Still confused about Clubhouse? You’re not alone. The invite-only, audio-based social media app has been generating buzz. Since launching in early 2020, it has grown to more than 2 million users while still in beta and is particularly popular among “an elite set of Silicon Valley-ites.”
But many people are still on a wait list to use it, hoping to be added by one of their contacts.
Once inside, users can start chatrooms to host discussions, or join rooms already in progress and listen in on conversations. A main hallway displays current and upcoming rooms you can join, based on whom you follow. For rooms that enable audience participation, you might be invited from the audience to join the stage and speak — and the room disappears when the discussion is over.
Dionne Mahaffey, an organizational psychologist and founder of Culture Greetings, said she joined Clubhouse in November. Mahaffey, who’s based in Atlanta, thought it was “an opportunity to meet some venture capitalists and people that could lend advice on how to scale my business,” she said.
Instead, she said, she observed rooms where only men were invited to speak from the audience, regardless of their level of professional experience. In one room, a man refused to let her introduce herself and challenged the claims in her bio, Mahaffey said.
“He took the whole time to tear me down in a room with hundreds of people,” she continued. “When I [listed] my credentials and the projects I was involved with, he demoted me to the audience. I am not the type of person that brags, but he pushed a button.”
Created by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, the app is valued at $1 billion and recently rolled out its own influencer network to compete with YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Many users join hoping to access business opportunities and hobnob with influencers and celebs. Oprah, Marc Cuban, Chris Rock, Ava DuVernay and Drake are just a few of the big names that have popped up on the app. Last week, Tesla chief executive Elon Musk logged on to talk.
As it has risen in popularity, the social network has also been called a haven for misogyny and racism. Early incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Blackness on the platform went largely unaddressed outside of statements from reps that “condemn racism, hate speech and abuse.” TechCrunch reported Monday that it had been banned in China, likely a reaction to its lack of moderation.
“Clubhouse is invite-only. This almost automatically means accountability is going to be difficult. Because of its exclusivity, people want to stay in the good graces of those who might let them in,” said Rosalind Chow, a professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University. “The question to ask is, ‘What is the price of access?’”
The environment does not bode well for Black women in particular, who are disproportionately at risk for cyber-harassment. And, according to Mahaffey and other Black women in tech who spoke to The Lily, that holds up on Clubhouse. As Chow put it, Clubhouse is structured to mimic the power dynamics in American culture that already punish Black and Brown people for being vocal and authentic. As Vanity Fair reports, the main problem lies in the “murky” moderation in the app: Racist, misogynistic and extreme views might go more easily unchecked there than on, say, Twitter.
Clubhouse has not responded to requests for comment.
Despite its problems, the app’s ability to foster connectedness during one of the most isolating periods in history has driven its success: In its infancy, Clubhouse hosted 1,500 users and was populated predominantly by tech investors. Now, the platform hosts over 2 million users. After hearing early funding success stories, many women in tech said they were drawn to the app in search of opportunity.
“Clubhouse attracts people at a time when we are all craving interaction,” said Jasmine McNealy, associate professor and associate director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida. “Users want to interact with people [who have] money and influence. That is the draw to this exclusive space, but without moderation, it invites bad actors.”
Such was the case for Mahaffey, the tech founder. She noticed a pattern of speakers demeaning other women on the app, too. “In Clubhouse, and in the world, women always have to fight for our position,” she said. “That is why having men as allies that understand how we are often disenfranchised is important. The onus should be on them, not just us, to shut down the misogyny when they see it.”
Martika Jones, founder and chief executive of Collag3, joined the app in late December after being encouraged by other women entrepreneurs to use it as a tool to network and expand her business. After observing widespread misogyny, she considered deleting the app, she said.
“There are people being actively malicious and you can hear it in their tone. That makes me scared to [speak] in these rooms,” Jones said. “I don’t want to be publicly humiliated, when there might be someone in the audience that I could have approached down the road.”
“I haven’t even started my first room yet, because I am traumatized after everything I have witnessed,” Jones continued. Despite her background in tech and public speaking, she finds the antagonization of women experts concerning: “I feel like some guy is going to [enter] my room and tell me I don’t know what I am doing. But I have never had that fear while using another app.”
For Jones, who is actively raising capital, participating on the platform is not worth risking her brand. While recognizing its potential, Jones views Clubhouse as a place that is unsafe for women until there is better content moderation and users are held accountable for untoward behavior. “Especially for women of color, we are not protected,” Jones said. “It will not be a place for us until things change.”
Some users, meanwhile, said they stick to rooms they moderate and immediately report users they find in violation of the community standards.
Data and artificial intelligence specialist iAsia Brown has been a user since December, and said she feels the app is not without its problems — but she does believe it has the ability to build community. “I host a financial stock room every Sunday for five hours,” Brown said. “I really just use it for networking, talking to people and helping people pivot into tech.”
Brown said she became more aware of the discrimination happening on the platform when a disabled user joined her room to share how horribly she was treated on the app. The user told Brown a man mocked her onstage in a room for being paraplegic, ignored her when she tried to respond and moved her back into the audience — a common silencing tactic used on Clubhouse. “Next thing I know, there were rooms popping up about this same individual, calling him a scammer,” she said. “But, Clubhouse is very responsive in addressing issues.”
Although the user was promptly removed from the app, Brown said she has observed de-platformed users return later using a different profile. “There are certain people whose profiles were gone minutes after I reported them, but [Clubhouse] has not solidified their verification process because within 10 minutes, some of those same people were back under a different profile,” Brown said.
Corporate sales strategist and tech founder Allyson Byrd said she has had a more personally traumatic experience using the app. She said she was targeted for calling attention to a room being moderated by White men she felt was “predatory” to its Black and POC audience. After being invited to speak, the stage grew hostile once she vocalized her concerns, she said.
Byrd said she was later followed into a separate room she opened with more than 2,000 audience members, and called out by name by the creator of the room she vacated. He also created a separate room using her name in the title, Byrd said, to publicly shame her.
“People are making it small, calling it conflict. But there is a distinction between conflict and bullying,” Byrd said. “So many people are silent because they do not want to be perceived as a victim. I am not a victim, but I was victimized.”
As McNealy put it: “When someone is following you into a safer space, even if it is not on the street, you are still being harassed. In law, there is an idea that [saying] certain words are almost like being hit. We call them fighting words, words that provoke a visceral reaction from people.”
After her experience in Clubhouse, Byrd is using her platform to raise awareness about virtual assault.
According to McNealy, the responsibility of mitigating hate speech and harassment begins with the founders of Clubhouse.
“There is no excuse not to have threat metrics when we have already seen this [behavior] play out on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. This is less about what is legal and more about what is ethical,” McNealy continued. “There are specific and notable harms happening on your platform. What are you going to do about it?”