Co-founder and CEO Paul Davison describes Clubhouse as a new type of social network but one that is based on the oldest medium — voice. “We have to learn how to compose clever posts and edit photos and videos but there’s something powerful about voice. You could just be (more) authentic,” Davison tells Financial Express Online. The mega-exclusive audio social media platform that’s all the rage since its debut on iOS last year allows people from around the world to come together to talk and listen and learn from each other in real time. It’s this incredibly human experience and that is its “North star.”
“We’re trying to create a different type of network that’s not about likes and follows and having your social media manager post for you. You don’t have to pose or try to sound clever. It’s about authentically connecting with other humans.”
The most important thing about Clubhouse is the people, Davison says, something that was key to launching it on Android a couple of weeks ago. By extension, this means, the platform is now “technically” available for all users in most markets globally though it is still strictly invite-only.
Within a week, one million people had downloaded the Android app, and in the week that followed, it chalked up another million. Davison won’t share exact numbers, but “a large number of people are coming from India.” The response has been “overwhelming” so much so that Clubhouse engineers have been working round-the-clock to ensure the platform remains glitch-free — it has not. Clubhouse is trying to increase capacity, Davison says. Most of its servers are in the US right now.
The bigger challenge is moderation. The live and ephemeral nature of the platform makes keeping tabs on malicious elements spreading misinformation difficult. “If you’re building a social network, you have to always make moderation a top priority and if you’re building something for the world, you have to recognise that there are bad actors and you have to have a system that is durable and resistant to those sorts of things,” Davison says.
Clubhouse has a three-pronged approach to dealing with moderation. The top priority is making sure its team is staffed with the right people, those who have deep expertise in social platforms, and having enough people like that, those who speak many different languages, to scale with the platform. These are the people who have an appreciation for how live group audio is different and the willingness to do better than past networks have been able to do.
“We’re going to learn as we go along, and people are going to discover new ways of using the service. So, we want to make sure that we have a robust mechanism in place,” he says adding, “We also need to have a robust set of internal policies and playbooks that our team can use to know how to investigate incidents and take action on them based on the nature and severity of the abuse that we find.”
On the product side, Clubhouse allows users to report incidents and it has internal tools to handle those reports “efficiently and consistently.”
“The first line of defence is to have a network structure that helps prevent abuse before it can happen. If you are the person who started the room, you should always be in control. No one should be allowed to come into the room, no one should be able to come up on stage and speak at you without your explicit permission.” Clubhouse has a “zero tolerance policy” against trolls.
“We are helped by a community of millions who flag incidents and help us keep Clubhouse a place for safe and productive discussions.”
By default, Clubhouse tries to collect as little data as possible. It requires a phone number for sign-ups — this also helps ensure that the platform remains “a real identity service.” Following complaints about its aggressive push to access contact lists, Clubhouse now lets people manually invite their friends without having to open their address book.
“We have a temporary encrypted buffer of the audio that lasts for the duration of the room, and if someone reports a trust and safety incident, that audio is used solely for the purpose of the investigation, then it is removed.”
However, in the vast majority of cases, there are no incidents reported within a room and in those cases, the audio is not saved after the room ends.
Contrary to popular belief
Clubhouse was never really meant to be an invite-only or an exclusive service, according to Davison. The reason why it was launched on iOS first is because both him and fellow co-founder Rohan Seth “had only built iOS stuff until then.” In a blog post published on 24 January 2021, the duo very candidly talks about Clubhouse being their last attempt at making a social app. You can tell, focus was paramount. Had Clubhouse not struck the right chord with the audience, who knows, maybe there wouldn’t even be an Android app.
“We always wanted to build Clubhouse for everyone in the world and we always knew that if the product was successful, we would want to be on multiple platforms.”
Being a small team — just two-member as of July 2020 — Davison and Seth had to “ruthlessly” prioritise the single most efficient thing to start with. This would allow them to move quickly, get feedback from the community and more importantly, respond much, much faster. It was only early this year, they started growing the team to also include those who would eventually help them build Clubhouse for Android.
“The only reason we’ve grown through an invite model is because we feel that it’s important to grow communities in a measured way. If you grow too quickly, things can break, and we have always tried to make sure that as we add new users to Clubhouse, the experience for everyone who’s on the platform gets better rather than worse.”
This was one of the few cases where people really wanted to experience Clubhouse on Android, and now that it is here, the question is, what’s next. For one — and perhaps one of the most hotly anticipated things about it — Clubhouse is “heading for general release sometime this summer” which basically means people will not need invites to start using the platform anymore. In time, there will be further announcements to watch out for including payments, ticketing services, so on and so forth.
But going beyond those expected features, Clubhouse is looking to build features specific to different markets including India basis of research and feedback as it learns more and penetrates deeper into the country.
“We want to basically have customised set of features (for different markets). We want to figure out what works in that community and be able to embrace that and build that natively into the product.”
With regards to India’s new digital rules for social media platforms, Davison says, “Right now our startup is still small, we’re just over a year old and I don’t think the government has laid out all the details around how these laws will apply to companies at different stages but our goal is to work to ensure that the platform is in line with the country’s laws and regulations, and so that’s absolutely on our radar and something we will be working towards.”