Inside Clubhouse: the exclusive new social media platform where conversation and controversy abound

Written by Katy Harrington

You’ve heard the buzz about Clubhouse, the exclusive, invite-only, audio-only social media app, but do you know what really goes on in its ‘rooms’? We asked two members to snoop around and report back…

If you haven’t heard of Clubhouse yet, where have you been?

The newest social media platform to make big waves has well and truly arrived, launching in March 2020, during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and the beginning of lockdown here in the UK. Clubhouse came at a time when young people were (about to get even more) isolated, online more than ever, and feeling ennui with 10-year-old Instagram and an increasingly irrelevant Facebook.

Enter Clubhouse, now the fastest-growing social media app in the world. According to CNBC, the app, founded by the media-shy founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, is already valued at £100million.

So, what makes Clubhouse different? Well not much really, the “drop-in audio chat” app is more a mix of already familiar apps and social media platforms. It is invite only and audio only, so if you’ve used voicenotes, Zoom or listened to podcasts you’ve pretty much got the drift. 

Once members are in they can join chat ‘rooms’ where small to large groups will discuss predetermined topics. The topics can be anything from politics to health to freelancing advice and reality TV. It’s a bit like a Zoom call with no cameras on, or an online panel discussion with a few voices leading the conversation and everyone else listening. Anyone can request to speak up, but whoever created the room decides who gets to talk and most stay on mute.

Not anyone can join. Members (who get one or two invites) pass these on to others who they approve of, a bit like getting a recommendation to get into an old-fashioned golf country club. Clubhouse is free but the app is not available on Android presently so tough luck unless you have an iPhone.

Clubhouse (often abbreviated online as CH) may not be the most innovative social media app but it has certainly generated buzz. Its niche is that it’s for and by creatives (especially Black creatives) and has been adopted by the Silicon Valley set, musicians, performers, comedians, TV types, writers and producers. Oh, and it’s also used by celebrities. Yes, Elon Musk, Drake, comedian Kevin Hart (who got caught up in a hullabaloo when he joined a room where the topic was ‘Is Kevin Hart funny?’) and even Oprah.

For a baby business, Clubhouse has not been without controversy. Like on every other social media app, misinformation abounds and most recently Clubhouse has been accused of spreading dangerous theories about the coronavirus vaccine.

To understand what really goes on behind the app’s sealed doors we asked two avid social media users to write about their experiences on the app.

Here’s what they reported back…

Ife Adedoyin is a 26-year-old social media account executive from London

I joined Clubhouse back in December because of FOMO. People on Twitter would constantly talk about conversations they were in or funny rooms they had been a part of and I wanted to know what was going on. 

A friend invited me and I realised that it was basically like having multiple podcasts at your disposal. I thought it would be a great way to start networking and stay on top of social media trends as my role makes it necessary to constantly be online and plugged in.

One of the first rooms I started going to regularly was The Journo Room which was moderated by amazing women like Nikki Onafuye, Luela Hassan, Tobi Rachel and many more. 

I learnt so much and it was great seeing a group of (predominantly) WOC come together to share their experiences and knowledge with their peers. The best thing I learnt in that room was being patient with where I was in my career, even hearing something simple like “When it’s your time. It’s your time” just set me at ease for the new year and motivated me to invest more in my writing.

Staying professional on the app didn’t last too long and being in lockdown has definitely fuelled my love of Reality TV-esque messiness. Talks with Ash, a room created by Ashleigh Louise, became the escape I needed after work, hearing nightmare stories about make-up artists and well-known ones at that! Rooms like this went hand-in-hand with Twitter; my account had pretty much been dormant apart from a few retweets here and there but I found myself wanting to see other listeners’ reactions and tweet alongside the stories.

Clubhouse isn’t always worth logging into. More often than not, I would click on the app hoping to see a light-hearted room or if any friends were online and would see clickbait titles like “Is Yewande’s narrative detrimental to Black people” or “Why are Black women bad in bed?”

It’s almost as if social media platforms can’t exist without people using Black women as their source of content. Maybe if they were stricter with the invitation process or could block certain phrases from being used as room names, the app would be safer to use. 

Clubhouse has so much potential; bringing creatives closer to resources that they may have had to pay for or providing people with another way to connect during a pandemic.

From hearing people crying in the rooms to seeing abusers rebrand themselves as self-love advocates, it all became too much and I took a break from the app at the start of January. 

Seeing Black women being made the butt of the joke all for the sake of gaining the smallest crumb of clout just wasn’t a bit of me. I haven’t completely given up on the app though. LoveIsland9ja [a Clubhouse user] has been keeping my love for the app going – I may not use it for serious knowledge-gathering but I will check in now and then to hear random guys around the world try to move to Yoruba babes!

Michele Theil is a 22-year-old journalist living in London

At first, all I’d heard about Clubhouse was that it was a new social media platform, enabling free discussion, and all the ‘coolest’ people on Twitter were using it. I joined Clubhouse because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. 

I’d been trying to score an invite for weeks when finally, in early January, I found someone who was able to get me in. The rooms I joined at first seemed innocuous, such as Hinge dating stories and The Journo Room, which gave people a chance to share their wildest dating stories and discuss pitching etiquette respectively. There were also bigger rooms, with topics like influencers, Covid-19, religion, money, mental health and race, and they provided an interesting space to hear varying viewpoints – it was more productive than binge-watching Riverdale

I enjoyed listening but rarely spoke up myself because I have always been wary of putting myself out there on social media. This proved to be a good choice when I started to see cracks in the exclusive foundation of Clubhouse. The rooms I joined started to be filled with vitriol and attacks on individual people, with the pile-ons continuing on Twitter using each room’s corresponding hashtag (for example #Hingeisghetto or #TalkswithAsh). 

In the ‘fun’ rooms like Hinge dating stories, people would furiously judge those who shared their experiences, criticising them if they admitted to so much as ghosting a match. It might seem small but very quickly I witnessed how these criticisms can spiral out of control. 

There were also more sinister reactions, particularly when prominent social media influencer Chaka Bars expressed skepticism about the vaccine and subsequently caused his supporters to attack those who opposed his views, including a British doctor. Seeing this unfold in front of me was enough to turn me away from Clubhouse permanently – I didn’t want to participate in an app that wasn’t warning its users against this behaviour.

The few times I did speak up in Clubhouse rooms, they were relatively small rooms with fewer than 50 people rather than the 3,000+ ones that usually lead to attacks and pile-ons. But even those smaller rooms led to since-deleted tweets calling me “stupid” and “idiotic” because I said I didn’t like Clara Oswald as a Doctor Who companion.

In every Clubhouse room I’ve been in (and I’ve lost count of how many), someone inevitably says that Clubhouse is a “safe space”, where you can speak openly without fear of judgement or criticism. But, this is clearly not the case – Clubhouse is not a safe space. It is certainly not a space I feel safe in speaking up about my personal life or thoughts because there are hundreds or even thousands of strangers who could turn on you at any minute.

On Clubhouse, I learned that being a woman, and specifically a woman of colour, opens you up to abuse simply because of who you are. While that isn’t an issue specific to Clubhouse as an application, the app’s creators’ intention to shake up social media has fallen victim to the same problems that exist elsewhere. 

Only recently, after years of users campaigning for it, have we seen Twitter take action against abuse, racism, and trolls, and I wonder whether Clubhouse will move faster than their competitors? Clubhouse needs to make sure that when abuse is reported, particularly by women of colour, they remove the abusers from the platform to prevent further harm – without this, Clubhouse will stall before it even has a chance.

Images: Getty, photos courtesy of Ifeoluwami Adedoyin and Michele Theil

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