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What Is Clubhouse, and Should You Be on It?

Voice — hearing others and using yours to speak — is the newest social media

Clubhouse app on a smartphone

SOPA Images/Getty Images

En español | Many people are perfectly cool typing words or posting pictures to express themselves on social media, at least to some degree.

But a number of folks, including many 50 and older, are making themselves heard on an audio site called Clubhouse, talking in real time with an engaged audience open to conversing on a wide range of subjects. Voice is becoming the next social network of choice for a lot of these people, and live audio platforms — Clubhouse is the best known — are generating enormous buzz.

Twitter recently launched a Clubhouse clone called Twitter Spaces. Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns), LinkedIn and Spotify are actively exploring their own audio-based social experiences, presumably to capitalize on Clubhouse's early success. LinkedIn confirmed that it is doing some early tests to create an audio experience connected to your professional identity.

Live audio is just that — live. The serendipitous and conversational nature of the platform is part of the allure for some, but it's also what may give others pause. And it's what distinguishes Clubhouse and its emerging rivals from, say, the popular medium of podcasts or even talk radio.

You can share your passions

Members inside Clubhouse create rooms and clubs, generally around certain topics of interest. People can come and go as they please. After dropping into a room, they can hit a button to leave quietly.

Those who stick around can listen or tap to raise their hand to contribute to the conversation, provided the host or moderator, who controls the room, welcomes them to the virtual stage and lets them speak.

"There's this emotional quality to live audio you can't get on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram or whatever.”

— B.J. Fogg, Stanford University

You can list your passions to help identify conversations and clubs that might appeal to you, from love of basketball or business to genealogy and world affairs. A Balance club room, populated by both Israelis and Palestinians, has people speaking from the heart to each other about the ongoing Middle East conflict.

People may have started listening to avoid boredom, feel less lonely or meet new people. Not lost in all of this is that Clubhouse launched during a pandemic.

Some clubs target an older demographic with such names as Aging Shamelessly, Innovations in Aging, Senior Care Champions and Senior Citizen Tribe. Stanford researcher and Tiny Habits author B.J. Fogg, 57, who teaches a course in Clubhouse to help people create good habits so they're happy and healthier, says he's observed more people on the platform older than 50 than younger than 21.

"There's this emotional quality to live audio you can't get on Twitter, TikTok, Instagram or whatever,” Fogg says.


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How Clubhouse works

After completing the onboarding process and opening the app — for now Clubhouse is mobile only — you enter the home screen feed or “hallway,” where you can find people and clubs to “follow” or available to chat. You can tap a calendar icon to see upcoming events.

Inside a room, you see circled pictures (or initials) representing everyone else in there with you. You can tap a circle to follow a person or view their profile. For now, you cannot send someone a private message.

Newbies are encouraged to visit one of the many Clubhouse rooms aimed at beginners. At 9 p.m. ET Wednesdays there's a new user orientation. Newcomers have a party hat badge on their profile page to encourage existing members to welcome them.

Celebrities and thought leaders are participating in Clubhouse, so you might get to listen to and sometimes ask questions of someone like Oprah Winfrey, 67, or Dr. Anthony Fauci, 80. But for many people, the experience is more about talking to each other.

No need to snag an invitation

When it first launched as a beta test, Clubhouse had a waiting list and was by invitation only. It was also just for iPhone and iPad users. But it was subsequently opened up to the Android community, and the invitation requirement and beta designation were lifted on July 21. Some say the semi-exclusive nature of the app increased its allure. Its creators blogged that adding people in waves helped keep things from breaking as Clubhouse scaled. 

For its part, Twitter is allowing users with 600 or more followers to host a Space, the Twitter equivalent of a Clubhouse room. Inside the Android or iOS Twitter app, when someone you follow on Twitter starts speaking live in a Space, it will appear in your Twitter timeline as a purple bubble. You can respond with emojis or a tweet, send a direct message and ask permission to speak.

Is Clubhouse safe?

The open nature of these platforms may make some people skittish, given the polarizing atmosphere on social networks. You may rightfully ask, “Doesn't Clubhouse (and its ilk) become the next outlet for scammers or people looking to use their voice to spread lies, fringe political views or hate?"

Alpha Exploration, the company doing business as Clubhouse, didn't directly respond to AARP requests for comment on the issue, but it did share its rules and community guidelines. For starters, you must use a real name or identity on the service, and you can't enter a room incognito. Some speculate that an incognito mode might be added, presumably without giving speaking privileges to someone in that mode.

"Anyplace there is critical mass and you have somebody's eyeballs or ears … there always will be people who try to game the system or leverage it for some nefarious purpose."

— Irene Koehler, San Francisco State University

Members cannot abuse, bully, discriminate, harass or threaten violence. Nor can a member incentivize others to share private information. It's considered rude to speak over people.

Individuals can block abusers by navigating to the person's profile page, tapping on the three vertical dots, and selecting Block. Blocked users won't be able to see or join any room you create or in which you are a moderator or speaker. Clubhouse also will add an exclamation point (!) next to a person who has been blocked by several other people in your circle.

Clubhouse promises not to share your identity as the person reporting an abuser.

"Anyplace there is critical mass and you have somebody's eyeballs or ears … there always will be people who try to game the system or leverage it for some nefarious purpose,” says Irene Koehler, a personal branding expert and adjunct professor at San Francisco State University who founded a club on Clubhouse called Women in Business 40+. She says the club has attracted many participants who are older than that.

"Clubhouse is not the only platform to have been faced with a challenge of finding, identifying and acting upon hate speech, misinformation — all of that,” she says.

It's live and not transcribed

Audio from Clubhouse sessions are not posted anywhere. Unlike podcasts, these sessions are not available on demand, and that may make people feel safer. They can say almost anything.

"When we're on Clubhouse, we're all in the same place at the very same moment, doing the very same things,” says Koehler of the synchronous nature of the platform. “What people hear from me for better and for worse — and I'm sure both — is what's on my mind right in this moment.

"I find it to be a very authentic way to get right to the heart of what somebody is thinking and what they've got to share,” she says.

Swell is a recorded alternative

Not everyone is comfortable being in the moment. A San Francisco startup called Swell recently launched a voice alternative that's not live.

Inside Swell's Android or iOS app, you can record and post up to five minutes of audio on various topics: “Have you met a famous athlete?” “Favorite $10 bottle of wine?” and so on. Other people can respond with their own voice in their own time.

Such Swellcasts are public, though you can send private direct messages or invite people you know through the app into private groups. You also can add photos and links to the audio you share.

"Here, you take your time, you think about what you want to say and you say it,” says Swell cofounder and CEO Sudha Varadarajan. “(If) you don't like it, you edit it; say it again."

This story, originally published June 14, 2021, was updated to reflect joining Clubhouse is no longer by invitation only. 

Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA TodayBusinessWeekU.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is author of Macs for Dummies and co-author of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.

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