Join the Club(house), audio chat app that has surged in popularity during the pandemic

Clubhouse is looking to establish itself as the standard-bearer for digital audio. PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - Clubhouse, the invitation-only audio chat app, exploded in popularity during the coronavirus pandemic when people could not get together in person, but now the once niche platform has far higher goals.

Launched less than a year ago, Clubhouse - which recently encountered a censorship hiccup in China - is looking to establish itself as the standard-bearer for digital audio.

The concept is simple. Once you are invited to join, you can start or listen to conversations in digital "rooms", ranging from a major talk by someone famous to a chat within a small group.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg cropped up on the platform last week, talking about the technology of the future.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk showed up late last month to talk about the GameStop trading frenzy.

But the app was quickly blocked in China, where unfiltered conversations about normally taboo topics, such as democracy protests in Hong Kong and the mass detention of Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, ran afoul of government censors.

The app, available only on Apple, thrives on the concept of fomo - fear of missing out. If you are not online when a conversation happens, you miss it.

Beyond fomo, Clubhouse - launched in March last year in Silicon Valley for the chosen few, but now used by about two million people every week - thrives on its portability.

Users can walk their dog or cook dinner while listening to talks on financing a start-up or the current state of American education - or tune in while playing trivia games.

Unlike podcasts, everything is live and users can participate - as long as they are invited to do so by chat moderators.

A Clubhouse chat can be mundane - but it can also be transformed into a must-hear event if someone famous shows up.

In addition to Zuckerberg's and Musk's recent appearances, comedian Kevin Hart popped up in a chat last year.

At the outset, Clubhouse was criticised for being elitist, and not allowing enough users, but some of the initial communities - many of which formed around California investors - are nevertheless still influential.

Simply put, you have to be part of the club.

For Mr David Bchiri, the United States director for the consulting firm Fabernovel, "Clubhouse landed right on time as the platform where people could go vent their thoughts and emotions" about the pandemic and the summer protests on racial injustice.

The app now must face challenges from how to monetise its popularity to how to pay content creators - to how to moderate that content.

"We now want to open Clubhouse to the whole world," app founder Paul Davison and Rohan Seth said late last month.

Beyond the apparent problems in China, the app is flying high.

With the backing of more than 180 investors after a new round of fund-raising, Clubhouse is valued at about US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion), according to The Information, a publication for tech executives.

"The last go-round effectively put up a barrier to anyone trying to buy out the company," Mr Bchiri told AFP, noting that he believes investors are trying to shield Clubhouse from Big Tech.

Clubhouse is nevertheless definitely getting Big Tech's attention.

Twitter is testing out Spaces - audio chat rooms where up to 10 people can talk to an unlimited number of spectators. Facebook is rumoured to be looking at a similar offering.

"We're in the audio era," says Mr Bchiri. "Our grandchildren will never have keyboards. They won't need to interact with machines in that way. Everything will be done with voice commands or simply by thinking about a task."

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