In The Clubhouse

Welcome screen and profile as of 4 March 2021

Clubhouse is a relatively new, invitation-only audio-chat iPhone app launched in April 2020 by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth of Alpha Exploration Co. [1] The developers tried to “build quietly” in Beta, but it took off during the global pandemic and became widely used, very quickly. With the increasing interest in podcasting and audio-only mobile apps, it was one of the most popular start-ups last year. It is not about golf or being pregnant. The reason for writing about it now is that it has now been taken on by ELT professionals, friends, who are already connected by social media platforms, but are exploring the possibilities that this app offers. As the developers wrote in July 2020:

“When you open the app you can see “rooms” full of people talking—all open so you can hop in and out, exploring different conversations. You enter each room as an audience member, but if you want to talk you just raise your hand, and the speakers can choose to invite you up. Or you can create a room of your own. It’s a place to meet with friends and with new people around the world—to tell stories, ask questions, debate, learn, and have impromptu conversations on thousands of different topics. It is voice-only, and we think voice is a very special medium. With no camera on, you don’t have to worry about eye contact, what you’re wearing, or where you are. … The intonation, inflection and emotion conveyed through voice allow you to pick up on nuance and form uniquely human connections with others. You can still challenge each other and have tough conversations—but with voice there is often an ability to build more empathy.” [2]

Listen to an audio podcast version of this post on Anchor or Spotify.

More recently, the popularity of this has been picked up by the media; BBC Click featured the app in February and the episode is available on iPlayer in the UK and YouTube. As the episode showed, it is easy to drop into a discussion, follow people or topics of conversation, or set up your own room. Once a room has ended, it disappears and there is no option to listen again. According to the show, it has had 4 million downloads in the last month alone and attracted $100 million worth of investment. There are certainly some benefits of audio-only and it is clearly catching on. Twitter is already copying the audio-only room model, calling it Spaces, with Facebook working on their own version, too. They already have ‘rooms’, itself a response to Zoom’s popularity last year, but these are video camera and text, too. This is more streamlined and the only way to interact is with voice, once your microphone is on, not text, nor ‘reactions’. Graham Stanley informed me of an Android app called Stereo which is similar in its audio-only approach, although Clubhouse is planning on rolling their app out to non iOS users later this year.

BBC Click report on Clubhouse and other things beginning with ‘C’.

Clubhouse for ELT

Many of the rooms and topics of conversations will not be relevant or interesting, but you can tailor your search. So when English language teachers started looking for relevant discussions, there was little in the way of rooms geared to topics of interest to their profession. My first experience was because I saw Rachael Roberts post about the app in her Lightbulb Moments Facebook Group for ELT professionals. Her first proper discussion, after an initial practice on 12 February, was about money and why don’t we earn more (19 Feb), the second about niches (26 Feb) and the third about time management for business owners and freelancers (5 March). Jamie Keddie attended the second one of these and promptly organised his first one on ‘experimental storytelling’ the following day, followed by a late-night podcast-style weekly story – ‘the tale of an awkward street interaction’ and a Sunday storytelling slot. He seems to be joining a lot of rooms, too, because I get notifications on my Lock Screen. Andy Cowle (joined 23 February) has started a room talking about reading, such as one on ‘graded readers’ on 8 March, along with Jamie. Jo Szoke has her own room called ‘Online Teaching Reflections’ and has been micro-blogging on Twitter about the app. The Lexical Lab’s Hugh Dellar took to the platform on 18 February, having been nominated by early adopter, Ela Wassell (joined 4 January; 1.1k followers), and promptly set up a regular room called ‘English Questions Answered’ every Friday. For Ela, founder of Truly Boldly You, the app is an extension of her Instagram account and being a business coach around Women’s Leadership and Empowerment. She has really embraced the platform and has an extensive profile already, attending many sessions such as this on connecting international women. The attraction of instant access, audio only clearly lends itself to a forum to discuss topics of interest or even promoting your business, without the usual distractions of image/video (see Instagram) or lengthy posts and links (see Facebook) or heated arguments (see Twitter). It also has the benefit of no sponsorship, nor advertising – yet!

