These problems could halt the meteoric rise of Clubhouse

Clubhouse found us hungry for serendipitous conversations amidst the lockdown blues. If you managed to get your hands on an invitation early on: what a journey! You could be laughing with your friends and then switch to Elon Musk grilling the Robinhood co-founder. Celebrities would “appear” at your dinner table in real time, provided you own an iPhone.. Oh boy, doesn’t it feel great to be included in the elite? But no matter how crazy of a ride it’s been, even Clubhouse can’t avoid problems.

The social audio app has been around for a year, and while it’s still invite-only, the elitism has started to fade away. Recent data suggest that the app has been downloaded about 13 million times: hardly an exclusive club anymore. And with numbers comes responsiblity. 

The beast(s) unleashed

When Twitter blocked Donald Trump indefinitely, deciding that enough is enough, some eyebrows were raised. Whether he deserved it or not, a tech giant censored an influential figure. One of those eyebrows even belonged to Angela Merkel. The German chancellor didn’t shy away from criticizing Trump in the past but still decided to speak out against Twitter.

Other social networks followed suit, but it’s still not entirely clear: what exactly is that line that cannot be crossed? Where does free speech end? Can we rely on social networks to judge something so fundamental? They share (mis)information literally influencing our future. That may be a heavier burden than any founder or CEO can carry. 

Clubhouse has found itself within this moral dilemma. As an app that offers real-time unmoderated conversations for anyone, what’s to stop an extremist going on a rant about race, let’s say? Oh, wait, that already happened. 

Wired recently outlined how a Clubhouse conversation about Black people and anti-semitism ended up being uncomfortably anti-semitic. After a multitude of similar controversies, the platform followed up with community guidelines that reinforce the responsibility of users. Anyone can flag the disruptors on Clubhouse, and that brings further problems. 

You could get kicked out for anything just because someone isn’t a fan of your opinion or skin color. Wired mentions a story of a Black woman that racists have continuously harassed. She could never reach any Clubhouse representative to address the issue. Anyone, especially those already marginalized, can expect their traumas amplified. Those anonymous voices of bullies couldn’t care less. 

On another end, China banned Clubhouse because the freedom of speech it provides is too threatening. 

Could Clubhouse fail? 

Despite the ethical problems that the founders can’t seem to address, Clubhouse is on a steep path upwards. Having raised $110M, why wouldn’t it, and you won’t find many voices doubting its potential. Tech investor Shaan Puri is one of them. He agrees that the world would be more fun if Clubhouse flourishes, but he doesn’t find it likely. As he explained in his hilarious viral rant on Twitter, several problems may ultimately halt the app’s rise. 

First, Clubhouse’s appeal lies in impressive speakers leading real-time conversations that can’t be replayed later. If you’re late – your problem. Puri predicts this will halt the growth of active users, as they will refuse to plan their schedule around the social audio app. A recording feature will follow, but the fun of “live” will be over. Speakers will be more careful about what they say and there it is – just another podcast. 

Puri thinks that the app will then try to capitalize on the network’s social aspect. In other words, cater to those who just like to chill with friends. “But it turns out – chilling is a dead end too. Retention & usage are great… But growth stays slow. It makes sense — if I’m coming here to MAKE friends…Then I’m not going to “bring friends”. Chilling = sticky, slow growth,” he writes, adding that the app will probably end up acquired by the likes of Facebook.

The future is social audio anyway

Whether Clubhouse manages to address these serious issues or not, the competition definitely recognized the potential of audio. Mainstream social networks are taking notes as well. Facebook is rumored to already work on their favorite activity: merciless copying. It did work with Snapchat, after all. TikTok owner ByteDance is apparently working on a copycat for the Chinese market, and Twitter has acquired a podcasting app, Breaker with plans to roll out Twitter Spaces. 

The future seems to be social audio. The question is, will Clubhouse be able to lead the way?

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