leave their doors closed, and some rooms have trolls or bots opening and closing their doors for them.

In the end, Clubhouse is just one more platform, one more place to have a voice. It’s up to you whether you choose to participate in that particular conversation.

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TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in: Agora, The New Stack.
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