I was initially skeptical – wondering if it was just another platform where you connect with people you are already connected with, saying the same things as elsewhere. However, I joined and followed all of the above, having been nominated by Jo Gakonga on 18 February. As of 4 March, I had 53 followers, while I followed 35. I also have 7 invites going spare – it is easy enough to gain extras by using the app. Notifications are on, so when I have a locked screen, suggestions pop up, based solely on the topics and the people I follow – easy to turn off/on. You can be ‘pinged’ if someone thinks you might be interested in joining a room, although by the time you get there, the chat might have finished. I have found the conversations respectful, polite, well moderated and inclusive so far. Moderation of audio is tricky. You can either have a microphone on or off, while the host can bring attendees up to the stage, or give them moderator rights, too. Ultimately a room’s success or failure, depends on how it gets moderated and who is in the room. Follow or don’t follow users. It is down to you, while the app is still being developed, to make the most of it. Set up your own room or even graduate to being a ‘club’ owner, as Rachael and others have just done. I have also tried some rooms which I had little interest in, or explored some of the rooms via my selected interests, but these seemed to be mostly US-based chats. I have also ‘pocket-clubhoused’ (you heard it here first) – just like ‘pocket calling’ someone, but entering a room by accident! A gallery of screenshots from the app from my usage can be viewed below:

Criticisms and Concerns

However, with any potentially game changing app such as this, there is inevitably a downside. Firstly, it iOS only for now and is ‘invitation only’. While this gives an air of exclusivity, it puts many off, especially Android users. Getting or giving out an invite is not difficult once you start using the app, but the real danger lies in granting access to all of your mobile contacts. Secondly, this privacy concern, which may be illegal under GDPR laws, is highlighted in this critical take in the Guardian recently:

“The hoopla tended to obscure some uncomfortable facts about Clubhouse. There’s the contact-uploading requirements mentioned earlier which, as one commentator put it, are not only “telling the app developer that you’re connected to those people, but you’re also telling it that those people are connected to you – which they might or might not have wanted the app to know. For example, say you have an ex or even a harasser you’ve tried to block from your life, but they still have your number in their phone; if they upload their contacts, Clubhouse will know you’re connected to them and make recommendations on that basis.” [3]

You know it has access to all your contacts because in this screenshot it makes lots of suggestions and worryingly tells you how many ‘friends’ each contact has pending!

Invitation suggestion screen

In addition, for an app which gives an apparent ease of popping in and out of rooms, there is a huge moderation issue. Audio quality varies, but this is often due to those invited up on stage multitasking and joining in while ironing or out running. The host or organiser of a room can remove someone, but probably not until after any potential damage is done. It could be open to abuse and people hiding anonymously and saying what they might have said in text (on Twitter) or by sabotaging a chat meeting with images (see Zoombombing!) But I understand you can ‘close’ rooms to strangers.

Finally, there is the recording issue. Whilst it is against the terms and conditions of the app not to record conversations or share these without permission, we do not know whether recordings are kept by the owners. Clubhouse explains the reasons why it might record voice communications in its community guidelines. These temporary recordings while the room is live are apparently:

“solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations. If a user reports a Trust and Safety violation while the room is active, we retain the audio for the purposes of investigating the incident, and then delete it when the investigation is complete.” [4]

However, the terms suggest that recording is deleted if the company itself is satisfied no abuse took place. As such, the company appears to be appointing itself as adjudicator of what constitutes abuse and is then deleting the evidence afterwards – or not. This is huge concern. Facebook also started off as exclusive club, only for it to later abuse its powers and becoming the ultimate judge and jury in deciding what is allowed or not. It opened itself up totally to the business world, at the expense of the user experience. This app risks going down a similar profitable, but questionable route.

Conclusion

I confess that this post has been rushed out to capture the moment. It is still early days and will probably need revisiting at some point. A lot of people I know are getting excited about this, while an equal amount are cynical and dismissive of it. Does it offer anything new – well, yes, but you should make up your own mind, really. Whilst the app is still in BETA , it is worth exploring to see (a) what is on offer and (b) what you could offer. The potential is great, but some significant privacy risks need considering. It might be fun initially and you might quickly build up an army of followers. It could become another echo chamber, where existing beliefs are not challenged. It is still to be fully rolled-out and those privacy issues need addressing. Like many start-ups it will probably go the way of advertising before long. Which would be a predictable route and a shame. Enjoy it while it lasts. I’ll give it 6 months before it changes!


Stereo. An alternative, but similar audio only that is available for Android users.

References

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clubhouse_(app)

[2] Davison, P and Rohan Seth, R. (2020) https://www.joinclubhouse.com/check-1-2-3

[3] Naughton, J (2021). https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/feb/20/why-hot-new-social-app-clubhouse-spells-nothing-but-trouble

[4] Clubhouse Terms of Service (on mobile app)

3 comments

  1. Thanks for such a thorough review, Phil. Definitely looks worth a visit, and I do like to try out new tech stuff. But am feeling left out in the cold as an Android user 😦
    Might check out stereo, but suspect Clubhouse is where all the funnest people are atm…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment, Michelle. Stereo looks a little bit childish and aimed at DJs possibly? That’s what I got from the sponsored links appearing on Facebook since I shared this post and Graham mentioned it to me. Don’t feel FOMO too much, as they are developing Clubhouse for Android, too.

      Like

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