The Rise of Clubhouse

In the United States, it started out for Silicon Valley networking. Globally, it's a different story.

Clubhouse is the hit app of 2021. It has seen exponential growth, increasing from an estimated 3.5 million downloads as of February 1 to over 8 million by February 16. Much of the growth has been global, with only an estimated 2.6 million downloads coming from inside the United States, according to the data and analytics firm App Annie.

Its success is due to a variety of factors. It has built buzz by only allowing exclusive invites, it has cameos by celebrities and Silicon Valley figures, and it capitalized on the social isolation of 11 months of the pandemic by giving people a platform to talk on. The app is exclusively available for Apple's iOS, making it more likely that its users are wealthy.

This audio-only app functions like breakout sessions at a conference, with speakers hosting different "rooms" on topics, and users can raise their hands and talk on the "stage" for a question-and-answer session. In the United States, it has scores of financial self-help rooms on subjects like cryptocurrency.

But in authoritarian countries, the app has allowed conversations that never could have happened in state-run spaces, which dominate public conversation.

Earlier this month, Conversations occurred in China, and with people outside China, about the crackdown against the Muslim Uyghur minority, Tiananmen Square, and Hong Kong, before the government shut down access to the app. A Russian investigative journalist who alleged a woman was an illegitimate daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin chatted with the supposed woman in the app. Turkish demonstrators used it to evade censorship.

I logged onto the app recently and listened to the conversations in some of the rooms. Independent Russian journalists were discussing the plight of jailed journalists in Russia and opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who faces a long prison sentence. Other rooms were talking about the repression of the Chinese Communist Party, with speakers only from outside China for safety reasons.

According to App Annie, It has become the most downloaded free app in Russia. It trended on Chinese social media before censors deleted it. Invites -- the only way to get on the app -- were going for around 300 yuan, or about $47.

Twenty or thirty years ago, the Internet was assumed to be a democratizing force that would lead to more freedom across the world. That hasn't happened. Companies like Facebook, Google (which owns YouTube), and Twitter have come under fire for allowing the spread of misinformation and gotten in the crosshairs of governments for moderating -- or not moderating -- content. It's a stretch to say that Clubhouse could break that trend, but for a brief window, it has allowed for freer discussion.

The app also appeared to be more safe because of the temporal nature of the conversations in the rooms. Audio also makes trolling harder in that it would have to be done by an actual person, not a bot, but certainly not impossible. (There have been instances of harassment on the app.)

And that sense of safety may be fleeting. A censor could, of course, record a conversation and later use it to arrest someone. (Some Turkish activists believe they have been arrested because of their Clubhouse activity.)

The app has also had a controversy over data privacy. Clubhouse says it "temporarily" stores conversations on its servers, without specifying a time limit. If a "trust and safety violation," is not filed, the conversations are deleted. The Stanford Internet Observatory revealed that Agora, a company based in China, "supplies back-end infrastructure to the Clubhouse App," potentially giving the Chinese government access to audio through its national security law. However, Clubhouse announced that it would be rolling out new security features to "add additional encryption and blocks to prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers."

Social media has not led to the democratization of the world, and quite the contrary, it has been used by bad actors to collaborate and share ideas. Clubhouse could also be used by the very same people. But like other social media platforms, its utility is dependent on the people who use it and the governments under which it operates.

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Elsewhere from the United States:

“Mark Changed The Rules”: How Facebook Went Easy On Alex Jones And Other Right-Wing Figures, Buzzfeed.

Elsewhere in the World:

Facebook takes down main page of Myanmar military, Reuters. 

Four countries, one Clubhouse, Rest of World.

Belarusian journalists sent to prison for filming police violence at pro-democracy protest, The Times.