After a six-month sabbatical, our tech and innovation expert is back. Moving forward, she will write about the intersection of culture, society and tech twice a month in response to the transformative effects that digital solutions have had on our day-to-day lives during the pandemic. Technology now intersects with practically every part of our lives, from health to food, entertainment to commerce.
In her first article of the new year, Jewell treats our readers to an “in the club” view of hyped drop-in audio chat app, Clubhouse, which is currently changing the way Berliners (and others) engage with friends and colleagues across the globe in an era of contact restriction, pandemic fatigue and disrupted work-life balance. Better still, Jewell is offering up a plus one for one lucky Exberliner reader.
FOMO: You’re in the club – now what?
With news that Germany’s national lockdown has been extended until at least March 28 and that sectors of the economy can reopen only if the incidence is 35 and below, it may be a while before anything close to normality returns. That said, with beauty salons now open, we can at least pamper ourselves, don our glad rags and audio-drop into the Cotton Club founded by BomaniX and friends on the Clubhouse app. It’s pretty much the only way of “dressing to impress” right now. A cursory scroll through Instagram and other channels over the last few months reveals a yearning for personal connection. Which may explain why Clubhouse and the FOMO (fear of missing out) it induces have gained such traction in these meagre times.
Back in April 2020, Clubhouse had 1,500 users, received $12 million in funding and was valued at $100 million (€83M). Early invite-only users included MC Hammer, Ashton Kutcher, Oprah Winfrey, Ashton Kutcher, Paris Hilton, Virgil Abloh and many more high-profile names. Fast forward to January 2021 and the San Francisco-based audio social networking app founded by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth of Alpha Exploration Co. has reached a post-money valuation of $1 billion, raised $100 million led by existing investor Andreessen Horowitz, and has over 180 investors according to Axios. At the end of January the company reported that the exclusive app, currently only available to iOS users, had built a community of two million users. As of March, the app has more than 10 million users according to a recent town hall meeting.
Why Berlin culturists should care
Clubhouse founders announced in February that they plan to launch a program to help creators “monetise their creativity”, and Clubhouse club hosts to generate revenue. Many of the app’s talks and rooms are dedicated to digital currencies, non-fungible tokens, music, art, film and theatre. But how can museum curators, musicians and artists utilise this to their benefit? Last year I wrote an article about Esimprocine founders Paula, Pedro and Gonzalo and their improvisational approach to filmmaking. I mentioned the power of technology and how it enables us to rethink how we tell stories, and diversify the voices telling the stories – and the ways in which stories can be told. Clubhouse affords creatives, politicians, journalists, citizens, celebrities and others an opportunity to share their point of view in a casual, direct way.
What’s with all the hype?
The invite-only social network has everyone’s panties in a twist simply because you have to know someone willing to give up one of their coveted invites to “let you in”. According to Hamburg’s Online Marketing Rockstars, some canny users have listed invites on eBay for upwards of €250. Considering I just got topped up five more invites, I could, in theory, make €1250 or more (which would help bankroll my lockdown-induced online shopping habits). FOMO levels were off the charts in January throughout Europe. Since then, the app has launched in Japan and China as well as other parts of the world – hence the 10 million-plus users. The use of the terms ‘beta’ and ‘invite-only’ have only fuelled the fire in my personal and professional experience. Quite simply, the buzz is akin to that of waiting in line to access the hottest new bar or club in town. The question is: what happens once you’re in?
Clubbin’ – what’s Clubhouse got to do with it?
Clubhouse is one of those rare clubs that will grant you access regardless of your hip credentials. You simply have to know someone who’s already inside – oh, and you need to own an iPhone. Once you’re in the club you can bounce from room to room or club to club, if you’re a member. Confusing, right?
Once you sign up, it helps to follow prominent figures in order to feel that you’re not really missing out. You’re free to follow as many clubs as you want – but following is not the same as being a member. Once you’re a member of a club, you can see how many of the other club members are online, host your own event inside the club and recruit active club goers to listen to what you are chatting about.
As a member of 105 specialised clubs ranging from Clubhaüs (a club for Germany with 9.5k members) to CEOs (Creative Executive Officers), 9AM in London (a breakfast club with 30.1k members), BUNDESLIGA (German football club), Hustle House, Deutsche Club (20.5k members), the Startup Club, Food Tech Live, Art Club, Women in Art and Entertainment and more, I can tell you it was not easy to become a member. I had to wait until someone within the club recognised I was following and pulled me in – not unlike in a real club environment.
Happily, I currently have access to 105 VIP sections, allowing me to luxuriate in the exclusivity on which the app is founded. I am notified whenever something is scheduled, and I can hear content from my networks across the globe 24 hours a day, if I had the time. In summary, if you really want to club, you need a good network. Which brings me to the next point.
Other people’s data
When you sign up for Clubhouse, you might want to use your other iPhone or clean up your address book. When you sign up, there goes all of your contacts. Everyone in your phone book is exchanged. This is why you receive a “Jane Doe just signed up for Clubhouse, want to walk them in?” notification every time a contact joins. This is probably the most talked-about issue across German Clubhouse rooms.
