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Can Clubhouse Move Fast Without Breaking Things?

The 11-month-old audio social network is compelling. It also has some very grown-up problems.

A few nights ago, after my weekly trip to the grocery store, I sat in my car glued to Clubhouse, the invitation-only social audio app.

While my ice cream thawed in the trunk, I dropped in on a room where Tom Green, the former MTV shock comedian and star of “Freddy Got Fingered,” was debating the ethics of artificial intelligence with a group of computer scientists and Deadmau5, the famous Canadian D.J.

When that was over, I headed to a room called NYU Girls Roasting Tech Guys. There, I listened to college students playing a dating game in which contestants were given 30 seconds of stage time to try to seduce someone else in the audience.

And after a few rounds of that, I joined a room called the Cotton Club, in which users changed their avatars to black-and-white portraits and pretended to be patrons of a 1920s-style speakeasy, complete with jazz soundtrack.

Two hours later, my ice cream fully liquefied, I emerged from the car with the feeling that I had just experienced something special. It was all fascinating, surprising and a little surreal, like peeking into the windows of interesting strangers’ houses. And it gave me a flashback to a similar euphoria I felt years ago, when celebrities and creative weirdos started showing up on Facebook and Twitter.

What’s remarkable about Clubhouse is that it seems to be experiencing this entire cycle all at once, during its first year of existence.

“Major privacy & security concerns, lots of data extraction, use of dark patterns, growth without a clear business model. When will we learn?” Elizabeth M. Renieris, the director of the Notre Dame-IBM Tech Ethics Lab, wrote in a tweet this week that compared Clubhouse at this moment to the early days of Facebook.

To be fair, there are some important structural differences between Clubhouse and existing social networks. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which revolve around central, algorithmically curated feeds, Clubhouse is organized more like Reddit — a cluster of topical rooms, moderated by users, with a central “hallway” where users can browse rooms in progress. Clubhouse rooms disappear after they’re over, and recording a room is against the rules (although it still happens), which means that “going viral,” in the traditional sense, isn’t really possible. Users have to be invited to a room’s “stage” to speak, and moderators can easily boot unruly or disruptive speakers, so there’s less risk of a civilized discussion’s being hijacked by trolls. And Clubhouse doesn’t have ads, which reduces the risk of profit-seeking mischief.

But there are still plenty of similarities. Like other social networks, Clubhouse has a number of “discovery” features and aggressive growth-hacking tactics meant to draw new users deeper into the app, including algorithmic recommendations and personalized push alerts, and a list of suggested users to follow. Those features, combined with Clubhouse’s ability to form private and semiprivate rooms with thousands of people in them, creates some of the same bad incentives and opportunities for abuse that have hurt other platforms.

Clubhouse has also become a home for people who are disillusioned with social media censorship and critical of various gatekeepers. Attacking The New York Times, in particular, has become something of an obsession among Clubhouse addicts for reasons that would take another full column to explain. (A room called, in part, How to Destroy the NYT ran for many hours, drawing thousands of listeners.)

But before I get tagged as a Clubhouse hater, let me sound a note of optimism. I actually like Clubhouse, and think its core technological innovation — an easy way to create live, participatory audio experiences — is a genuinely useful one. Most rooms I’ve been in are civil and well moderated, and if you scroll past the megapopular rooms filled with celebrities and clout-chasers, you can find some truly fascinating stuff.

In the past few weeks, I’ve listened to a Clubhouse room of Black doctors and nurses discussing their experiences of racism in medicine, and a room where a prominent psychologist led a workshop on mourning and grief. I’ve lurked in Korean karaoke contests, heard energy experts debating nuclear power and hosted civilized conversations about the media. The other night, after sampling a few dozen Clubhouse rooms, I fell asleep to the sounds of the lullaby club, a nightly Clubhouse gathering of musicians who sing songs to help one another fall asleep.

Granted, a pandemic that traps people inside their homes and starves them of social connection is an ideal environment for introducing a new social app, and Clubhouse may lose some users once they’re vaccinated and back to I.R.L. socializing.

In addition, Clubhouse, which is invitation-only and currently limited to iOS users, still has the benefit of being small enough to manage. As the app opens its gates wider, it will need to scale its moderation efforts, or risk turning into the Parler of audio — a place so lawless that only hyperpartisans and professional grifters want to spend time there.

There is also the looming threat of competition from the giants, which could cut into Clubhouse’s growth. Twitter’s group audio chat feature, Spaces, launched this month, and Facebook is reportedly working on its own Clubhouse-like product.

But I hope Clubhouse survives, if only because it could create a more thoughtful, less outrage-driven alternative to the social networks we’ve been typing into for the last decade and a half.

If the platform can fix its issues, and learn from the mistakes made by bigger companies before it, I might be in for a lot more late nights in my car.

Category: Technology

Source: New York Times

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