A Critical View on Clubhouse
“All animals are equal, but some animals who are more equal than others.”
| George Orwell, Animal farm
A Critical View on Clubhouse for Photographers: A Response to Erin Babnik
Is Clubhouse THE place to be for photographers, artists, and in general for all? Is it the future of social media? The relaunch of social? Is it the cure against the lockdown? Let’s have a closer look in this post.
In science, we tend to have discourse with others, share opinions, and progress as a community. This blog post is a direct response to Erin Babnik’s recent article about Clubhouse. Erin is not only a world-class photographer, but she is also one of the prominent figures amongst landscape photographers who advocates a theory-based, high-quality education in photography. Someone who not only talks about technique but rather about the artistic process why we create visual imagery. As such, I highly respect Erin as an artist, teacher, and person.
This week, I had the chance and was invited to join a Clubhouse Room together with the wonderful Erin Babnik, Kai Hornung (organizer), Bernard Geraghty (organizer), Rachael Talibart, Sandra Bartocha, Felix Inden, and Mikkel Beiter as moderators. We met many lovely and great people out there. Based on this experience, I’d like to share some of my perceptions. The article below parallels Erin’s view about Clubhouse from a different and critical perspective. My heart tells me to share Erin’s enthusiasm about Clubhouse, but my mind holds me back. In this article, I’d like to share my perspective as a scientist researching large-scale social networks. With that in mind, I’d like to develop potential future scenarios for Clubhouse.
What Clubhouse Formally Is
Clubhouse is an audio-based social networking app, published by Alpha Exploration Co in 2020. Currently, Clubhouse is only working on iOS. The current version is 0.1.25, and it works as beta version freeware. Access is invitation-based, and you need to have one from someone already in to join. Clubhouse was created by the former Pinterest employee Paul Davison and the former Google employee Rohan Seth. At the time, the company was valued at just under $100 million after a $12 million investment by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. Clubhouse is a service “not directed to individuals under the age of 18” as can be written in the GDPR.
How Clubhouse Feels
As Erin nicely described, Clubhouse uses drop-in audio to create social meeting places. Users can join rooms and chat with others. Following up Erin’s metaphor, “it can be like sitting around a campfire with a group of friends when a few people you admire and have never met just happen to walk by and ask to join in the conversation.” I cannot agree more with Erin that Clubhouse currently naturalizes communication. During the lockdowns, we have all perceived the artificial atmospheres created through online Zoom, Skype, or MS Teams sessions through which we teach, talk, meet, and make decisions. Clubhouse seems to solve an apparent contradiction currently: It widens your reach and audience while preserving the intimate exchange. Clubhouse appears to open up opportunities to meet professional experts, superstars, local experts, or random, like-minded people in many unpredictable ways. Individuals like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Oprah Winfrey, Jared Leto, Ashton Kutcher, and many other celebrities have already signed up and actively participate in discussions about the news.
What You Can Do on Clubhouse
In Clubhouse, you can open a room to start a conversation, you can ping and invite others to join the discussion, you can quietly participate in someone else’s discussion and ask questions thereby entering the stage for a few seconds, you can set the alarm when some of your favorite speakers are back on air, book your events in a calendar and finally you can follow and be followed by others. Currently, there are images embedded in the platform, and profiles only link back to Instagram and Twitter. The more active you are in Clubhouse, the more chances you receive to invite your friends. Through making access scarce, Clubhouse has become popular. The founders applied an ancient marketing principle to their app. Many people argue that this exclusivity causes a “fear of missing out” and people to join the new hype. One of the early participants in Clubhouse was the tech analyst Jeremiah Owyang, and he acknowledged Clubhouse for “that pleasure of not knowing what’s next”.
Clubhouse also seems to be capable of defeating bots who have in the recent past infiltrated most social platforms, influenced the algorithms, and spammed the social systems with fake accounts, and fake news. In Clubhouse, moderators can just mute individuals or trolls to stay focused on the discussion.
It is clear that Clubhouse profits tremendously from the international lockdown situation, but it brings back the need to communicate to like-minded people.
Will these appealing characteristics be responsible that Clubhouse will become the future of social media? Or the future of social? What does speak against this? Glad, you asked.
Why Clubhouse May Potentially Not Be What Everyone Hopes It To Be
Let’s become a bit more critical and have a more in-depth look at Clubhouse. At the time, the company was valued at just under $100 million after a $12 million investment. This means they – as most profit-driven (are they?) companies globally – need to carefully think about a business model, a strategy, and financial return. And it seems they will make the same “mistakes” than any other social platform did before. Not saying those are mistakes, but the platform appears to be created to generate income for its owners, not to create a better world. The whole social media world is potentially the biggest social trap humanity ever created. Through psychological gamification tricks, driven by algorithms that learn from your past behavior and anticipate your next step better than you can it yourself, these platforms make you engaged and active with only one goal in mind: To make income. The trick is that these platforms don’t have any subscription fee nor license cost. However, what’s the price of free products? We all pay through our data. We give away our legacy, our personal preferences, beliefs and share our behaviors with algorithms who learn and use this data to make us targets for the advertising industry. If you need more reasons for deleting your social media accounts, have a look at Jaron Lanier’s theories.
