Can Clubhouse keep the party going?

For the first time since the pandemic started, I had big Friday night plans: a VIPs-only mansion party. The who’s who of 2003, like Elton John, Howard Stern, Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan would supposedly be attending. Some guy Nick owned the mansion, apparently, and to get through the door, everyone had to pass a vibe check by answering a question, like: would you rather have a cat that acts like a dog or a dog that acts like a cat?

So I stayed up late — midnight on the East Coast — and got ready to attend. I donned my usual sweatpants and hoodie, got into bed, pulled up my comforter, and opened the Clubhouse app on my phone. That night, the social audio app greeted me with a page of chat room possibilities. I could join the lullaby room where musicians would sing in their softest voices to coo me to sleep, or I could join a trivia game with model Amber Rose and hosted by Jigsaw, the murderer clown from Saw. I could, in what’s basically a room archetype at this point, debate the merits of Clubhouse. I popped into those three rooms as a warmup to the mansion party and my real Friday night plans. This was Clubhouse’s shot to show me it could become my entertainment — I skipped my Netflix time for this.

Clubhouse has turned millions of people onto the idea of spending their time talking to strangers. The invite-only app, which is only accessible through iOS devices, debuted in March 2020, exactly when people started mandatorily staying at home. Now, even as places open up more broadly, the app continues growing, although seemingly at a much slower pace than before. More than ten million people have reportedly downloaded it from around the world, and Bloomberg reports it’s valued as high as $4 billion.

I first logged on this past January, despite hearing about Clubhouse for months. My first impression came from stories about rooms being anti-Semitic and adversarial to the media. As a Jewish journalist, those are two things that would immediately disqualify me from having a good time. And even now, after spending much time in the app, I find many of the rooms boring, chaotic, self-indulgent, or, at worst, scammy. Some rooms, for example, are “silent” with the idea being that you join and follow everyone. They’ll then follow you back. Other rooms peddle vague ideas about entrepreneurship and becoming a millionaire, likely hosted by someone who isn’t actually a millionaire.

But still, even with these turnoffs, I was determined to learn what made Clubhouse addictive to so many people, and why it’s valued at billions of dollars. One frequent user described the app as the “airport bar of the internet,” which felt accurate in describing both my experience using Clubhouse and my questions of why anyone would ever enjoy that. To be clear, I’ve had some fun on Clubhouse, but almost exclusively when I find something unexpected and not for the reasons venture capitalists tout the app.

The app’s grabbing headlines with appearances from the kinds of people VCs love — Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg — and its vibe of SXSW meets TED Talk meets staring at your phone. But the most compelling instance for me — the moment I knew something truly weird was happening — wasn’t hearing a Tesla founder talk about Tesla stuff. It was when I finally dropped in on that mansion party and discovered that Howard Stern was, in reality, some rando named Matthew Friend. And that every celebrity there was an imposter — well, an impressionist — and what I had stumbled into was not a mansion party but a bizarre roleplay of a mansion party, where people were perfecting their fake voices. Deep down I knew these stars couldn’t possibly be in one room, but the revelation surprised me nonetheless. (They were very convincing!)

The VCs might love the platform’s self-aggrandizing “entrepreneurial” spirit. But the thrill of Clubhouse right now is in all the rooms where users are dating, playing, experimenting — where you can watch people try to figure out what the hell Clubhouse is in real time. These users have dedicated hours to the app, almost turning it into a full-time job. Many hope this is their chance to get in on the ground level of the next big platform and find success — something that’s almost impossible to do on the big, established platforms.

Clubhouse isn’t without its problems, however, although these are the natural growing pains of any social network. If anything, they demonstrate how authentic of a platform Clubhouse actually is and that it’s likely to stick. The biggest issue facing Clubhouse now is the race to innovate and beat its competitors, most of whom already commend sizable user bases and massive engineering teams. Twitter, for one, has already launched its social audio competitor Spaces on both iOS and Android with plans to bring it to the web, beating Clubhouse to Android devices. Facebook is reportedly putting its offering together, although it debuted an app called Hotline that fuses live audio with video. Slack, Discord, LinkedIn, and Spotify have all also announced their plans for similar products and functionality. Social audio is clearly here to stay, even when the pandemic wanes, but will Clubhouse make it through? And will these users, who’ve put hundreds of hours into the app see no future return from it, except the friends they’ve made along the way?

“The way I think about it is that every social media platform has a particular kind of archetype that’s going to thrive and do well there, which is how you see it map out,” says Maceo Paisley, who has over 80,000 followers on Clubhouse. Visual artists do well on TikTok and Instagram, for example, while writers prefer Twitter, he says. “And then you have Clubhouse, which is for people that were good in dialogue and that was their medium.” That could be community leaders, mentors, or just people who consider themselves conversationalists.

