It just had to be called Clubhouse. Picture a scrap-wood door at the entrance to a tree house, a clumsily scrawled warning posted to ward off undesirables. KEEP OUT, it says. NO GIRLS (or boys, or whatever) ALLOWED. This Clubhouse is an app, but as with its namesake, exclusivity is part of the allure. Access to the platform is by invitation only, which puts a certain amount of pressure on its existing user base to be thoughtful about whom they ask in—and, in theory, on invitees to avoid trollish behavior that might embarrass the person who vouched for them (although a few high-profile harassment incidents while the app was still in beta revealed the limits of this approach, and led to the creation of some basic community guidelines—no “threats, harassment, lewdness, hate speech, or other displays of bigotry”). It attracted a disproportionately high-powered crowd off the bat: V.C.’s, tech gurus, a handful of celebrities. Elon Musk showed up; so did Mark Zuckerberg. The resulting traffic spikes crashed the app but also boosted its profile.
One acquaintance of mine described Clubhouse as akin to the kitchen at a house party where a group of slightly drunk tech bros are having a sophomore-dorm-room-level debate to the amusement of a larger group of silent onlookers. It wasn’t meant to be a flattering comparison—but when most of us haven’t been to a house party (or bar or conference or sporting event) in nearly a year, doesn’t a casual, buzzy kitchen confab sound kind of … fun?
It attracted a disproportionately high-powered crowd off the bat: V.C.’s, tech gurus, a handful of celebrities. Elon Musk showed up; so did Mark Zuckerberg.
The Clubhouse user experience is unique: users can listen in on voice calls between two or more people who gather in pop-up “rooms” to chat about a variety of topics. (Those who want to contribute their own thoughts can raise a virtual hand to request the mike.) It’s like eavesdropping without the creep factor, or a sort of live, spontaneous podcast with the possibility (but not requirement) of audience participation. Most crucially, the app maintains no records of its user activity, and making your own is against the rules. Once the conversation is finished, its content, attendance roster, and even the virtual room it took place in all vanish, forever.
Imagine: while other social-media platforms keep innovating new ways for users to surveil and snitch on each other, this one goes the other way and promises a rare and thrilling freedom—to think, to speak, and, finally, to be forgotten. The dialogue on Clubhouse is casual, freewheeling, and ephemeral—not unlike many real-life conversations. And when it’s over, it’s over, preserved only in the memories of its human participants.
While other social-media platforms keep innovating new ways for users to surveil and snitch on each other, this one goes the other way and promises a rare and thrilling freedom—to think, to speak, and, finally, to be forgotten.
No wonder certain members of the media, the ones lately derided as “hall monitors” by some other members of said profession, really hate Clubhouse. A small but vocal subset of Twitter users is infuriated by the app, and particularly by its refusal to keep receipts. In recent weeks, the Poynter Institute published an article bemoaning the difficulty of fact-checking Clubhouse conversations, while Vice complained that the app’s structure renders it “almost impossible to hold people accountable for their words.” Imagine the torment of knowing that someone, somewhere, might be saying something disagreeable, or even untrue—and just getting away with it! (Please, nobody tell Vice about the telephone. Or the mail.)
The notion that people might be entitled to talk to each other in private—and that the substance of those conversations is none of our business—increasingly does not occur to the extremely online among us. Privacy is a hard concept to parse in a world where we don’t even have the decency to blackmail one another anymore. The only thing to do with compromising information is to set it free, preferably at a time when it’ll cause maximum reputational damage. To do this, we are told, is righteous, even brave. Is it any surprise then that Clubhouse’s refusal to enable the collection of kompromat feels like a personal attack, even a threat? What’s a would-be muckraker to do?
For better or worse, the distaste of some in the media for Clubhouse will probably only increase, not diminish, the app’s allure. To its users, the journalists agitating for the means to monitor other people’s conversations look less like bold truth tellers and more like parents snooping through a teenager’s diary, if not Establishment authoritarians. Clubhouse, perhaps unwittingly, has created something almost unthinkably subversive: a social-media platform where “going viral” is not only not the point, but technologically impossible.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer and novelist. Her next book, No One Will Miss Her, will be published by William Morrow in October 2021