“Clubhouse: welcome to the voice era?” by Paul Marie Dabezies

On Saturday, February 13, Tesla CEO Elon Musk invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to join him for a debate on the new social network, Clubhouse. To everyone’s surprise, the Kremlin responded, stating that it was a “very interesting proposal;” however, Putin’s spokesman said that he “does not use social networks directly.” Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, as well players in the tech ecosystem can all be found on Clubhouse. On February 18, 2021,  Clément Beaune, Secretary of State for European Affairs, heldr a live exchange on Clubhouse from Station F.  All this begs the question: why is there so much interest in this platform?

Clubhouse (or CH to its friends) is a voice chat application launched in beta in April 2020. It raised $100 million in January 2021 from Andreessen Horowitz (a16z, one of Silicon Valley’s most iconic venture capital firms), for a valuation of $1 billion. The principle is not new, it integrates voice with social network tools. Previously, the start-up, Bubble, tried to launch a similar platform, but it was before podcasts really took off . With CH, users  join chat rooms to attend debates and exchanges on various topics (tech, entertainment, arts, religion, sports, etc.). Users listen to the conversations and, if authorized by the room moderators, can participate. For the moment, new users must be sponsored by an existing registered user. Each new user receives two invitations to distribute to his or her circle of friends. Success was swift. Since its creation in March 2020, the app has gained more than 6 million users (2 million a month ago). For the moment, it is only in its beta version and only available on iOS.

Between the pandemic and rolling lockdowns across the world, users have been particularly drawn to the community aspect of “chat rooms.”  While video-based platforms are booming (especially YouTube and TikTok), Clubhouse is betting on voice ౼ and it seems to be paying off. Its success is linked to the simplicity of use and the sound-only format, which takes away the stress of needing to be presentable via video or photo. Why is it such a huge success? According to Andreessen Horowitz, social networks are going through a new phase of creativity, with new solutions. At the same time, we have seen the explosion of cloud gaming and the widespread belief that every digital device must integrate a social dimension in order to improve retention and acquisition rates. In the case of Clubhouse, the distinguishing element is voice. While social networks struggle to keep the user in front of the screen, it is possible to do other things while listening. The growing popularity of podcasts illustrates this trend. Clubhouse can be your plan for the night, like attending a debate or a lecture. It also differs from other social networks in that it takes place in real time; so it’s less artificial, less prepared, it is also more interactive and more suited to conversation. There is no replay, and screen capture is limited, which is likely to free up speech. The conversations are recorded, for legal reasons, but CH says it regularly erases them if no anomaly is reported. Radio stations are catching on as well, with Europe 1 being the first media to join. Is this interactive system the way forward for social networks? Facebook seemed to confirm this trend when it created a similar product called Fireside. Twitter also launched its “spaces” at the end of last year, based on the same principle and tested with hundreds of users.

To be sustainable, Clubhouse will have to address the central issue facing Facebook and Twitter: moderation. While the new social network eludes  problems linked to inappropriate images or videos, it will encounter others linked to live broadcasting, as well as to language subtleties and voice intonation. How do you know what is really being said and what impact it might have on your audience? To answer this question, Clubhouse uses its cooptation system. While this system is decried in principle, making the network a sort of “private club”, it also ensures some semblance of moderation. Each account is attached to a phone number, and you can click on a member’s profile to find out who invited them. This way, if someone gets “reported” (flagged for their behavior), it will have an impact on their sponsor. It is a kind of self-regulation of users, which is quite modern in its principle and innovative in its functioning. But, as with Facebook reports, this does not remove the need for a dedicated team to evaluate reports and avoid abuse or the settling of scores. To reinforce this control and address the issue of live reporting, executives assure that conversations will be kept on a server. In the case of inappropriate content, the authors can be identified. The social network emphasizes identity verification of each member. It is necessary to be of age and to enter one’s real first and last name.

This personal data policy is also a source of controversy. Clubhouse strongly encourages users to access their address book. If the user does not agree, they won’t be allowed to invite contacts to  join the network. If the user allows access, the app displays the  number of Clubhouse contacts each person already has. This means that the app accesses the names, numbers and address books of people who are not registered on the app without their consent. This is a violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in force in Europe. Clubhouse also plans to collect other data such as how users interact with each other, the time spent on the app, and other phone information. For the moment, the application assures not to sell data to third parties.

The last breaking point: the economic model. This differs from traditional models based on pay-per-click advertising or views (whose biases are known: they tend to favor strong emotions and shocking content). At this stage, Clubhouse’s model is focused on community and quality. On CH, we’ll likely see micro-payments to get into a “room” frequented by stars or to chat with them. Brands will be able to sponsor rooms dedicated to their topics and encourage members to join.

There is no doubt that with the democratization of Clubhouse, the modes of interaction and operation are bound to evolve. The hashtag and the SMS are only products of usage, and much remains to be invented as digital technology fuels the extension of the public space. Like other platforms before it – Whisper, Myspace, Diaspora, Vine – Clubhouse could just as easily disappear after its initial success. One thing is certain: voice is a new digital frontier. Along with podcasts, Clubhouse is focused on expanding translation capabilities and developing voice assistants. Advertisers, brands and institutions need to test how these new tools can be used in their own context to build their experience curve. With digital has also come a maxim: “The winner takes all”. Dura lex, sed lex.

By Paul Marie Dabezies, senior consultant at Antidox