NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Last summer, the social media app Clubhouse had just a few thousand users, mostly Silicon Valley tech workers and venture capitalists who wanted to connect with one another during the pandemic. Today, it has millions of users, a valuation of roughly US$1 billion (S$1.33 billion) and a ton of buzz.
Both Tesla's Elon Musk and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg recently appeared on Clubhouse, causing such a stir that the platform nearly crashed.
Still, it remains a small club, so to speak, certainly when compared with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. If you have heard about it, and want to know what the fuss is about, here is a primer.
Q: What is it?
A: A social networking app that lets people gather in audio chat rooms to discuss various topics, whether it is sports, wellness, art or why Bitcoin is headed to US$87,000.
Rooms are usually divided into two groups: those who are talking and those who are listening (participants can see a list of everyone who is in a conversation, and the numbers sometimes run into the thousands).
Unlike Twitter, Clubhouse is a closed, hierarchical platform: A moderator oversees discussions and has the ability to let someone chime in or to kick out the unruly. In addition to the "clubs" sorted by topic, two or more users can join together and start their own chat room.
The app was unveiled last spring by two tech industry veterans, Mr Paul Davison and Mr Rohan Seth. Their prototype of a podcasting app seemed too much like a broadcast, so they added a feature that let users join the conversation.
Clubhouse has been variously likened to a podcast with audience participation; the 2021 version of AOL's Instant Messenger; and an old-fashioned party line.
The focus on audio, rather than text, photos or videos, is a differentiator and part of the appeal. Ms Delia Cai, of the newsletter Deez Links, wrote of her experience on the app: "It felt spontaneous, low-commitment and blessedly did not involve turning any kind of camera on."
Q: Who is on it?
A: As its name suggests, Clubhouse is built on exclusivity: You have to be invited in by an existing user.
Early members of the club include Silicon Valley venture capitalists (Mr Marc Andreessen and Mr Ben Horowitz, both early investors in the app), web-savvy entrepreneurs (Mr Mark Cuban and Mr Tim Ferriss), a smattering of performers and cultural influencers (Tiffany Haddish, Drake and Virgil Abloh) and people with random claims to fame (Vanilla Ice and Mr Roger Stone).
Clubhouse has been criticised by some for its male-dominated, bro-y energy (though plenty of women are on the platform, too).
Its open information exchange has also made it popular with users from countries with repressive governments. China blocked Clubhouse in February.
Right now, the app, which is still in the beta stage, has the rare (and likely fleeting) feeling of a small world. It is still a surprise when you bump someone you know, or when, say, United States Senator Tim Kaine pops up in a chat room.
Q: What happens on it?
A: Clubhouse can, at times, reflect Silicon Valley's relentless focus on personal optimisation. Networking, weight training, retiring early, pitching investors and Bitcoin, Bitcoin, Bitcoin - the hustle culture is real and present.
But there is also a huge theatre scene with staged plays and a dating scene, too. And conversations are often free-form, meandering and completely unscripted. That unpolished quality is part of the charm.
A recent weeknight offered a talk show, "Housin' Around", hosted by comedian Alexis Gay; a pitch event for entrepreneurs with start-up ideas; a talk titled "Forming Black Creative Spaces in Fashion"; and Karaoke on Clubhouse, among other discussions.
Daily and weekly shows have begun to emerge from the formlessness, like "The Cotton Club", an after-hours chill zone hosted by musician Bomani X, and "Good Time", which recaps the day's tech news every night at 10 pm Pacific time. Bouncing between the rooms is easy and much of the fun.
Q: How can you get an invite?
A: Clubhouse is currently available only on iOS. Each person invited to join is, in turn, given invitations to hand out (users who are active on the platform are granted more invites). So try hitting up a friend or colleague already on the app.
If that fails, you may be able to buy your way in: Invitations are going for between US$30 and US$20,000 on eBay. (But be aware that Clubhouse lacks some of the privacy filters of other platforms.)
Or you can wait: The Clubhouse website suggests the app will open up to a wider audience, or everyone, in time.