And luckily for Clubhouse, it came about during the pandemic when everyone craved an interaction with someone, anyone, outside their immediate home. Talking to a celebrity would be cool, too.

“In some cases, you can hop on stage with Malcolm Gladwell and ask him a question about his work, and he has nowhere to go,” Paisley says. “He’s like, ‘Well I’ve never thought of that,’ and you’re like, ‘You’re Malcolm Gladwell, you’ve never thought of it? That’s what you do, you’re a thought leader.’”

The pandemic eventually gave way to a second, critical factor for the app’s success: screen fatigue. Most people would do anything to not stare at a screen more than they already do. We’re almost always looking at them, and any time we might have had away prior to the pandemic is now severely limited, if it exists at all. For me, walks in my neighborhood are some of my only respite, but even then, I’m usually on the phone or listening to a podcast — anything to keep me from being, god forbid, alone with my thoughts.

The real question for Clubhouse is whether it’ll maintain its appeal after the pandemic. Can it compete with brunch plans, weddings, and real-life parties? From my conversations, it seems like yes. People can’t pull themselves away, even when IRL plans are available.

Comedian Leah Lamarr, who has 195,000 followers on the app, did her first live show since the pandemic in early February where she got to schmooze with other comics in person. But throughout the night, a thought kept nagging at her. “I wanted to get out of there and get back on Clubhouse so quickly, you have no idea,” she tells me.

Lamarr’s built a loyal following on Clubhouse where she hosts a variety of rooms, including live standup sets, and has found fans through the app. She and her friend Nicole Behnam, who has 156,000 followers, tell me they even work together to bring friends onstage during these comedy rooms where they specifically instruct them to unmute their mics only to laugh or clap.

Leah Lamarr says fans came to her in-person show after learning about her through Clubhouse.

I asked her how long she spent on the app daily, and she says it’s a triggering question. “I get anxiety when I’m not on it. I have Clubhouse FOMO.”

She’s not the only one that’s hooked. She says friends of hers “blew out their vocal cords” from talking so much. Behnam tells me she had to cut back on her app time from an initial 12 to 14 hours per day to just four to six.

“I definitely realized that it could become an addiction for anybody,” she says. “When I realized that, I started meditating and going in nature more. There was one point, it’s funny, but I hadn’t listened to music in so long, I finally turned Clubhouse off and listened to music, and I literally felt like I was in another world.”

But Clubhouse isn’t always a great time. In Lamarr’s case, she says she’s asked big-name comedians, like Tiffany Haddish, to participate in her biweekly stand-up room only to be turned down because of concerns over joke stealing. (Joke stealing is already a problem on Twitter, which has a searchable, written history. Now imagine how that could happen on a live app with no native recording function or archive.) Paisley adds that people even steal room ideas, which recently culminated in two different feuds. In one, a group of Black users claim they pioneered the concept of “shoot your shot” rooms where someone can get onstage and ask another user out, but that the idea only got widespread attention when white NYU students imitated it.

“HOW INTERESTING is it that after months of black people hosting shoot your shot rooms and getting suspended for it, Clubhouse gives a bunch of white NYU girls the ‘shoot your shot’ club & they get monetized. joke,” one person tweeted.

In a separate incident, a group claims it came up with the original concept for a “whale moaning room” where people, of course, moaned like whales. But, it says, the idea was co-opted, again from users of color, and used by white influencers to gain power and reach on the platform.

Room stealing might seem trivial, but it’s the closest thing the app has to intellectual property. A brilliant format could draw in listeners and mint a new way for the app to function. This happened most famously in December when a group of users came together to put on a rendition of The Lion King. They popularized the idea of “PTR,” or pull to refresh, meaning room attendees could pull down on their screen to see profile photos change to different scenes and characters. Now, PTR is regularly referenced in rooms. I PTR’d during the mansion party to see which celebs people would impersonate next, for example, and I PTR’d during a live art auction in which artists changed their photos to the art they were selling. The first room like this sold $10,000 worth of art, says Casey McBride, who hosts and started the auctions.

Then, there are the scammers — and the community policing them. Rahaf Harfoush, who has 133,000 followers, chronicles the scams she and her club members find weekly as part of the “anti-grift squad,” as they refer to themselves. They’ve found plenty to keep them busy. One example Harfoush tells me about is a “startup” room where people pitch their ideas for a business. The people running the rooms might feign interest, but in actuality, they go and buy the domain names associated with the ideas, essentially ensuring that the entrepreneurs have to pay them to own it. Other scams include people claiming that users have to pay for a Clubhouse moderator badge — that’s not true — or rooms that attempt to sell a product, like consulting packages. The hosts of the product room will bring supposedly enthusiastic users onstage to hype up the item, but in reality, they profit from any sales made.

