I entered a club this week. No one invited me; I asked to join, and someone let me in. I was soon welcomed by an old friend from Los Angeles and two technology executives in the US state of Georgia and Amsterdam. We chatted for a while, then I wandered off.
This was Clubhouse, an iPhone audio app that is Silicon Valley’s latest social media craze. It has operated discreetly since April but this week’s appearance by Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, and his impromptu grilling of Vlad Tenev, chief executive of the online broker Robinhood, marked a turning point. As one speaker observed, “I feel like this went mainstream, big time.”
On Monday, I toured its virtual rooms and sampled discussions on all kinds of topics, from learning German to gaining investors for start-ups. I hardly knew anyone that day but, by Wednesday, the app pinged constantly to alert me to the arrival of contacts whose app icons bore party poppers, the sign of a new Clubhouse member.
Clubhouse is a hybrid — a mash-up of social network, virtual world, podcasting and trade fair that has been eagerly adopted by digital nomads stuck at home during the pandemic. If you cannot escape to a technology conference in Monterey or Barcelona and mingle with new people in the hallway or hotel bar, it is the next best thing.
But be quick. Until recently, it had the mystique of a club that was very difficult to join. “If you are here, you are super early,” one moderator said flatteringly this week. Now, with a valuation of $1bn, it is growing — from 5,000 members in May, it has reached more than 2m. “Our focus now is on opening up Clubhouse to the whole world,” its founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth wrote recently.
This could be a bittersweet moment for Clubhouse — the familiar time experienced by Facebook, Twitter and others when the early intimacy of bumping into friends and having fun steadily gives way to crowds, anger and abuse, and the valuation rises as the value is diluted. It has been created with high ideals but why should its fate be any different?
I can think of two reasons. One is voice — the fact that instead of communicating by writing, from 280-character tweets to Facebook posts, Clubhouse members talk and listen to each other. “The thing we love most is how voice can bring people together,” wrote its founders. Even allowing for their Californian vibe, they have a point.
It is easier to pick up tone and nuance when someone is talking; the rhythm of live conversation allows for more give and take, and faster clarification. A statement that would sound stark and aggressive in writing, even if lightened with emojis, can be softened subtly in speech.
Audio can also be a relaxed and convivial medium that allows one to dip in and out easily; I listened to a discussion while cooking dinner. “Just in the middle of home-schooling a seven-year-old but I’m here,” confessed one speaker. “I’m sorry if I break up, by the way. I’m driving up a mountain road,” said another.
The freedom to listen and learn, and perhaps contribute, while doing something else is attractive. It helps to give Clubhouse a gentler style than the barbed back and forth encounters on Twitter, where everyone’s guard is up.
Second, Clubhouse is moderated. The app is designed to be like a panel discussion, with people “on stage” speaking and audience members only allowed to talk when picked. The power lies with the moderator or moderators, who run each room and control who participates.
This indeed has a moderating effect: if you misbehave or get abusive, someone can turn your microphone off. If the entire discussion gets out of hand, they can end it by closing the room. That builds into Clubhouse a consistent form of oversight which other platforms lack.
But none of it is foolproof. Any conversation can degenerate into a shouting match and Clubhouse has already had to toughen its controls and make it easier to block people. There have been complaints about racist remarks in some rooms, and a simmering feud between US journalists and venture capitalists.
Moderation helps but any member can become a moderator by starting their own discussion room, which raises the question of who guards the guardians. Given a choice between order and growth, Silicon Valley always picks the latter, trusting that it can clean up the mess later.
Clubhouse will be tempted to grow as fast as it can. It has been given an opportunity by the pandemic and I wonder how much of the live events and conference business it may disrupt permanently. Chatting on Clubhouse is not as stimulating as going to Burning Man in the Nevada desert, but it is a lot more convenient.
For now, I savour Clubhouse, which lets us party poppers feel among the chosen few. But, as it heads for hundreds of millions of members, I recall the remark often attributed to the actor Ernest Thesiger about fighting in the first world war: “Oh, my dear. The noise! And the people!”