Why Clubhouse is Controversial

It used to be, whenever a new social network emerged, there’d be a media honeymoon—a moment where journalists would sing its praises before the inevitable dogpile of controversies. For the new darling Clubhouse, there has been no grace period.

Clubhouse is an invite-only audio-chat iPhone app (it launched in April 2020). The platform allows users to casually join in on audio conversations—think “conference call” but with the possibility of celebrities such as Oprah, Drake, and Elon Musk (to name a few) joining the conversation. Clubhouse has become one of the most talked-about social media platforms of the last year—but for all the hype Clubhouse has gained, it has also gained a lot of criticism.

Who Gets Access?

As the name suggests—the app is a bit of a “club.” With billionaires, athletes, and rappers flocking to the platform, Clubhouse is now the “it” place for the digerati.

That also means that if you’re not famous, the only way to get an invite is through someone who already has an account (initial users receive 2 invites)—and that makes perfect sense because exclusivity is one of the hooks that’s getting people excited. Right now, Clubhouse invite codes are so desirable, they’re selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

As it stands, Clubhouse is about status. It’s where the elite go to hobnob. However, with the app being so choosy about who joins, this begs the question—will Clubhouse be able to maintain its buzz without letting the masses gain access?

Just a few days ago, Twitter announced it’s version of live audio chats, ‘Spaces’ (previously only available on iOS) would be available for Android users. Clubhouse is only available on iOS. Can Clubhouse afford to stay so exclusive when they already have competition from a platform that has 330 million users?

Lack of Moderation

In this rarefied celebrity-filled space, one would expect stricter controls on who gets in. After all, every hot club has a VIP guest list. Yet despite being a gated community, Clubhouse has become a haven for trolls and harassment.

This is because, while it’s in beta, Clubhouse currently lacks moderation tools. Once misinformation gets spread on the network, there are no tools to counter it. There’s no comment or reaction button where users can express dissent.

With Clubhouse neglecting the development of moderation tools, it might be destined to repeat the mistakes of other social networks. Facebook has billions of users, employs 35,000 moderators, and struggles to keep the platform safe and secure. Clubhouse has an infinitesimal fraction of Facebook’s user base and has already dropped the ball on moderation.

Privacy? What Privacy?

There’s a price to all this exclusivity, and that price is privacy. As a condition, when joining Clubhouse, they demand not only your phone number but access to your iPhone contact list—making it easier for them to figure out your social connections.

What’s more, whether or not you’ve joined Clubhouse, the app is storing information people share about you (via their contact list). Whether or not you consent to your personal information being shared, Clubhouse stores this information indefinitely. Currently, there’s no way to delete this information, and Clubhouse makes it clear that they can share this information with “current and future affiliates” without informing you.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Clubhouse is recording all conversations on its platform. Even though they’re not out of beta, the app is tracking you with cookies and pixels. Clubhouse may be exclusive, but it’s certainly not private.

Even though Clubhouse hasn’t monetized yet, I’m curious about their business model. Are they collecting voice recognition prints of all their users and selling them to the NSA and the phone companies? That might sound paranoid, but when it comes to Internet privacy, nobody can be too paranoid.

After all, Clubhouse wouldn’t be the first app to sell your private information to the US government.

Will the Hype Last? 

With the vaccine rollout in full force in many countries around the world and with the hope that life will start getting back to normal—will people even care about apps like Clubhouse once they can socialize (in-person) with friends and colleagues once again? Clubhouse’s appeal during the pandemic makes sense but post-isolation most of us will be far more interested in having real-life conversations with people we actually know. One thing is clear, Clubhouse has a lot of work to do if it wants to earn a permanent ‘top spot’ in the app world.

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