“It’s fascinating to me because it’s just the iteration of all the scams that exist elsewhere,” Harfoush says. She notes that misinformation is also rampant with people spreading conspiracy theories and anti-vax rhetoric. Her group doesn’t mention scammers’ names specifically because coordinated harassment campaigns are already happening, too. The scammers have retaliated by getting a group together to report a user en masse, resulting in a Clubhouse ban. (Those reporting tools themselves were created as a result of harassment on the platform with no way for members to insulate themselves.)

All of this is to say, Clubhouse is starting to experience many of the same problems as its biggest competitors, like Facebook and Twitter. There are scammers, moderation issues, problems with accreditation, and even impersonation. Yes, the celebrity impersonators from the mansion room were obviously doing a bit, but other people have attempted to straight-up dupe people. One person pretended to be Brad Pitt talking about climate change for over an hour and only copped to it when someone asked him point-blank whether he was really Brad. He even had the username @bradpitt. (Clubhouse doesn’t have any sort of verification system, like blue checkmarks, meaning you have to hope the person you’re seeing on the app is who they say they are.)

Clubhouse attempts to address these issues weekly during a town hall, where its co-founders announce product changes and answer users’ questions. Now that it’s facing competition from seemingly every major tech company, however, its problems are more dire. A new social app is always exciting — a wacky world to explore is where the internet really thrives — but as Clubhouse matures, it loses that initial creative energy and replaces it with bad actors, boring normies, and the dreaded brands. Twitter and Facebook already know how to anticipate the problems Clubhouse faces. They’ve dealt with these issues on their own platforms and hired accordingly. Clubhouse isn’t even widely available, let alone staffing entire moderation teams.

The onslaught of the brands could be the worst of Clubhouse, though. Branded rooms could sanitize Clubhouse of the fun it once had and replace it with forced conversation and promotion — like a radio station that only plays commercials. Entire agencies are even popping up to help Clubhouse influencers connect with brands, and already, companies like IHOP are using the platform. In IHOP’s case, it’s hosting a day-long room where can hear the sound of sizzling bacon on repeat.

Also take, for example, The Cotton Club. Lots of stories mention the group, which hosts a weekly room that pretends to be the famous jazz bar in Harlem. Users change their photos to black and white images of jazz musicians and come onstage to chat. A bartender mixes drinks and changes their profile photo to match what they’re making. It’s genuinely inventive, and the creator of the club, Bomani X, was even the app’s icon for a while.

Clubhouse user Kiarash Behain will put on a Jigsaw mask to get into character for his trivia show.

But now, The Cotton Club has been branded. I joined the room once in February only to see it advertising the Hulu movie The United States vs. Billie Holiday. The partnership makes sense; it’s brilliant, actually, but hearing the hosts shout out a hashtag felt wrong. Why are they advertising Twitter on Clubhouse? They also brought director Lee Daniels onstage and asked about the film. Maybe that’s interesting to some people, but it pushes the boundaries of how much promotion people really want to hear.

Prior to my mansion party, I stopped into the Saw-themed trivia room. Kiarash Behain impersonates the movies’ murderous clown three times a week and, to get into character, he turns the starry lights in his at-home recording studio red and ominous. He hooks his phone up to his computer so he can control his voice through a soundboard, which allows him to use effects. He’s devised a wide list of ways he could “put people in the dirt,” aka send them back to the audience when they miss a question, and outlines the show ahead of time.

His show’s been copied in different ways, and he doesn’t sweat it. “My job is just to create a really, really great experience to the point where maybe it can’t be matched,” he says.

“My job is just to create a really, really great experience to the point where maybe it can’t be matched,” says Kiarash Behain.

And when he thinks about the possible branding deals or scammers that come to the platform, cementing the app’s place in the digital creator ecosystem, he says Clubhouse has a key advantage.

“You can really read somebody’s voice as if it’s like DNA,” he says. “So if somebody is lying you can tell. If somebody is pure and has great intentions, you can tell through their voice and Clubhouse really, really sells that dynamic very well.”

I loved the Saw trivia room when I dropped in, but I wonder how long the novelty will last, particularly as Clubhouse becomes more of a corporatized machine. I can imagine a world, for example, where the owners of the Saw franchise issue a takedown request against Behain for using their intellectual property — if the shtick doesn’t get old by then. Maybe the thousands of people who join the room might actually want to go to trivia at a real bar when this pandemic ends. Or perhaps the platform gets eaten by Facebook or Twitter. It’s easy to envision these possibilities when various platforms have already played out the trajectory. They all set out to change how we communicate, and ultimately, their stories end up sounding exactly the same.

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