Elon Musk came dangerously close to destroying Clubhouse on Sunday. It was Musk’s debut visit on the invitation-only audio platform, and the chat quickly exceeded the platform’s capacity.
The official stream reached capacity, with over 5,000 people tuning in to hear Musk debate memes, COVID-19 vaccinations, and a much-maligned interview with the Robinhood founder about the previous week’s GameStop incident. Thousands more who were unable to access the official feed listened in via the app’s “overflow” rooms.
Additionally, the audio swiftly spread to less exclusive channels such as YouTube. Ultimately, the talk was not particularly revelatory, but it was a watershed moment for the Clubhouse clone app, the buzzy app that has developed a reputation as a virtual hangout for celebrities and Silicon Valley’s elite.
However, while the app has established itself as the latest Silicon Valley darling — the year-old firm was recently valued at $1 billion — it is about much more than tech bros conversing.
According to the app’s description, it is a “drop-in audio conversation.” The concept is similar to the early internet chat rooms. However, instead of instant messaging, real-time audio is used. Any user can create a “room” that can be joined by others. Each room is moderated by a moderator and has speakers and listeners. Moderators determine who has the right to speak, though listeners may “raise their hand” to request to speak.
While the principle is simple, the dynamics of each room vary dramatically based on who is in charge and how many people are listening. Rooms might be small or large and can last a few minutes or several hours. Everything occurs in real-time — talks are not recorded or archived — and people are free to move from room to room.
When Clubhouse first opened its doors last year, it was largely recognized as a hangout spot for Silicon Valley venture capitalists and technology sector leaders. However, the app has gained significantly in popularity during the previous year.
While the service is still in beta and requires an invite to join, it has become less exclusive. According to a recent announcement from the company, it presently has 2 million subscribers and expects to open the app to anybody who wants to join “soon.” (An Android version of the app is also in development.
As the app has risen in popularity, so has the ingenuity of its users. Along with the standard Q&A sessions, interviews, and other “talk show”-style rooms, Clubhouse has hosted book clubs and professional networking events. There are separate rooms for dating, comedy, and music.
Certain rooms are obviously NSFW, such as the “moan rooms,” in which participants take turns… groaning. Others, such as late-night lullaby rooms, are more healthful. Many of the app’s more inventive uses have been inspired by Black users, who, as this CNBC headline puts it, “are preventing Clubhouse from becoming a dull hangout for tech dudes.” Several weeks prior to Musk’s arrival at Clubhouse, a group of Black performers and producers made waves by staging a live production of The Lion King in a Clubhouse room.
Whether it’s screenwriting, neurology, or astrology, there’s a good chance you’ll find people discussing it on Clubhouse. Additionally, you’re likely to stumble across talks you never anticipated.
One club I frequent has built an impromptu radio station featuring chill downtempo tracks designed to aid concentration while working. I also recently discovered a “game show” in which listeners change their profile photo to a snapshot of their refrigerator and the hosts give them dinner recipe ideas.
The primary constraint is that you must participate in life, as discussions are not recorded and there is no option to listen later (though clips do occasionally wind up on Twitter.) This, paired with the fact that it remains invitation-only, has allowed Clubhouse to capitalize on users’ FOMO — a time-honored approach employed by Silicon Valley upstarts who have utilized lengthy waiting lists to generate buzz.
Additionally, it has aided Clubhouse in being uniquely adapted for this period, when a global pandemic has left many individuals socially isolated. For those who use Clubhouse, the app has evolved into more than simply another social network; it has become one of the few avenues to meet and communicate with new people.
Simultaneously, the app is not without controversy. The clubhouse has dealt with bullying, harassment, and anti-Semitism on its site. The startup first drew criticism for virtually lacking content control procedures and even basic safety measures such as blocking or reporting harassment. The software has since been updated to include blocking and reporting capabilities, as well as explicit community guidelines.
Additionally, there are concerns regarding the app’s viability. Eventually, the frenzy will subside. And it’s unclear whether the app will retain the same appeal once the majority of its users are no longer housebound and social distancing limitations are lifted.
Additionally, it’s not exactly clear how a platform devoted only to live audio produces money. The company’s founders have stated that they intend to experiment with features such as tipping and tickets “to enable creators to get compensated directly,” but these services will require a consistent audience willing to pay.
Twitter, which is developing a comparable product with a new feature called Spaces, is also a competitor. Twitter is much ahead of the curve with Spaces. The function is currently only available to a select set of beta users and has failed to garner anywhere near the kind of excitement generated by Clubhouse.
However, Twitter may eventually have the upper hand, as Spaces users may find it simpler to connect with an audience due to the feature’s integration with Twitter. Especially if users such as Musk, who has over 45 million Twitter followers compared to just over 200,000 on Clubhouse), take advantage of the tool.
For the time being, though, Clubhouse does not face significant competition in the audio space. And the app’s success in attracting celebrities and social media influencers will almost certainly ensure that the app continues to generate lots of viral moments though Musk has yet to make another appearance on the app. The true test will be whether it can maintain its momentum once the appeal of exclusivity wears off.