After living in Germany for seven years now, I know that Europeans and Germans take their personal privacy and data seriously. Just an FYI, almost as soon as Clubhouse launched in China, it was banned. There are, however, still rooms being hosted by Chinese users with their own VPN on the topics of language, venture capital and more.
Privacy concerns are on the rise, too, due to recent reports that an unidentified user had been streaming Clubhouse audio feeds into their third-party website. More recently it was also revealed that Agora, which is based in both Shanghai and Santa Clara, California is the DNA which fuels Clubhouse. Agora provides Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for real-time audio and video engagement. The technology adopted by Clubhouse is not unique, and is utilised by companies such as Xiaomi, among others. The difference is that Clubhouse launched during the height of the pandemic, when people were yearning to stay connected with friends and colleagues. The FOMO element merely added more fuel to the flames.
Clubhouse has been a great way for people to chat on the fly – without the need to be camera-ready for Zoom meetings. Signing on in the morning before your run or morning coffee is just superb. I consider the app to be the radio of the future. One can listen to updates from prominent German media channels such as t3n, Zeit Online and others.
The app has launched new careers and made some people social media influencers almost over night. New jobs are being created at media companies, corporations, law firms and other institutions to harness the technology to capture new clients and win over a seemingly remote lockdown audience. How do you reach fans, old customers, customers you never had? These are the questions being asked by leaders across the globe. The best thing about the app is that you can make new friends; friends you might otherwise meet in transit, traveling from place to place, or someone you bump into at your favourite restaurant. Now we can spot a face online and pull them into another room when we see them in the audience. Très cool.
During the early days of the app, once it finally made it across the pond to Germany, there were a few fiascos. Several of us Berliners (and the rest of the world) read about Bodo Ramelow, the leftwing leader of the German state of Thuringia, and the conversation he had that ended up in newspapers and online. The following morning, a meeting was held on Clubhouse by the German Press Association discussing the best way to handle content obtained from listening in on conversations which may be sensitive in nature. Absolutely brilliant!
What is our duty as journalists? I have thought about this a lot. I don’t have an answer because content is queen. The app was designed to allow people to start and engage in informal conversations. Conversations that are not recorded. If you want to record a conversation, you must make sure you inform your audience. Therefore you should talk freely – but not too freely.
It’s great to follow the right people, but the more people you follow, the more notifications you receive. My phone pings every at least every two minutes throughout the day. This very fact reminds me of my interconnectivity across the globe, but it also signals that people are using this app constantly. We’ve learned that social media has both positive and negative effects. That said, with the ability to hop in and out of rooms no matter your affiliation, one quickly recognises that many people are struggling with lockdown, some are suffering from isolation, while others create rooms full of hate. I think it may be time to hire a Chief Mental Health Officer.
A problem that seems to grow as the community grows is the relative lack of moderation. There are no bouncers or security guards here. It will be interesting to see how the company handles hate speech, inappropriate behaviour and those who overly self promote in the future. I’m curious to see what they do with that $100 million they just received. How will the creators benefit from this ‘audio expression’ app? It’s a fact that most of us have survived the pandemic thanks to creatives (filmmakers, actors, musicians, vocalists, writers) who are dispersed across the globe. The Clubhouse team should also hire country managers and artist relations professionals to manage regional differences and the amplification and preservation of creativity.
The power of social
Elon Musk’s appearance in late January forced some listeners and wannabe influencers to start overflow chat rooms and streaming on Youtube to hear Elon talk about space, crypto and the pandemic. Room capacity was only 5k when the tech mogul and founder of Tesla and SpaceX appeared on the “Good Time” show hosted by Sriram Krishnan (most recently made a partner at Andreessen Horowitz) and Aarthi Ramamurthy. This particular conversation on Clubhouse was sparked by Elon’s Reddit tweet “GameStonk”, which was linked to the then two million strong community of “wallstreetbets” and sent Gamestop stocks soaring 60%. Trading chaos ensued. At the time, Clubhouse chats took place on the role that technology plays in dismantling traditional industries and the lowering of barriers to access.
My favourite recap of Elon’s special appearance can be found via TechCrunch, and was written by Mike Butcher, one of the best tech journalists out there. Towards the end of the interview, Elon voiced up Robinhood Vlad Tenev and asked him point blank: “Why did you limit trading for your users, did you have to or did you do it just because?” Robinhood, a trading platform also invested in by A16Z, got caught up in the chaos, causing the founders to make an executive decision to temporarily limit the amount of Gamestop shares. Three days later it was reported that Robinhood had raised over $2.4 billion to scale and manage its growth.
It’s getting late, I’m heading home now
I’ve had a great experience at Clubhouse. I connected with friends old and new. My eyeballs have recovered a bit, my hands are rested now that I tell people to ping me via Clubhouse rather than writing WhatsApp, Instagram or Twitter messages. There are so many ways for people to reach someone these days. So, ladies, if you forgot to leave your number with the hot guy you met at the bar, trust me, you can get in touch with him – and he can get in touch with you. If you aren’t in touch with him, maybe you just weren’t that into him.
If you are in the Clubhouse, follow me @jewellsparks.
I have room for a lucky Exberliner reader. Reply to this article with your handle or send me an email with your name and why you think you would be a great companion to join me in the club. Until we meet again…