A few months ago, when a friend asked me if I was “on Clubhouse,” I thought she was talking about a new antidepressant. “No, it’s an app,” she said, “and you need an invite to get in.” The FOMO hit me instantly. After some speedy googling, I realised that the exclusive audio-based (see ya, texting thumb!) chat room was the latest Silicon Valley obsession and was slowly but surely creeping into the hands of a select few non-techies. In fact, while everyone seems to be talking about Clubhouse, just 3,500 people around the world, including celebs like Oprah, Ashton Kutcher, and most recently Kevin Hart, currently have access to the eight-month-old platform.
Though the concept of a chat room might have you thinking you've time travelled back to 2002, Clubhouse is shaping up to be the next big thing in social (especially in the wake of its recent $100 million (£75 million) valuation) when it eventually becomes available to the public. But what exactly is it? And when the time comes that you score an invite, will it be worth the download? Or, is it just is it another app we’ll forget about when the world goes back to normal? Here, I break down all your burning Clubhouse questions to help you decide if you want in.
How does Clubhouse work?
Think of Clubhouse like being at a party (remember those?) where you don’t know anyone, so you casually poke your head into conversations and chat with people around the room. The keyword here is “chat,” as in with your voice, because it is an audio-based app where you literally talk to others (including the aforementioned celebs) in virtual rooms that you can hop in and out of. You can upload a profile photo of yourself, but aside from that there are no options for images or video. Fear not introverts/people who hate the sound of their own voice — you can join any chat you want and mute upon entry!
What do you talk about?
Anything and everything. The point is to simply connect with other humans. Within minutes of signing up (more on how to get an invitation later), I was practising my terrible Spanish with fellow novices in one room. As we speak, I’m listening to musicians make an impromptu R&B song together. This morning, I discussed how to find small stocks to invest in, and later tonight, I plan to join a room called “Why people act Hollywood when they are nobodies” (the name alone sold me). I’ve been in several chat rooms about activism, 4C hair care, and ways to support Black-owned businesses. There is no topic off-limits, however, like Snapchat, there is no history — once the chat has ended, it’s gone forever.
So, it’s not a dating app?
No. Clubhouse is not a dating app. That said, if you like the sound of someone’s voice, there is nothing stopping you from shooting your shot by flirting vocally into the digital ether and hoping for the best. But I would strongly encourage you to read (or in this case, listen) to the room beforehand.
Why has Clubhouse become so popular?
In a word? Networking. Because the app is currently available to a small group, the opportunity to connect with this exclusive network of tech giants, celebrities, and activists is one of its most alluring features. People are jumping at the chance to make personal and professional connections they may not otherwise have access to. And because every user is able to join a room and have a real conversation with anyone, there is a sense of intimacy that you just don't get on other platforms. Though I was too shook to give him my elevator pitch, within minutes of joining my first chat, Joe Budden, rapper-turned-podcast godfather himself, popped in to offer his two cents on the topic du jour.
Since the chaos of 2020 has taken away so many jobs and physical connections, some might consider this the next best thing. “A synchronous conversation feels more personal than typing something out,” says Janelle Hinds, founder of the Toronto-based non-profit app Helping Hands. “There’s a reason why we jump on a Zoom rather than email back and forth.” After many months of endless scrolling and screen fatigue, I can see the appeal. Any app that doesn’t rely on curated visuals (or require me to learn choreography I will surely be bad at!) feels refreshing.
Is Clubhouse safe? What about privacy?
Though Clubhouse only launched earlier this year, the app has already seen its fair share of criticism for its lack of moderation policies. The app initially had no guidelines and was soon confronted with the harsh realities of misinformation and harassment between users. Since then, its founders have created community guidelines; each room can also create customisable “club rules.” You can also now block users, or report an incident if something particularly shady goes on. That said, given how easy it has been for hate groups to find homes on other social-media platforms, it is concerning that the app creators weren't more wary of this from the start.
Are there any other downsides?
While it’s cool that a virtual run-in with a celeb or venture capitalist is just a chat room away, Douglas Soltys, editor-in-chief of Canadian tech publication BetaKit, warns about the consequences of being invited into social groups with a limited set of ideas. Apps like these, he argues, “seem like tools to create more bubbles… they’re like private jet rental startups for rich people. They're built for a pre-established ecosystem echo chamber that isn’t necessarily aware of itself," he says. “It’s not inherently wrong or bad, but it does speak to who [Clubhouse is] initially trying to cater to.” In short, though like-minded voices are great for building communities, they can also be a breeding ground for exclusion and fake news, so it’s important to stay aware and diversify your content.
I want in! How do I get an invite to Clubhouse?
Because Clubhouse is only in beta testing, and therefore invite-only for now, you’ll have to wait until someone asks you to join. Every new member is allotted one invite — I got mine through an Instagram friend and I used my one invite for someone I thought might enjoy some women in tech rooms. Unfortunately, there is no real trick to getting in. For now, like pre-COVID times, you just have to wait for someone to invite you into the club.
So, is it worth the space on my phone?
The short answer is: It depends. As a podcast lover and recovering people-watcher, this app gives me the same joy as tuning into The Receipts Podcast or eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations on the bus. And even better, because of the small community, there is definitely an opportunity to network with a group of people you would never otherwise speak to.
If you're trying to figure out if the app is for you, Hinds reminds us that, like on all social media, you’ll have to carve out a space of your own, “Clubhouse will be what you make of it… people will have to make an effort to figure out where they belong.” And if you do get an invite, know that just like any app (even those with disappearing content), the internet is forever. You’re just as accountable for how you use this platform as you are with any other, exclusive invite or not.