/Data Privacy and Revenue Models
To participate in Clubhouse, you have to share your mobile phone number. Once you did that, you quickly realize that you have to share your whole address book in order to use the app effectively. You can also only invite others when you shared your address book before. Without inviting, you cannot sit with your friends around a campfire and have nice chats. You will also not able to grow fast. So, you are uploading your whole address book to the Clubhouse’s server.
This calls out for some questions. Data privacy is regulated and documented in the so-called General Data Privacy Regulation policies (GDPR). Let’s have a look at the GDPR of Clubhouse, which you can find here. Clubhouse saves, amongst others, the following data:
- All personal data you share, including your preferences when signing up.
- All audio conversations are temporarily recorded for potential investigations. It is not stated when they will be deleted and what exactly temporarily means.
- All network data is stored, i.e., your address book data, people, accounts, and groups you are connected to and interact with.
- The kind of usage you engage in, time, frequency, and duration when you use it, what actions you take,…
- All social media data when you connect through Clubhouse social media pages on Facebook, Medium, Twitter,…
- Information about your internet activity, when you visit, use, interact with the service, including information about which pages you visited, geographical information, and navigation patterns. This includes cookies data, log data, device data, usage data, location data, and even email open/click data.
- Clubhouse collects information through linked other social platforms such as Twitter and Instagram, and infer your preferences.
What do they do with our data? Clubhouse uses this data to analyze your preferences, beliefs, and behaviors using Google Analytics (does this mean Google also has all this information?), track our behaviors, and create profiles. Clubhouse acts as a profiler – like any other advertisement-driven social platform.
Whom do they share our data? Clubhouse argues that they don’t sell personal data. However, in “certain circumstances” they share data categories with “vendors and service providers”, with affiliate platforms, business transfer cases, and some other situations.
Looking at this GDPR clearly hints towards a company that was created for the same reason as most other social media platforms: To generate income.
/Intimacy vs. Publicity
While Clubhouse states that they are erasing audio records soon after they happen (define “soon”), this is not a guarantee that people cannot record or transcribe conversations. Although it is against the official rules, Clubhouse conversations or snippets have already been leaked and published. When they origin from venture-capital individuals who may act strategically, this can cause fake news and a scenario we’ve recently seen with GameStop. With increasing audiences, Clubhouse rooms will become more public, and they will lose their intimacy (as long as they don’t offer “private” rooms in subscription plans).
What’s being said in Clubhouse, will 100% NOT stay in Clubhouse. This you can be sure. In consequence, individuals will become much more sensitive about what they say in Clubhouse rooms. What you say may have social consequences.
/Information vs. Edutainment
Like many other social platforms Clubhouse was thrown into the market (as a beta version) without having a clear structure. The advantage is that with this flexibility it allows individual to bloom and discover new ideas. The disadvantage is that the platform quickly becomes unmanageable. It’ll have its social dynamics, almost like an animal. Then participants may realize that Clubhouse is just another app for entertainment and killing time. One may see too many moderators who build up their profile through their followership and act self-prolific. One can hire these high-profile moderators, and they’ll invite you on stage to speak out in front of top experts and celebrities to make your case (if you hired the moderators upfront). Participants will then realize that they are just the product of Clubhouse. The success of Clubhouse will then intensively depend on how users will find high-quality content and engage their participants.
/Real vs. Constructed
You may argue that Clubhouse is great because bots cannot infiltrate the platform. Sorry to disappoint you. We will see bots at one stage, i.e., machine learning algorithms, who talk in rooms without letting you realize that you speak to a machine. The algorithms and the technology are already there. These algorithms can even imitate a celebrity’s speech, making it impossible for ordinary people to distinguish the real V.I.P. from the constructed one. Welcome to the Matrix.
/Exclusivity vs. Access
Once everyone has access to the platform, it will lose exclusivity. Then, celebrities will enter fewer rooms and interact less open.
Clubhouse is based on a reporting system. Participants have to complain pro-actively if the content discussed in a room is violating ethical rules. This works only as long as not all participants share the same opinion. This opens the space for misuse. It seems necessary to invent better regulations and mechanisms to identify this content early-on.
There are already alternatives to Clubhouse. Cappucino is an app that uses voice recordings from a closed group of friends and delivers them as downloadable audio. The owners say it is a “personal audio show featuring friends”. In parallel, the gaming chat app Discord has exploded in usage as well. It translates spoken chat information into text. Personally, I am neither an expert on any of those platforms, but I am quite sure you’ll find similar issues in there that I raised here for Clubhouse.
The Challenges of Clubhouse and If You Should Participate There
The future of Clubhouse is yet unclear. Although there are many appealing ideas, Clubhouse’s success will heavily depend on how easily users access high-quality content and how they engage themselves over time. Based on reading the GDPR, it is quite evident that Clubhouse will build machine learning models that’ll support users in finding content that is customized to their preferences. According to Darrell Etherington, Clubhouse announced to invest in creator tools and may offer creators payment schemes. This could be a motivating argument for creators (depending on how they are defined).
