SAN FRANCISCO – Robert Van Winkle, better known as rapper Vanilla Ice, held court online last week with more than 1,000 fans.
In a rambling conversation, Mr Van Winkle praised the poses of 1990s band Bell Biv DeVoe and hesitated when asked about his relationship with Madonna. He gave advice on real estate and life, saying, “You must protect your happiness to protect your life.” At one point, a participant serenaded the gathering with an a cappella version of his hit “Ice Ice Baby”.
Several hours later, Mr Van Winkle confessed he had to leave before the mother of his child got angry.
It was the kind of free-wheeling, unpredictable event that took place around the clock on Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that exploded in popularity with taste makers of tech and popular culture. and which is quickly becoming a town square for debates on freedom of expression and politics.
The app, which allows people to gather in audio chat rooms to discuss different topics, has been downloaded nearly four million times in the past month alone, according to Apptopia. Public figures as diverse as Elon Musk, Ai Weiwei, Lindsay Lohan and Roger Stone joined him, and the unconstrained conversations he allowed aroused the wrath of China, which banned Clubhouse last week.
In the process, Clubhouse sparked debate over whether audio is the next wave of social media, moving digital connections beyond text, photos, and videos to an old-fashioned voice. In thousands of chatrooms each day, Clubhouse users have conducted free conversations on topics as diverse as astrophysics, geopolitics, queer representation in Bollywood and even cosmic poetry.
“This is a major change in the way the social internet works, ”said Dave Morin, who founded the social network Path over ten years ago and has invested in Clubhouse. “I believe this is a new chapter.”
Clubhouse’s trajectory has been swift – it only had a few thousand users in May – although the app is invitation-only and not widely available. The invitations are so coveted that they’ve been listed on eBay for as much as $ 89. Media companies such as Barstool Sports have also set up Clubhouse accounts, and at least one company has announced plans to hire a “senior clubhouse executive”.
The attention overwhelmed the small San Francisco start-up, which has a dozen employees and was founded by two entrepreneurs, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. While Clubhouse raised over $ 100 million in funding last month and was valued at $ 1 billion, it has struggled to deal with the increase in traffic. On Wednesday, the application crashed. Additionally, Facebook and Twitter are working on similar products to compete with it.
Clubhouse is also facing an increase in complaints about harassment, misinformation and privacy. In an incident last month, a user promoted conspiracy theories on the coronavirus vaccines and discouraged people from getting the vaccine, which led to the harassment of a female doctor.
This month, regulators in Germany and Italy publicly asked whether Clubhouse’s data practices comply with European data protection laws. And China has blocked the app after political conversations erupted outside the country’s strict internet controls.
Clubhouse follows a classic Silicon Valley startup path that social media companies like Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook have also taken: viral growth followed by the complicated issues that come with it. It is the first American social media company to explode in years. The latest global social media success has been TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that catapulted 15-second videos into cultural discourse.
Mr. Davison, 40, and Mr. Seth, 36, declined to be questioned. In a discussion at the Clubhouse on Sunday, Davison said the company was rushing to hire, build new features and release an Android version of the app.
“It’s just crazy, we’ve had so many people joining in,” he said.
Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth, who both attended Stanford University, are regular entrepreneurs. Mr. Davison created several social networking apps, including Highlight, which allowed users to view and send messages to people nearby. Mr. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founded a company, Memry Labs, which built apps. These start-ups were either bought or closed.
In 2019, the two – who had met in tech circles in 2011 – built a prototype podcasting app, Talkshow, which they called their “last try.” But Talkshow looked too much like an official show, so they decided to add a way for people to spontaneously join the conversation, Davison said in an interview with the “Hello Monday” podcast last month.
Last March, Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth founded the Clubhouse. They added a way for multiple speakers to broadcast at once and allowed people to bounce between digital rooms as if they were going from stage to stage at a music festival or business conference. To avoid overloading their start-up, they handed out the invitations slowly.
The app gained momentum as people searched for new ways to connect with each other in the pandemic. Some of its early users were Silicon Valley venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen and his business partner Ben Horowitz, who introduced Clubhouse to their networks. Oprah Winfrey, MC Hammer and John Mayer have joined them.
“There’s that feeling of access that’s really hard to replicate,” said Andy Annacone, an investor at TechNexus Venture Collaborative, who manages a fund that has invested in Clubhouse.
In May, Mr. Andreessen and Mr. Horowitz’s venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, invested $ 10 million in Clubhouse, worth $ 100 million. He had two employees at the time.
TikTok influencers, YouTube stars, and “The Bachelor” cast members quickly became active on the app. He’s also spawned his own stars, with some people on his “suggested user list” with over a million followers. In December, Clubhouse unveiled an invitation-only “Creative Pilot” to help so-called powerful users make money from the app.
“People are already building brands,” said Sheel Mohnot, 38, founder of Better Tomorrow Ventures, which has 1.2 million subscribers on the app. “There are all these Clubhouse shows. Some of these shows that I have seen are sponsored. (Mr Davison and Mr Seth said the company planned to make money through events with tickets, memberships and tips, but would not sell ads.)
This growth has been accompanied by criticism that women and people of color are frequently the targets of abuse and that discussions of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and misogyny are on the rise.
Porsha Belle, 32, an influencer from the Clubhouse in Houston, said that after talking about misogyny on the app, people formed rooms to encourage each other to report her account to be kicked out. His account was suspended last Monday.
She said she had tried calling the company, but found little recourse. “My page hangs while bullies can roam free,” she says.
Rachelle Dooley, 40, a social media manager in Austin, Texas, who is deaf, said she was blocked and evicted from some rooms at the Clubhouse.
“I can see it show up on closed captioning, people say, ‘Why is that deaf on an audio app? “, Did she say. “I freeze and start to cry.”
Clubhouse has a “block” feature to give users more control over their spaces. This in turn created access conflicts, including with a New York Times reporter.
Kimberly Ellis, 48, a researcher in American and African studies at Carnegie Mellon University who conducts workshops on digital security, said she also visited clubhouse rooms where people seemed to be dispensing financial advice but “did multi-level marketing“.
“Some people want to train you and get money from you for their classes,” she said.
During Sunday’s discussion at the Clubhouse, Davison said the company had explicit rules against the spread of misinformation, hate speech, abuse and bullying. The start-up said last year it was adding advisors and security features and making moderators accountable.
Yet Clubhouse has also allowed people living under strict censorship in countries like China and Turkey to speak out freely on many topics. Some users said they were hooked.
Brielle Riche, 33, a brand strategist in Los Angeles, said Clubhouse has opened up its world since she started using it in November.
“Clubhouse gives us the ability to communicate with strangers,” she said. “Only Clubhouse can get you out of TikTok.”
A week after Clubhouse announced its latest fundraising last month, Mr Musk sparked a frenzy when he appeared on the app and interviewed Vlad Tenev, the managing director of the Robinhood stock trading app. Mr. Musk has promised to return to the Clubhouse with Kanye West and invited Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to the app.
A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, came to discuss virtual and augmented reality. Then China banned the app.
On Sunday 5,000 people – the maximum in a Clubhouse room – attended a weekly “town hall” session with the founders. Mr Davison joined late because he was in another room to greet Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, on the app.
“We’re just trying to keep pace,” Davison said.
Adam satariano contribution to reports.