The latest social networking site to catch the fancy of aficionados—and some ascetics—is the barely-year-old Clubhouse. Over the last month, a flurry of invitations has been going out following the app’s Android release, and on June 16, the company announced a “Clubhouse Creator First” programme in India. The blog promises to help “creators” with production, creative development, promotions and finance through advertisements or a monthly stipend.
The user base had gone up from about 1500 a year ago to 200,000 in December 2020, two million at the turn of the year and 10 million in May; and now that the Android version has released and each new user has five invitations to offer, it is “by invitation” only in name. From being valued at $100 million in mid-2020, Clubhouse’s valuation shot up to $1.31 billion by March, 2021.
As usual, the rollout began with iPhone users, whom apps constantly seek to make feel special. And this is probably because they are easy targets for privacy violation—all one has to do is incentivise the idea and talk up the power of having invitations to give out, and the average user will surrender all his and his contacts’ data to the brand.
The app, which has been running on its unpredictability and exclusivity—starting with a name that sounds quite like the colonial legacy it is—has been taking up to 40 hours of some of its users’ weeks. It owes some of this to impromptu operas and musical productions, and getting the likes of Elon Musk to do an Arnab Goswami on Robinhood CEO Vladimir Tenev following the latter’s suspension of trade on the “meme stock” GameStop. “The people demand answers, and they want to know the truth!” Musk said, probably in a pitch to follow his Saturday Night Live appearance with one on Indian prime time news.
The unpredictability is precisely why news outlets will soon have to—or have already begun to—hire interns simply to listen in on these conversations, which Clubhouse claims not to store, and which cannot be legally recorded. But naturally, they can be and are recorded, and sometimes preserved for posterity.
And that is how, in July 2020, leaked audio of a chat led by Balaji Srinivasan, several venture capitalists from the firm Andreessen Horowitz, and television personality Roland Martin among others went viral. The hour-long audio has them discussing somewhat incoherently their perception of the power of journalists. There have been allegations of racism, sexism, and bigotry of various kinds, with a spillover of arguments from Clubhouse to Twitter and Instagram. The target of this particular recorded conversation was New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, who went on to receive death threats on other social networks. The taunting on Clubhouse was restricted to her antagonists changing their profile pictures to harass her, a common tactic on the app, which doesn’t allow DMs or sharing of pictures.
Following Lorenz’s posts on the harassment, Clubhouse founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth promised to “tune the product as it grows” and said they would not “10X the user base overnight”. However, they have now 5X-ed it with every new member, and such exponential growth does not allow for moderation.
Of course, moderation is a double-edged sword. Bullying is endemic to social media. While we are happy to call the right-wing users “trolls”, the bullying comes even from purported liberals, who use words like “accountability” to couch their own brand of trolling. Perhaps it was the initial anonymity provided by the internet, with its chat rooms back in the Nineties and the counsel not to use real names in email IDs, but even with real names and real faces and now real voices, the abrasiveness has not gone away. We get confrontational even during video conferences, and real life hardly an exception.
Social media has perhaps encouraged us to see people not so much as individuals, but as labels, as representatives of a class or caste or creed or sex, and usually one of which we do not approve.
Moderation is tricky under the circumstances—when right-wing accounts are blocked or suspended or removed, there will be celebration among the self-proclaimed liberals and a backlash from governments; when “liberal” bullies are silenced, there will be accusations of reactionary attitudes and probably a mass migration to, say, Mastodon.
Social networking is by nature invasive. With Clubhouse being “invite-only”, every profile has the name of the person who nominated the account-holder, and one can trace the chain right back to the original Clubhouse invite; which gives one some idea of the member’s social currency and power. It won’t be long before this turns to real currency, with Paul Davidson already having spoken about plans to monetise the app—options being considered are admission fees for coveted sessions, membership dues for clubs, “tips” and sponsorship from commercial brands. A hint of what the app could become is seen in the application form for the Creators First programme, with “recording features” and “post-show analytics” offered as options under desired features, and various opportunities for monetisation suggested.
There are already major privacy concerns. The invitations, which were once sent by email, are now sent to phone numbers—which means a contact is at liberty to submit your phone number to Clubhouse, thinking he is doing you a favour. Every time someone joins the app, an alert is sent to everyone in the person’s contact list who is already on Clubhouse. The rooms one visits and how much time one spends in those rooms are also monitored.
And because the app is touted as ephemeral, with audio supposedly deleted after the session and no options for sending text, we can lull ourselves into believing we don’t leave a footprint. We also believe that with voices being out there, the app is more intimate and therefore more real—one can’t easily claim one’s account was hacked, and therefore remains responsible for all that is said. Since it has the distinction of having been banned in several autocratic countries, Clubhouse also has the reputation of being liberal.
But it is all that it seems to be?
Platforms are increasingly allowing bullies to escape culpability by not keeping records.
“Community standards” can often translate into gatekeeping. In Clubhouse, moderators can instantly end a room or block disruptors. The app can block certain rooms from being seen in “the hallway”—their metaphor for “feed”. And users can block and report others as “policy violators”; if a user is reported multiple times, a warning appears on the person’s profile and the account may be suspended. There is no appeal, and it is not clear whether a complaint is reviewed before action is taken.
The app is easy to misuse, particularly in the social networking era of “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.
The journey of the founders themselves is a study in the old boys’ network. Davidson and Seth have made their careers working in corporate giants—with friends and mentors helping them get a foot in the door—and getting paid to figure out how user data can be exploited for profit. It should be clear that they are neither altruistic nor seething with rage against the machine. They are here to work the machine.
Perhaps the inception of yet another social networking app should become a sign for us to reflect on how much of our civility—and even our humaneness—we retain when we see each other through the internet; do we really analyse a situation with objectivity and detachment, or do we walk away with the impression that we have analysed it well because we find the instant gratification and validation we seek?
Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com