The next killer smartphone app has arrived — and it offers the potential to transform how we communicate, share knowledge and even make new friends.
I am talking about voice-and-audio-based social networking start-up Clubhouse. Its platform enables users to drop in and out of ephemeral chat rooms and take part in a range of gatherings, from small “water-cooler” type conversations to larger discussions featuring expert panels, often attended by thousands of listeners. Since its launch last March, Clubhouse has increasingly become a cultural phenomenon, attracting politicians, celebrities and experts from all walks of life. With its success and prominent backing, it may now be poised to upend the entire social media space.
Clubhouse’s latest figures reveal how quickly it is growing. During a weekly town hall event on Sunday, co-founder Paul Davison said the app’s weekly active user base had doubled to two million over the last couple of weeks. He also announced the start-up had raised another investment round led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, adding it now has more than 180 investors. While he didn’t offer any specifics, The Information reported on Friday that Clubhouse was getting interest at a US$1-billion valuation. If true, that means the company’s value has risen by a factor of 10 since its earlier series-A round last May, also led by Andreessen Horowitz.
Something special is happening inside the Clubhouse community. Call it the power of the voice — and it’s what separates Clubhouse from other platforms. A short back-and-forth live conversation, with its nuance and tone, can build closer relationships more quickly than dozens of written posts and text messages sent through more established social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Since I joined Clubhouse last year, I met and became friends with professors, filmmakers, artists, engineers and more from places all over the world. It has been intoxicating listening to people’s life stories and absorbing their knowledge and experience, from learning how a streaming video executive greenlights projects to getting expert political analysis on the latest breaking news. It has easily become one of my favourite pastimes.
To illustrate the kind of agenda-setting conversations that are becoming a staple on Clubhouse these days, here’s one example: Earlier this month, the mayors of San Francisco, Miami and Austin congregated inside a “room” to tout their cities as good places for tech companies to do business. Thousands of executives, investors and employees tuned in to the vibrant interactive panel. For an app like Clubhouse — or any social media platform looking to extend its influence and user base — this is the holy grail of the virtuous feedback loop, where the network effects of a large influential audience attract the highest-quality speakers and vice versa.
Impressive as Clubhouse’s latest metrics are, they may actually understate its potential. All the growth thus far has come largely by worth of mouth, and from only half of the smartphone market. The app still requires an invitation from a current member to join and is exclusive to Apple devices. So when the founders decide to open Clubhouse to the public and release an Android version, growth will take off to higher levels.
The nature of Clubhouse’s platform offers the potential for money-making opportunities. For instance, Clubhouse could take a commission from room admission fees for large panel discussions. Or, similar to Amazon.com-owned Twitch channels, it could offer monthly subscriptions for specific interest-based club rooms. One can also imagine users buying unique animated reaction emojis to give visual feedback to speakers and interact with other members of the audience. Of course, the ability to make money will also attract and retain the best room hosts for the Clubhouse ecosystem. On Sunday, Clubhouse’s cofounders said they will start testing ways for the platform’s creators to get paid through “tipping, tickets or subscriptions” in the coming months.
Clubhouse has its challenges. Like other social media networks, it has faced criticism for objectionable content that was broadcast on its site. Last September, Clubhouse was hit with a flurry of negative publicity when some speakers perpetuated anti-Semitic stereotypes. The start-up needs to invest more aggressively in trust and safety features and hire content moderators to mitigate harassment. There is also competition on the horizon with Twitter testing its own audio chat room feature inside its app called Spaces.
But it may be too little too late for other players. While Twitter’s new service does offer some differentiated features — including real-time transcriptions that appear on screen and the ability to share tweets to the room for discussion purposes — it is thus far largely siloed around a specific account’s followers. It lacks Clubhouse’s distinctive serendipity that lets people from diverse backgrounds meet and form their own connections through their own wanderings. Clubhouse also is at a stage where it is adding new innovations on a nearly weekly basis — including different room types, activity-based notification feeds and event calendars. It will be difficult for any other company to catch up.
Of course, the app has benefited from the pandemic as people look for ways to socialise while avoiding in-person interactions and outdoor activities. But Clubhouse usage may prove more durable than many believe after daily life returns to normal. It’s a convenient, frictionless way to meet new people through the intimacy of conversation and listen to conference-like events that otherwise might be difficult to attend in person.
Perhaps most importantly is the stunning level of usage and engagement. On a personal level, since installing Clubhouse I have noticed my time spent on the app is significantly higher than any other social network on my smartphone — more than TikTok, Twitter or Instagram. It is a sign of how appealing audio-based social networking can be. And judging from the activities of my friend list inside the community, I am not alone. I have little doubt once Clubhouse opens up to the general public, its user base can grow into the tens of millions. The social media giants should be concerned. — By Tae Kim, (c) 2021 Bloomberg LP