Tech

What Is Clubhouse, and Why Does Silicon Valley Care?

Kurt Schrader, the CEO and cofounder of Clubhouse, knew that Clubhouse had become Silicon Valley’s idée fixe when, in early May, his Twitter mentions became flooded with people desperate to get on the app.

But Schrader’s Clubhouse, a project management tool, is not the Clubhouse that’s suddenly in demand. That would be Clubhouse, a new social network more exclusive than Berghain. That Clubhouse is still in beta, and invite-only. Schrader, who has been tagged in numerous posts requesting said invites, eventually clarified on Twitter that he could not grant it. “At this point I might as well just spend my Saturday building a Twitter bot that automatically corrects all of the people that say Clubhouse but mean Clubhouse and also the other people that say Clubhouse but actually mean Clubhouse…”

Fads come and go. Exclusive apps for everything from email (Superhuman) to dating (Raya) get christened by investors, and then are mostly forgotten. Clubhouse—a sort of voice-based chatroom—is the furor du jour. In a matter of weeks, it has become the talk of Silicon Valley. Jack Dorsey and Hannibal Buress have been said to hang out there. The other day, E-40 hopped on Clubhouse to share thoughts about the future of rap, and MC Hammer joined a conversation about how the new coronavirus has affected prison populations. Marc Andreessen, who spends a great deal of time on the app, is known to talk shop with anyone in the room. His firm, Andreessen Horowitz, won a bidding war this week to invest $10 million in the app, plus $2 million in secondary shares. That’s a big bet that Clubhouse’s formula can last longer than the boredom of the pandemic, and its current buzz.

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For the few thousand who have scored early invites, spending hours on Clubhouse has become a source of bragging rights—due to the app’s appeal, surely, but maybe also because everyone has been homebound in a months-long pandemic. Some have attributed their time spent in the app to being lonely, isolated, or simply “single.” Entering one of Clubhouse’s “rooms” feels like dropping into a house party, if you close your eyes. Or at least, Clubhouse fans say, it’s a much closer approximation to real-world socializing than Twitter, or TikTok.

Austen Allred, the cofounder of the coding bootcamp Lambda School, says an audio-based network has a very different feel than text-based ones, like Twitter. On Clubhouse, he says, “you hear people’s voices and talk to them in real-time. It’s very humanizing.”

Allred was among the first few hundred users to join, in early April, and got hooked right away. “I think Twitter is the closest analogy because you find, get to know, and follow people that you don’t know,” he says. “But the audio format is fascinating because you can have it on in the background, it’s not a permanent record, it’s multi-way. People have actual conversations, which is something that doesn’t happen much right now.” Soon after he joined, he sent a message to Paul Davidson, the cofounder, asking if he could invest. (Allred is not yet an investor. Davidson and Andreesen Horowitz declined to be interviewed for this article.)

By the end of April, Nikolas Huebecker was spending upwards of 36 hours a week on Clubhouse. Huebecker, who at 17 may be one of the platform’s youngest members, says Clubhouse feels different than the other social apps on his phone, like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat. “You might be in this giant room and people are listening,” says Huebecker, but then “you can go off and have a conversation in a corner—start your own room—and talk to someone one-on-one.” Each room determines its own speaking privileges, which range from intimate conversations among friends to conference-like gatherings with a few “speakers” and a large “audience” listening in.


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