Back in December, Sydney Connors, 28, received a notification welcoming her to Clubhouse, the audio-based, invite-only app. Connors, who works in public relations and event curation in Cleveland, initially spent hours on it, joining various groups that appealed to her sensibilities as a theatre lover, which included chats centered around table reads of plays. After seeing how the app could be used for creative endeavors, she teamed up with her friend of more than 20 years, Brandon Patterson, 28, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, to work on an ambitious project: producing a virtual production of Dreamgirls, based on the 2006 movie of the same name. The idea came about as a way to bring about “Black joy during a time of darkness,” Patterson said, as well as to highlight talented artists who haven’t been able to perform because of the ongoing pandemic.
Auditions were held on the app over the course of three days, and more than 9,000 people sang well-known songs popularized by Jennifer Holliday, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Loretta Devine. The American Idol–style competition was complete with extremely direct feedback and sometimes hilariously shady moments from the judges, though there were no malicious intentions, Connors and Patterson told me. Ultimately, 50 people were chosen for lead and background roles in four separate productions that will be performed live on the app in the afternoons and evenings of Feb. 27 and 28.
Even if you weren’t on Clubhouse, news of the project hit Twitter as people as people tweeted to express how they felt about the auditions, praised those who sang well, dismissed folks who struggled to find the right key, and cackled at Leroy Church, the show’s casting director, who would shut down terrible auditions with a curt “Thank you. Happy New Year!” The viral success of the chatter on Twitter was a telling indicator of Clubhouse’s burgeoning influence as a social media platform.
Now in its beta testing phase, which kicked off last March, Clubhouse — cofounded by Rohan Seth, a former Google engineer, and Paul Davison, who launched the now-defunct app Highlight (which connected users close in proximity based on common interests) — allows users to engage in real-time voice conversations with people from various corners of the world. Right now, it is only available to iPhone users who have been referred by a friend or acquaintance already using the platform, though an Android-friendly version is expected to drop later this year.
“Clubhouse was the first app where you could have no followers and still look like your white counterpart because they didn't have any either.”
Users can check out any of the rooms, which are separated into two factions: the audience and the moderators (or speakers). Once in a room, a user can tap a hand-waving icon, which signals to the moderator that they have something to say, at which point the moderator can either accept or deny the action so they can speak. There’s a smorgasbord of rooms to choose from on the app’s “homepage” — referred to as the “hallway” — and they run the gamut from the serious and thoughtful to the ridiculous and fun. For example, there have been different iterations of the moan room, which is exactly what it sounds like. With a rapt audience, folks vocalize their best orgasmic moan, and moderators judge it based on how horny it made them. (Audio leaked onto Twitter of actor Lakeith Stanfield participating in the shenanigans a few months ago.) There are rooms where you can debate who makes the best burgers — Bob from Bob’s Burgers or Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants. And rooms where bearded Black men will read whatever you request before bedtime. You can find rooms for talking about mental and physical health, general networking events, and just “chill vibes.”
Recently, Axios wrote a story about the nascent app’s valuation, which sits at $1 billion, a marker of its potential. But Clubhouse, which now has millions of active daily users, a far cry from the 1,500 when it first launched, has already been the subject of controversy.
Celebrity blogger Jason Lee, podcast host and former rapper Joe Budden, and actor Tiffany Haddish — who became the first person on the platform to break 1 million followers — have been accused of touting COVID-19 conspiracy theories and cyberbullying a doctor on the app. Kevin Hart showed up to a room titled “Is Kevin Hart Funny?” where people debated his comedic chops and a joke from his Netflix special Zero Fucks Given about his 15-year-old daughter exhibiting “hoe activity,” which many found to be in poor taste. Hart defended his comedy in the room, later tweeting that he had had an “amazing conversation” — though some would call this revisionist, considering how thoroughly he was dragged.
Clubhouse, like Twitter before it, has made our relationships with celebrities feel more intimate. At one time, following your favorite singer or actor and getting a firsthand look at their thoughts felt novel (unless their PR team was crafting their tweets); now, people can literally be in rooms with celebrities and hold actual conversations with them.
Clubhouse, once imagined as a space for C-suite professionals to connect, has only been operating for a short time. And though the app is open to anyone who signs up after receiving an invite, it's undeniable that it has now become a hub for Black creativity and conversation.
“White creators literally had their foothold [on] all social media, and Clubhouse was the first app where you could have no followers and still look like your white counterpart because they didn't have any either,” Allyson Byrd, a 43-year-old financial strategist who works in sales, said about her experience on the platform. While she made the point to highlight some of the app’s pitfalls — including harassment she has endured and a lack of moderation on people espousing unsound financial advice — she also mentioned the benefits of joining a new social media app as a Black influencer because “nobody had a head start, and that gave a sense of equanimity and fairness.” She added, “Black creators were so attracted, like, Wow, we're not going to be perceived as invaluable because we don't have numbers.”
Clubhouse is the first social app that “feels social in all the right ways,” said an early user, a self-described “extreme introvert” who asked to remain anonymous. They added that the app “creates a lot of magical serendipity.” You’re not necessarily beholden to looking at a screen; you could be doing another activity while listening to the ongoing conversation. And getting on Clubhouse is such a lightweight commitment that it can be enjoyed as a passive listener. “That combination is kind of unique,” they said. “Voice carries a lot of nuance and emotion, where you can create a genuine connection very quickly.”
