Clubhouse - a user clicking on the app on their smartphone
Photo: Florian Gaertner | imago
Social Media

What You Need to Know About Clubhouse, the Social Network You Can't Join

Launched last year, the app is now booming with boomers. But its privacy policies are questionable.
February 2, 2021, 2:20pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.

Clubhouse is an audio-based social media platform making the rounds in elite circles near you. Launched in the US in the spring of 2020, it initially attracted Silicon Valley venture capitalists and celebrities – which is perhaps what contributed to some of that exclusive appeal.

The social network is divided into different chat rooms where people take turns speaking in podcast-style conversations. Some users host regular shows joined by thousands, but you can also decide to simply tune in – that is, if you actually manage to join. 

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Signing up to the platform is as not straightforward as with other social media – you need an invitation and a device running iOS. Akash Bajwa, an analyst at VC firm Augmentum Fintech, told Sifted that Clubhouse’s parent company Alpha Exploration is currently focusing on expanding the app’s user base in Europe – especially in the UK and Germany – through a system of strategic invites. And it seems to be working: Clubhouse was the most downloaded app of the week in Germany between the 18th and 24th of January, 2021. According to Andrew Chen, a partner at the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz – which has a stake in the app’s development – Clubhouse has reached about 2 million users.

The app simulates the structure of conversations you might have at a party – you join a room, listen or talk and then the discussion disappears as soon as everyone leaves. According to the New York Times, the influencers who’ve already made a name for themselves on the platform aren’t who you’d expect – many are in their forties and fifties. Besides tapping into the growing market of audiobooks and podcasting, a user told the Times that the app also helped her network in lieu of professional conferences during COVID times.

“We are building Clubhouse for everyone,” reads the company’s website, “it’s not intended to be exclusive.” Clubhouse justifies its invite-based model by saying it will allow the platform to “grow communities slowly” rather than overnight, and that they still need to expand features to accommodate more users. Meanwhile, wannabe members can be found begging for an invite on Twitter – and some existing members are even selling a seat at the table for over €100 on eBay.

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During its short life, the app has already run into a few controversies. Users have complained that its lax approach to moderation discourages women and minorities from speaking up against hate speech. As Tatiana Walk-Morris wrote in a Vanity Fair piece in December of 2020, Clubhouse has “become a haven for the powerful to flirt with misogyny and racism”, as the audio-only and transitory nature of chats allows users to raise “pseudo-intellectual” questions about race and gender without leaving a trace. The app has a mechanism to report hate speech, but users told Vanity Fair the platform’s sanctioning policy was murky and lacklustre.

The app has also already raised a few security concerns. Clubhouse asks users to share their mobile number when signing up. You also need to grant them access to your entire contact list so you can invite other people in the future. This means all your contacts are recorded and stored on servers in the USA. It also means that the app creates so-called “shadow profiles” of your friends and family who are not on the app. Other apps like WhatsApp and Telegram do this too. According to multiple privacy experts, the app might be in breach of the EU General Data Protection and Regulation.

The in-app audio chats are supposedly gone once everyone has left the room. But the company’s privacy policy says the conversations are only deleted automatically if nobody reported a “Trust and Safety violation” during the chat. If there is an incident, Clubhouse keeps the audio until “the investigation is complete”, and reserves the right to share it with law enforcement if necessary. They add that the temporary audio recordings are protected with encryption and that the audio of muted speakers or listeners is not recorded.

So, although Clubhouse offers interesting opportunities for audio-based creators, it appears it still has some way to justify spending €100 on an invitation.