Clubhouse, the invite-only audio app where users can create rooms to talk about anything, has been home to everything from targeted harassment campaigns to very public struggle sessions. But the app’s “moan rooms,” which feature a nonstop cacophony of everything from animal sounds, to screaming, to situational ASMR, are probably some of the least-understood popular rooms.
One particular room—the Whale Moan Room—broke out of Clubhouse and went viral on Twitter after multiple groups of users began claiming they were the original creators, culminating in the arguments being drowned out by calls to settle things with a “moan off.” It’s exactly what it sounds like: participants in the room ceaselessly moan like whales, sometimes making up whale characters with backstories, while the moderators speak in human language and pretend to be whale researchers. Simple!
In the beginning, there were a lot of moan rooms. Stretching back to the app's earliest days, various iterations have emerged where some offered cash prizes and others simply a chance to hone the craft. It’s not clear when the moan rooms themselves started, but these earlier iterations have popped in and out of awareness like when actor LaKeith Stanfield won a $300 cash prize back in December for moaning. On the Higher Learning podcast, he said the room was, “the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.”
Out of all this, whale moan rooms were born. The original Whale Moan Room that went viral was started in February by one particular group of friends, centered around a “Nightcap” room for Asian diaspora users to hang out late at night, and got its start after one session discussing sleep.
"I mentioned that I had been listening to a Whale Sound playlist on Spotify on a loop to help me ease into slumber," said April Chan, one of the mods of the Whale Moan Room, in an email. "It must have stuck with the team, because the next day Noah Conk and Joe Park created the Whale Moan Room for fun where we could tease each other and just be sarcastic in a non-judgement space."
From there, Chan and her group of friends got together and started trying to hash out ways to "tease each other" and have fun in a "non-judgement space." The real magic of the room, Chan said, was that it became a place for people to "have a laugh, let go of their stress, or even just have an alternative space to express their authentic selves—having fun!"
"Joe, April, Slyvia, Cat, Kofi, Andrew, and I decided that we were 'professional whale researchers’ who all studied whale moans,” added Noah Conk, another co-creator. “The participants are what made the room special, with their creative stories they brought and willingness to have fun.”
Other members of the group described how participants would invent their own intricate stories when joining a room, particularly in the whale moan rooms where some notable backstories included: "the whale that got away" or "the whale that had lost its family." Performances and sessions were driven largely by the audience, with the only real guidance being that the team kept pretending they were whale researchers.
From there, the rooms quickly grew as hundreds of people joined to take place in not only the Whale Moan Room, but also rooms for Super Saiyan screams and a room called Asian Parents Giving Words of Affirmation.
Conk told Motherboard that when making rooms, they were trying to "to find something that is nostalgic, funny, or something that's missing within our communities (Asian Parents Giving Words of Affirmation),” and Clubhouse provided a perfect opportunity to let people to seriously throw themselves into fun or serious performances with others like them.
For a while, things seemed to be running smoothly. But then, influencers on the app caught wind of their rooms, the team said. What first began with other moan rooms popping turned into attempts to claim ownership of the idea and erase the actual purpose of the rooms to begin with—space for performances, levity, and community in the middle of the pandemic.
"This is something that is recurring all too often on Clubhouse. Clubhouse today is built on Black culture and inspired by the Black community. Period," said Conk. "Many of these rooms have been born from the amazing Black community on Clubhouse (i.e. "shoot your shot rooms" and "moan rooms"). Most of the originators of these conceptual rooms are people of color. Even the NFT space you see today is all thanks to Lady PheOnix—she was one of the first that spoke game to the people on Clubhouse on how to mint and create NFTs."
Groups of influencers created their own Whale Moan Rooms, told others they were the originators, and penned bios claiming they created various types of moan rooms. The group tried to push back and create another room to call out what they described as an organized group on Clubhouse: the “Clubfluencers.”
"The Clubfluencers were hanging with each other IRL and were hiding behind a single avatar. They weren't stating their names and were creating chaos in our room," said Conk. What bothered the team the most, however, was that the Clubfluencers drowned out their concerns by insisting "we should moan it out" or have a "moan off."
For the team, the real problem was that they were "weaponizing the humor of our rooms" to dismiss concerns that this was yet another example of "erasure of creativity from BIPOC/NBPOC communities."
"For us, the whole conflict surfaced a familiar feeling of white people plagiarizing our original creative content and claiming it as their own, as well as speaking over us while completely invalidating our concerns," Chan told Motherboard.
"Institutionally I’ve observed my voice as a Southeast Asian woman consistently being silenced and disregarded, in my own university, a white-dominant space, so it was particularly triggering to relive that experience in Clubhouse, a place that I consider sacred; for me, and my Asian diasporic community,” she explained. “Being erased, as though we don’t matter, an aggression I already tolerate in real life."
Most of the time, when we talk about how non-white content creators are plagiarized and erased, we focus on the monetary side. We’ve seen time and time again, for example, that while Black content creators can make all sorts of cultural artifacts that are widely enjoyed, it’s mainly white content creators that actually end up making money doing the same thing. What the group behind the Whale Moan Room is concerned with, however, is that in the bumbling attempts by other influencers to take credit for this, gain some clout, and increase their own potential for monetization, the community that formed around this will get crushed.
“The beauty of our first room was that it became a safe space for anyone to process their emotions with a wordless sound, no matter what they were going through that day. And a huge part of what made the whale moan room so viral, was the banter and commentary between us mods (we really enjoy each other's company), and the kampong spirit that was fostered,” April told Motherboard.
“In that way, none of the subsequent reprisals (which were not led by us) were able to recreate the magic of the spaces we made.”