“With Clubhouse, you can really hit the tone and context, and it allows people to explain their point of view more broadly,” Ashleigh Louise, a 28-year-old project manager and consultant, told me in a phone interview recently, “whereas with other apps, you know, [when] you're tweeting, for example, you've only got a certain amount of characters, and it leaves a lot up to the individual, the interpretation.”
“I'm looking forward to seeing how these platforms that are run by white people [will] compensate predominantly Black people and people of color who are going on these apps and making [them] bigger.”
Although Louise, who lives in the UK, only joined Clubhouse in early November, she now has more than 36,000 followers. Louise hosts and moderates “Talks With Ash,” a show about hot topics that regularly garners thousands of listeners on whatever the day’s topic of conversation is. Last week, it was makeup artists’ horror stories. More than 6,000 people participated in the chat, with many more waiting to get into the room after it hit capacity. And her custom hashtag, created so that people in the room — as well as those who could not gain access — can follow along on Twitter, where it trended globally, with thousands more weighing in.
But just like every other social media platform, Clubhouse has its own problems with abuse and harassment. Byrd explained why hostility feels different on Clubhouse than the apps that came before it. “When you're hearing someone's vocal tone, and they're yelling and abrasive and cursing — that now hits completely differently than the interpretation you have in your head from reading [a tweet],” she said. You can simply choose to scroll past a triggering tweet or Facebook comment. In what Byrd characterized as a “virtual assault” on her Instagram, she was harassed for calling a room a "scam."
The app has been putting some measures in place to avoid devolving into a cesspool of toxicity and bad opinions. “Every room has an encrypted background audio recording made of it, and, by default, that recording is automatically deleted after the room ends unless someone made an incident report while the room was in progress,” said the early user. This allows a Clubhouse administrator, someone who works on the backends of the app, to go back, listen to the audio, and decide whether a user breached its terms of services; at this point, they can “take appropriate action,” like banning the user, if it’s deemed necessary. Moderators can combat trolls — people who barge into rooms for the sole purpose of being disruptive — by pulling up a list of recent attendees and blocking them. The hope is that these measures will encourage “people to be polite and civil to one another and not causing problems,” the early user said.
Though Clubhouse seemingly aims to be a social app that allows people of different backgrounds to connect, its main feature allows you to literally hear how someone is engaging with you, so misunderstandings are still inevitable.
Adomako Aman, a writer and filmmaker based in New York City, joined Clubhouse on New Year’s Eve. He was a frequent user before recently reassessing his relationship with the app. “I still look at the internet kind of like how it first started. You don't know who's on the internet or who’s watching and things like that,” he told me. “The things that people say sometimes [on Clubhouse] could be very problematic and dangerous. I've had a few instances where people have said things that kind of offended me, and I had to remove myself.” Aman recalled being in a room where a cis man was trying to get a better understanding of what the term “nonbinary” meant.
The conversation wasn’t fruitful, as the guy, according to Aman, kept saying, “I don’t get it, I don’t get it,” and was ousted from the stage, which included trans and nonbinary people. This brings to light another aspect of the app that could be abused: ejecting someone because of an unpopular opinion. “I've heard many stories where people were like, ‘Oh, I've been moved off the stage because people didn't agree with my opinion,’” Aman said.
“There is a fine line between freedom of speech and being offensive,” Louise told me, speaking on this same subject. “I think you should be able to stand by what you say, and if you wouldn't want what you have said on Clubhouse repeated to your boss, don't say it.” She said she has a “no tolerance” policy in her chatrooms when it comes to obviously bad behavior, such as targeted harassment, bullying, and anti-queer speech — but barring all of that, everyone’s perspectives are valued.
Clubhouse, Byrd told me, “gives you the greatest currency, which is audience and attention.” The app is steadily growing, with more than 1 million daily active users. There’s already competition, like Watercooler, which launched in May, and Twitter’s Spaces, which is still in its testing phase. Whether Clubhouse can break through and make itself an indispensable social app like, say, TikTok is yet to be seen.
“When I think of Clubhouse, I think of the importance that Black people have brought to it," Patterson, the Dreamgirls producer told me. "Black creators have really blew this up."
Like other rooms spearheaded by innovative Black creators, the Dreamgirls audition rooms were maxed out. “When you think about the amount of people who go on Twitter and are looking at the hashtag, people who are begging for invites to be in the audition, that is driving people towards engagement,” Patterson said, When it comes to the cultural conversation around apps like Clubhouse, he added, “I'm looking forward to really seeing people dig deep into how these platforms that are run by white people [will] compensate predominantly Black people and people of color who are going on these apps and making [them] bigger.”
But for some Black creators, it’s already proving to be rife with possibilities and opportunities. “I think people are looking for any way possible to provide for themselves. I think people are looking for any way possible to garner fame. I think that people are desperate to be heard and to have a sense of community and belonging,” Byrd said. “And I think also people are even more so now than ever awkwardly social. So a platform that only requires your voice, no visibility, that also makes it easier to engage and to state your thoughts [and] share your insight, Clubhouse came at the perfect time.” ●