Clubhouse has made quite the impression in recent months, being as close to a VIP room as many of us can get with COVID lockdowns and quarantine still in effect. But, is the app actually safe? We take a look in this article.
The app touts itself as a voice-based network, where you can dip in and out of user-hosted conversations about all-sorts of topics. It's not like Twitter or Facebook, there's no room for comments or snappy statuses – Clubhouse is all about talking.
Choose Your Own Adventure...an eleven-part thread 💫 https://t.co/AFRaAEWNMy— Clubhouse (@joinClubhouse) December 23, 2020
Unfortunately, you won't be able to check Clubhouse out for yourself unless you have an invitation – oh, and an iPhone.
Creators Paul Davison and Rohan Seth are working hard to make the app accessible to everyone. Until then, you can add your name to the waiting list and reserve your username. You'll have your own set of invitations to hand out once you're in – because just like Clubhouse's "room", its community is largely user curated.
Currently, over 1.3 million people have downloaded the voice-only app, and it's worth around $100 million despite still being in beta.
The app's recent success is largely rooted in what makes us human – loneliness, and a desire to connect with other people spontaneously. COVID-19 is the culprit, of course, and by now we're all well aware that FaceTime, Zoom calls and endless instant messages don't quite have the same feeling as face-to-face conversations. There's no easy spark, it's less dynamic – and that's what Clubhouse sought to remedy.
"With no camera on, you don't have to worry about eye contact, what you're wearing, or where you are." Clubhouse states on its homepage. "You can talk on Clubhouse while you're folding laundry, breastfeeding, commuting, working on your couch in the basement, or going for a run."
Well, that sounds just like a phone call, you might think – and it kind of does. It's the rooms that make Clubhouse attractive, however.
And the celebrities.
Stars are flocking to the app in droves. In fact, Clubhouse users can rub virtual shoulders with the likes of Drake, Oprah, Ashton Kutcher, 21 Savage and plenty more.
When worlds collide, exciting things happen, and happen they have on Clubhouse. Users get to choose whether they actively participate in rooms or join as an audience member, to listen and enjoy the banter. Regular folks have been able to pose questions to their idols, celebrate together, and even compete in impromptu talent shows for prizes (like a pair of Hamilton tickets and backstage passes), and broadway auditions (for Dreamgirls' US tour, no less!).
But despite its work-in-progress status, Clubhouse has already run into controversies and concerns that paint the app in a rather different light than the one it would cast itself in.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it should be noted that Clubhouse prohibits recording of any kind. Your conversations – with regular folks or A-listers – are meant to stay private, and it's this stipulation that has drawn celebrities to the app. After all, it means they're able to speak their mind in a way they can't on other social media sites, and all without worrying that a tweet or post will be headline news on TMZ in the next hour.
And celebrities have a lot to worry about on the privacy front as it is. In 2020, several famous Twitter accounts were compromised – including those of Donald Trump, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Cameo also saw its own security scare in February 2020, when it was reported that the short videos recorded by celebrities, that were intended to be private and shared only with the paying customer, were actually accessible to anyone. Fortunately, the issue was quickly patched.
Celebrities, however, are often the topic of discussion on Clubhouse. And this isn't such a strange thing – the rich and famous are no doubt used to seeing their names crop up on Twitter from time to time, but with Clubhouse, a celebrity could feasibly contribute to the conversation, verbally. This happened in November 2020, where Kevin Hart joined a room titled "Is Kevin Hart Funny??". The discussion quickly broke down. Hart faced scrutiny about his distasteful jokes, comments and bits, and in particular those about his then 15-year-old daughter. The discussion was primarily led by Wanna Thompson, a journalist, but she was frequently interrupted and spoken over – which sort of goes against the principles of Clubhouse entirely.
The pattern has repeated since, with rooms cropping up to discuss celebrities. Again, this isn't such a strange thing – gossip content has existed for as long as there have been stars to gossip about – but the potential for said celebrity to see, and join, the conversation has led to a shift in tone. Now, users actively bait celebs into joining discourse about themselves.
Is this what the app was designed for? Probably not. Clubhouse refers to itself as a "special place" – and that's all well and good, but can that be true when people like Russell Simmons and Tory Lanez have profiles? Simmons is particularly egregious, having a slew of sexual assault allegations. Clubhouse can't be expected to vet every user, but more than a few other users will surely feel as though the app's position as a "safe space" is diminished by his presence.
Something Clubhouse could – and should – redress is its moderation.
Taylor Lorenz, a writer for the New York Times, has carefully documented instances of racism and disinformation in the app, and been hounded relentlessly for doing so. As such, Taylor was herself the topic of discussion in a number of Clubhouse rooms.
Casual racism is all over on Clubhouse. And this is just the stuff taking place in the largest and most high-profile rooms. pic.twitter.com/12IUYbhiYs— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) October 15, 2020
Previously, you could not block users on Clubhouse. That's worrying, and more than a little jarring when you consider that you could invite users in a few clicks. Clubhouse did release a statement condemning hate speech, abuse, and harassment, outlined guidelines via a statement, and implemented new tools – including a block feature. In addition, moderators can mute people, remove them from rooms, and report abuse.
Blocking and reporting are important tools for combating the spread of misinformation, too. And there's a lot of that on Clubhouse, just as with any social media site, but Clubhouse being frequented by high-flying famous folks can play a part in its spread. Sharing a room with a celebrity is awe-inspiring, and they can sucker even a person resolute in their beliefs in by the false claims of an idol.
In these instances, a manual block button isn't enough.
Enter Tiffany Haddish, actress and comedian, who drummed up controversy after joining a Clubhouse room where the topic was COVID-19. Misinformation about COVID-19 is everywhere, and Tiffany expressed her (false) views that the virus was actually man-made – developed by the government, in fact – as a means to develop facial recognition technologies. It's a… bold claim. When a medical professional added her voice to the conversation in an attempt to curtail this tall tale, she was duly ridiculed, and harassed by members of that room, to such a degree that she attempted to take her own life.
I'm calling on @joinClubhouse to permanently remove the moderators of the #CHBullying room, including Tiffany Haddish and Chaka Bars for leading an attack on a Black Female doctor who gave her time to prevent the spread of misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine.— YT: Develop with Amina 👩🏽💻🌱 (@yeahshewrites) January 14, 2023
Is this Clubhouse's place in the stars? To offer a home for folks who feel emboldened in their hate speech and/or misinformation? This sort of verbiage would be picked up and condemned quickly on Twitter, but Clubhouse is voice-based, unrecorded, safe. But for who? Celebrities who shy from controversial tweets might take confidently to the app to sound off with like-minded folks because, well, moderation is done by users, not a professional team on the lookout for anything that violates the terms and conditions.
If what happens to Cameo happens to Clubhouse, and controversial clips leak, it could be a disaster. Certain folks may even attempt to bait these sorts of conversations, hoping to spawn a TMZ-style story – or gain the audio clips through more malicious means. After all, Clubhouse holds on to recordings of its rooms. This is purely for investigative reasons, of course, but what if a hacker sets their sights on a target?
Solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations, we temporarily record the audio in a room while the room is live. 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. If no incident is reported in a room, we delete the temporary audio recording when the room ends.
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom. Good things are happening on Clubhouse, too. Auditions, talent shows, live podcasts and more, and if users are given more tools to customize their experience on the app and curtate their own safe space, it could really deliver on those lofty principles.