By Erin Griffith and Taylor Lorenz, The New York Times Co.
SAN FRANCISCO – Robert Van Winkle, better known as rapper Vanilla Ice, held an online court last week with over 1,000 fans.
In a rambling conversation, Van Winkle praised the poses of 1990s band Bell Biv DeVoe and objected to a question about his relationship with Madonna. He offered advice on real estate and life, saying, “You must protect your happiness to protect your life.” At one point, a participant sang the rally serenade with an a cappella version of his hit “Ice Ice Baby”.
Several hours later, Van Winkle confessed that he had to leave before the mother of his child got angry.
It was the kind of unpredictable, unpredictable event that happened around the clock on Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that has exploded in popularity with taste makers of tech and popular culture. and which quickly becomes a town square for debates on freedom of expression and politics.
The app, which allows people to meet in audio chat rooms to discuss different topics, has been downloaded nearly 4 million times in the past month alone, according to Apptopia. Public figures as diverse as Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone have joined him, and the unconstrained conversations he allowed have aroused the ire of China, which banned Clubhouse last week.
In the process, Clubhouse sparked debate over whether audio is the next wave of social media, moving digital connections beyond text, photos and videos to old-fashioned voice. In thousands of chat rooms every day, Clubhouse users have conducted unhindered conversations on topics as diverse as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood and cosmic poetry.
“This is a major change in the way the social internet works,” said Dave Morin, who founded the social network Path more than ten years ago and has invested in Clubhouse. “I believe this is a new chapter.”
Clubhouse’s trajectory has been swift – it only had a few thousand users as of May – although the app is invitation-only and not widely available. The invitations are so coveted that they’ve been listed on eBay for $ 89. Media companies such as Barstool Sports have also created Clubhouse accounts, and at least one company has announced plans to hire a “senior clubhouse executive”.
Attention has overwhelmed the tiny San Francisco startup, which has a dozen employees and was founded by two entrepreneurs, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. While Clubhouse raised over $ 100 million in funding last month and was valued at $ 1 billion, it has struggled to deal with the increase in traffic. On Wednesday, the application crashed. Additionally, Facebook and Twitter are working on similar products to compete with it.
Clubhouse is also grappling with an increase in complaints about harassment, misinformation and privacy. In an incident last month, a user promoted conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines and discouraged people from getting the vaccine, which resulted in the harassment of a female doctor.
This month, regulators in Germany and Italy publicly asked whether Clubhouse’s data practices comply with European data protection laws. And China has blocked the app after political conversations erupted about it outside the country’s strict internet controls.
Clubhouse is following a classic Silicon Valley startup route that social media companies like Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook have also taken: viral growth followed by the complicated issues that come with it. It is the first American social media company to appear in years. The latest global social media hit was TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that catapulted 15-second videos into cultural discourse.
Davison, 40, and Seth, 36, declined to be interviewed. In a discussion at the Clubhouse on Sunday, Davison said the company was rushing to hire, build new features and release an Android version of the app.
“It’s just crazy, we’ve had so many people joining us,” he said.
Davison and Seth, who both attended Stanford University, are regular entrepreneurs. Davison has created several social media apps, including Highlight, which allows users to view and send messages to people nearby. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founded a company, Memry Labs, which created apps. These startups were either bought or closed.
In 2019, the two – who met in tech circles in 2011 – created a prototype podcasting app, Talkshow, which they called their “last try.” But Talkshow looked too much like a formal show, so they decided to add a way for people to spontaneously join the conversation, Davison said in an interview with the “Hello Monday” podcast last month.
Last March Davison and Seth launched Clubhouse. They added a way to stream multiple speakers simultaneously and allowed people to bounce between digital rooms as if they were going from stage to stage at a music festival or conference. business. To avoid overwhelming their startup, they slowly handed out the invitations.
The app caught on as people searched for new ways to connect with each other during the pandemic. Some of its early users were Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen and his business partner Ben Horowitz, who introduced Clubhouse to their networks. Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer and John Mayer joined us.
“There’s that feeling of access that’s really hard to replicate,” said Andy Annacone, investor at TechNexus Venture Collaborative, who manages a fund that has invested in Clubhouse.
In May, Andreessen Horowitz, Andreessen and Horowitz’s venture capital firm, invested $ 10 million in Clubhouse, valuing it at $ 100 million. It then had two employees.
TikTok influencers, YouTube stars and “The Bachelor” cast members quickly became active on the app. He has also spawned his own stars, with some people on his “suggested user list” amassing over a million followers. In December, Clubhouse unveiled an invitation-only “Creator Pilot Program” to help so-called power users make money with the app.
“People are already building brands,” said Sheel Mohnot, 38, founder of Better Tomorrow Ventures, which has 1.2 million subscribers on the app. “There are all these Clubhouse shows. Some of these shows that I have seen are sponsored. (Davison and Seth said the company plans to make money through paid events, memberships, and tips, but will not sell ads.)
This growth has been accompanied by criticism that women and people of color are frequently the targets of abuse and that discussions involving anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny are on the rise.
Porsha Belle, 32, a Clubhouse influencer in Houston, said after talking about misogyny on the app, people formed rooms to encourage each other to report her account so that she was prohibited. His account was suspended on February 8.
She said she had tried calling the company, but found little recourse. “My page is hanging while bullies can roam freely,” she said.
Rachelle Dooley, 40, a social media manager in Austin, Texas, who is deaf, said she was blocked and kicked out of some rooms at the Clubhouse.
“I can see it show up on closed captions, people say, ‘Why is this deaf woman on an audio app? “” she said. “I would freeze and start to cry.”
Clubhouse has a “block” feature to give users more control over their spaces. This sometimes created disputes over access, including with a reporter from the New York Times.
Kimberly Ellis, 48, a researcher in American and African studies at Carnegie Mellon University who leads workshops on digital security, said she had also been in clubhouse rooms where people appeared to be giving financial advice but rather were doing “multi-level marketing”.
“Some people want to coach you and get money from you for their classes,” she said.
During Sunday’s discussion at the Clubhouse, Davison said the company has explicit rules against the dissemination of false information, hate speech, abuse and bullying. The startup said last year it was adding advisors and security features and empowering moderators.
Yet Clubhouse has also allowed people living under strict censorship in countries like China and Turkey to speak out freely on many topics. Some users have said they are addicted.
Brielle Riche, 33, a brand strategist in Los Angeles, said Clubhouse has opened up her world since she started using it in November.
“The clubhouse gives us the opportunity to connect with strangers,” she said. “Only Clubhouse can get you out of TikTok.”
A week after Clubhouse announced its latest funding last month, Musk sparked a frenzy when he appeared on the app and interviewed Vlad Tenev, the managing director of the Robinhood stock trading app. Musk has promised to return to the Clubhouse with Kanye West and invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to the app.
A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, came to discuss virtual and augmented reality. China then banned the app.
On Sunday 5,000 people – the maximum in a Clubhouse room – attended a weekly “town hall” session with the founders. Davison joined late because he had been in another room welcoming Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., To the app.
“We’re just trying to keep up,” Davison said.