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The meteoric rise of Clubhouse — and why Big Tech is taking notice

Clubhouse is having a moment. Twitter and Facebook want in.
Image: Illustration shows a man speaking into a phone with audio waves behind him.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

When Clubhouse launched last spring, it felt like a clubhouse.

There was one room. The co-founders of the social audio app hung out there, and if you were among the few hundred friends and friends of friends they'd invited to beta-test the app, you could drop in and join them. The premise was simple: Why tweet at one another when we can talk?

Less than a year later, with 10 million users and counting, Clubhouse feels like a virtual South by Southwest, comic-con, corporate retreat and citywide block party all rolled into one. On a rare night you might get Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the rapper Drake or media mogul Oprah Winfrey in a conversation, but most of what's on offer are rambling, informal conversations among people — influencers, investors, marketers, journalists, sorority members, bitcoin enthusiasts, basketball fans and many more — that command an audience of anywhere between zero and 6,000 people, anyone of whom can be invited by the hosts to join in.

The meteoric rise of Clubhouse, which a person familiar with the matter who was not authorized to speak publicly said is now valued at more than $1 billion, has drawn the attention of Silicon Valley's social media giants, software developers and investors, many of whom believe that live audio represents the next phase of social media — or, at the very least, a long-overdue addition to the current text-, photo- and video-based experiences.

Twitter has already started rolling out Spaces, which replicates the Clubhouse experience. Facebook is working to add live audio features to its existing products and testing a stand-alone audio app, according to three sources at the company who were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly. Spotify is experimenting with live podcasting tools, a source there confirmed, and the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is launching a live podcast app called Fireside, where speakers can sell tickets for their events.

"When we think about conversation and communication, voice is a natural extension of that conversation," Nikkia Reveillac, Twitter's head of research, said about Spaces. "The idea is to bridge the gap between what's text-based and something more human ... to bring nuance and empathy."

Just how popular social audio will become is still open to debate. Tech analyst Ben Thompson believes Clubhouse will revolutionize audio and surpass podcasting in terms of importance and popularity. Daniel Ek, the co-founder of Spotify, said this week he believes on-demand programming (read: podcasts) will maintain their supremacy over this new, live offering.

Whatever the case, it's clear that live audio has an important and enduring place in social media's future, in large part because it has features other services don't: the ability to talk publicly or "podcast" in real time at zero cost; the ability to distribute that conversation to a network of followers (and their followers) at zero cost; the ability for audience members to become speakers with a simple raise of the hand (and permission from the host).

"Clubhouse is about a real-time exchange of ideas, not just consuming highly-edited, static content," Andrew Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, wrote in a recent blog post explaining the venture capital firm's investment in Clubhouse. "It’s a fresh experience that brings humanity and context to online social engagement."

The experience feels especially "fresh" after a year in which most people have been stuck inside, longing for connection — and yes, Clubhouse's rise may not have happened quite so fast in normal times. But a pandemic aside, the shift to live audio feels like an obvious evolution. Technology is geared toward reducing friction; it's easier to talk than to type.

The popularity of live, user-generated content has also been apparent for some time. Twitch, the Amazon-owned service where people broadcast themselves playing video games, averages 26.5 million visitors a day. The gaming component aside, Twitch helped lay the foundation for all manner of live programming. Virtual live events is also a burgeoning space, with startups like Hopin looking to capitalize on increased demand for virtual events and conferences.

In the social media space,the question now is who owns live audio's future. Clubhouse has captured the zeitgeist and has a major head start over its would-be competitors. The buy-in from Silicon Valley notables and Hollywood celebrities has helped considerably. But if rivals such as Twitter and Facebook are truly committed to making live audio a central feature on their platforms, it could be a challenge for Clubhouse to compete at scale.

Clubhouse has done a lot to give itself a moat. Six years ago, Twitter was able to kill off the live streaming app Meerkat within weeks of its launch simply by cutting off Meerkat's access to its social graph — the digital connections that users build up on social media platforms. Clubhouse created its own social graph and doesn't rely on users importing their networks from Twitter or Facebook. (It does ask users for access to their phone contacts, which has raised privacy concerns). Clubhouse is also a dedicated live-audio platform; whereas Spaces still feels ancillary to Twitter's main event: text.

Meanwhile, Twitter and Facebook have yet to demonstrate that they're serious about making a run on Clubhouse. Twitter, which has largely provided the same core service for its entire existence, has a history of introducing new products that fizzle within a matter of months.

"Twitter has a bad track record for launching new products in general ... so they need to win confidence," independent tech and media analyst Benedict Evans said. This week, Twitter unveiled a slew of new products, including a newsletter service and a tool that will allow users to charge money for access to exclusive content.

Facebook has had mixed success copying its rivals' services: Instagram Stories, a clone of Snapchat Stories, has been wildly successful; Instagram Reels, a TikTok clone, has done little to dent TikTok's business.

But scale is powerful: Clubhouse will have to multiply its user base 20 times over to match the number of daily active Twitter users who will soon have access to Spaces; 180 times over to match the daily active Facebook users who could soon have access to whatever Facebook is cooking up.

In the meantime, Clubhouse has other pressing issues to address: How to improve the algorithm so users are being directed toward conversations they actually want to hear, or take part in; how to police hate speech and harmful content in real time; how to ensure that user data isn't being funneled to China (a Stanford University watchdog recently revealed that a Shanghai-based company supplies Clubhouse with some of its "back-end infrastructure").

And finally, getting to scale while ensuring that Clubhouse still feels at least somewhat like a clubhouse — as in, a place you actually want to be. Many social media networks get bogged down by bad actors, carnival barkers and provocateurs. What has been special about Clubhouse to date is a sense of relative intimacy and respect among participants. And while audio certainly allows for nuance and empathy, as Twitter's Reveillac put it, it is by no means guaranteed.