The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it long periods of isolation, and the relatively privileged section of people with houses, smartphones, and Wi-Fi came up with ways to deal with it – from banana bread and Netflix to Wordle and Instagram live chats. One of these fads, which specifically addressed the lack of social interaction during the pandemic, was Clubhouse, an app that was all the rage for the larger part of 2021. The exclusively audio-based social media platform steps away from the curated-ness and filter-heavy world of Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, allowing people to have real-time conversations with each other on any topic they may want to talk about.
The fundamental unit of Clubhouse is called a ‘room’ – any user can start a room with a central subject of discussion in mind (which is reflected in the name of the room), and they have the option of keeping the room private to one’s followers or opening it up to the larger user-base of the app. There are three ways of participating in a conversation in any room –speakers hold the discussion, moderators keep the room running and decide who can be speakers (including themselves), and the listeners (the majority population in most rooms) are on mute and serve as the audience for the speakers’ interaction. Any listener can ‘raise their hand’, an option on the app which indicates to the moderators that they want to be a speaker. The mechanism of setting up a profile on Clubhouse affords the user a certain level of anonymity, something that can be both a boon and curse for the overarching social dynamics and communication on the app. Clubhouse’s primary page, the equivalent of the feed on Instagram, is called the ‘hallway’ – a user can scroll through their hallway, which lists rooms that are currently active. The rooms that show up on one’s hallway are influenced by algorithmic processes common to most social media platforms, meaning that the rooms one is a part of and the people one follows influences the public rooms that will show up on one’s hallway.
Now, Clubhouse has some peculiarities that influence and contribute to the particular kind of social space it is. For starters, the content-influencing algorithm is nearly not as robust and insularity-inducing as it is on Instagram and Facebook. While I was mostly a part of rooms that were women- and queer-friendly, sex-positive spaces with sensitive and aware people helming politically relevant discussions (including those critical of the current political dispensation in India and the rampant Hindu radicalism), I routinely came across rooms that couldn’t be more misaligned from my interests and beliefs. These included religious ‘bhajan’ gatherings, Shark-Tank-like business-themed rooms, and the often-misogynistic ‘shoot your shot’ rooms where the primary objective was to secure a date with one of the people in the room – an objective which in itself is a fertile ground for harassment to take place. The second feature, which is perhaps one of the most important influences as to why people behave the way they do on this app, is the relative anonymity Clubhouse can provide its users. Since the app is audio-only and does not follow the update-posting model of practically every other social media platform, there is a transitory quality to the interactions that happen on Clubhouse. Fake profiles can be constructed with relative ease, and there is no feature for verifying accounts yet.
In theory, the concept of the app is a great one – it provides women, queer people, and people belonging to oppressed castes the tea-stall, cigarette-shop type of public spaces for conversation that are available to upper-caste cis het men. The relative anonymity acts like a safe cover, and the app affords a certain autonomy and agency to marginalised people to regulate the kind of conversation that goes on in rooms moderated by them. I myself have listened to eye-opening conversations and narratives in rooms that (according to me) were safe spaces for people of all sexualities. There were uplifting reports of the app being used by Arab and Malayali women to have conversations around sex, sexuality, sexual pleasure, and other taboo-bound topics, the app providing them with precisely the kind of public space that so many women do not have access to.
However, the same freedom of space and anonymity is also available to people who perpetuate hatred and prejudiced behaviour against marginalised communities. As recently as January of this year, there were cases of rampant humiliation of Muslim women on Clubhouse rooms moderated in India, with obscene remarks being passed and the women being blatantly sexualised. In another horrifying incident, the body parts of women who were openly critical of the BJP and Narendra Modi were auctioned off for two hours in a room that had an audience of over 200 people. These are a few examples which depict how Clubhouse rooms can turn into a microcosm of the real world, where marginalised communities become the subject of severe harassment in hypermasculine environments that are quick to degenerate into sheer mob mentality in their abuse-mongering. One critical factor to consider here is that often there is no proof of these incidents except hearsay – while a ‘replay’ feature allows moderators to record the conversations of the room, very few rooms are actually recorded, and the power to do so rests with only the moderators, a feature which becomes detrimental if the moderators themselves are the harassers.
At the time of writing this review, I had stopped being a regular user of Clubhouse for about seven months, having let go of it like most fads picked up during the pandemic. However, having installed it again in the interest of this review, I saw that the activity on the app has drastically reduced, with popular content creators averaging about a quarter of the audience as compared to when the app was at its peak popularity. I did find an extremely well-attended room on live updates about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the on-ground situation in the country; the rest of my hallway was mostly littered with rooms dedicated to lo-fi music with less than 15 attendees each. It would be safe to say that Clubhouse is way past its heyday now, and while the concept of the app does provide a theoretical public space for people from various marginalised communities (those who can afford a smartphone, that is), the sensitivity and sense of responsibility required in occupying the spaces Clubhouse offers is perhaps lost on most of its users.