Should you be on the platform? Sure. It seems exciting to follow up on what is happening with Clubhouse shortly, and you may find all sorts of exciting and surprising conversations online. However, if you don’t use it strategically with a specific objective in mind, you’ll end up killing a lot of your valuable time for creating art yourself. Will it scale your own business? If you follow a clear objective and path, potentially. However, you may want to invest a serious amount of extra time.
For me? Happy to be there, listen in, and from time-to-time participate in a room. I have met lots of lovely and special people there. However, I also need to be in solitude. Only then I am able to create.
Are you listening? Let me know what you think about that and drop-in by text. I still like playing chess-by-email. Slowly.
What’s critical about Clubhouse to keep in mind?
- You share your mobile number and all your contact data with Clubhouse.
- No privacy, no intimate conversations.
- Moderators and rooms build up their position strategically and selfishly to sell their position through services to other participants, making them shine on Clubhouse.
- Machines will infiltrate rooms as participants and act like real people.
- Without structure, it’ll quickly run into a mess of self-prolific users and content overload.
- The success of Clubhouse will heavily depend on simplifying access to high-profile content and engaging users sustainably over time.
- A reporting-based system hides misuse of the platform.
What’s intriguing about Clubhouse?
- Clubhouse makes dusty person-to-person communication attractive again.
- Low entry barriers to participating in online conversations.
- It may allow discourse and in-depth conversation across a larger group of people, such as academic conferences.
- If Clubhouse can find the right curators and experienced moderators, they may create vibrant workplaces.
- Extending your reach through unexpected rendez-vous with new, but like-minded individuals.
- Share needs, thoughts, experiences, reflections, and passion.
Don’t trust a scientist. I am a scientist myself. Thus, am I question myself and my work? No. I’d like to explain what science is and how it works shortly. Society beliefs that scientists are the ultimate experts. When universities do research, this has to be authentic and valid. If scientists were wrong, everyone complained, not able to anticipate the bubble of financial markets or not correctly predicting long-term side effects of vaccination. However, if we look into the truth of the scientific process, then it is based on reasoning. Based on the shoulder of giants who have done research before, who have discovered how the world works and suggested axioms, theorems, propositions, or hypotheses, scientists create new models. A model, however, is a simplified mirror of reality. It is backed up by past research and, at its best, has a high likelihood of being right. However, scientific progress is based on the principle of trial and error. We need to be wrong to be proven wrong by others. This is the way we can make scientific progress happen. We might be wrong, but we support others to come up with a more precise version of the model through being wrong. This being said, I am a researcher myself, and I might be wrong.
Research on Social Networks
I care about research. It is not my intent and does not reflect my personality to glorify myself. I just wanted to say that some reasons are backing up my opinions here. As a trained mathematician working in management and economics, we research social networks. We have conducted extensive basic and applied research on predictive social analytics with actionable insights on social networks, social media, online communities, and technology within a group of colleagues, young scholars, and students. We are interested in understanding how social structures influence individuals’ and organizations’ behavior and how individuals’ and organizations’ behavior reproduces social structures. Substantially, I am interested in studying human values, consumer well-being, and social influence processes. The paradigm we apply for doing research is data-based. We are empirical data scientists working with large-scale datasets.
- Feb 14, 2021: Erin Babnik pointed out to me that Clubhouse has stated in the GDPR that they close all audio recordings immediately when a room is closed. They only temporarily save the audio recordings during a room activity to be able to react to potential incidents during the room activity. She points towards the following section of the Clubhouse GDPR: “Audio: Solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations, we temporarily record the audio in a room while the room is live. If a user reports a Trust and Safety violation while the room is active, we retain the audio for the purposes of investigating the incident, and then delete it when the investigation is complete. If no incident is reported in a room, we delete the temporary audio recording when the room ends. Audio from (i) muted speakers and (ii) audience members is never captured, and all temporary audio recordings are encrypted.” Thanks for the feedback, Erin! Appreciate it!
Alpha Exploration Co., corporate information and official registration.
Babnik, Erin (2021): Clubhouse for Photographers: Social Media as We Know It is About to Change, Feb 11, 2021.
Cain, Susan (2012): Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Penguin, London, UK.
Etherington, Darrell (2021): Clubhouse announces plans for creator payments and raises new funding led by Andreessen Horowitz, Jan 24, 2021.
Finger, Lutz (2021): Clubhouse’s Future Depends On Data – How To Build A TikTok Like Algorithm, published at Forbes.com, Feb 9, 2021.
Lanier, Jaron (2019): Then Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now, Vintage Penguin, London, UK.
Solis, Brian (2021): Latest Silicon Valley Unicorn, Clubhouse, Raises $100 Million; Accelerates Rise Of Audio-Based Social Networking, Jan 26, 2021.