It all started in late January when billionaire and renowned Tesla owner Elon Musk walked in into the Clubhouse app to talk about aliens and humans living on Mars. Hundreds of thousands flocked to the audio-based app to listen in.
Locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are now using Clubhouse for hours moving between virtual rooms to discuss various topics, ranging from business, advertising, and marketing to arts, culture, media and even dating tips.
It is not only the app’s interesting and useful chat rooms and its “invite-only” feature that are bringing more people in. It is also the celebrities and prominent figures who are joining and engaging with people on the app.
The day after Musk first appeared on the app, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg walked in to talk about virtual reality and augmented reality. Then it started to attract other celebrities like Drake, Oprah Winfrey, Jared Leto, Tiffany Haddish and Joe Budden.
But what is Clubhouse really and how are Arabs interacting with the new app?
Clubhouse is an invite-only app that enables users to go into closed chat rooms to talk about anything, with the chats not being recorded or with users being able to go back again to them.
It was launched in March 2020 by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Davison and ex-Google employee Rohan Seth.
The value of the Clubhouse app in May 2020 was about $100 million, and only about 1,500 people were using it, according to the Guardian. The number of users increased to about two million in January 2021, according to The Economist.
The app received approximately $12 million in funding from the capital firm Andreessen Horowitz in May 2020. It can only now house iPhone users, but its expansion seems imminent
Currently, it is the main talk of social media users worldwide.
Arabs, too, are flocking to the app, talking about various topics and mainly addressing themes related to the challenges facing the Arab world such as traditions, marriage, women’s rights, politics and how to make more money.
The app has also been used by one government official in Kuwait to receive feedback on his agency’s performance. The head of the Kuwaiti Government Communication Center, Tariq Al-Muzrim, participated in a discussion chat room on the Clubhouse platform. In the room, people discussed the role of the Communication Center and the official received direct criticism and responded to rumors.
Famous Egyptian filmmaker Khaled Youssef and ex-Google employee Wael Ghoneim, who was also behind the January 25 Revolution, opened a chat room to talk about what happened during the revolution.
Bassem Youssef, who had a renowned Egyptian comedy TV show, participated in a chat room about creating content creation and making it profitable.
In Saudi Arabia, the app has stirred much controversy with some users expressing their dissatisfaction with the topics discussed by Saudi men and women in Clubhouse rooms "without censorship or restrictions."
Many called for a ban because of its "negative impact on the young women of the Kingdom and their religious and community values.” They launched hashtags on Twitter like #Clubhouse_content_harms_society.
However, others believe that the app can be a good opportunity to defend the Kingdom in the face of those whom they described as "saboteurs and traitors who want to defame its image.”
In a tweet, Saudi social researcher Amani El-Aglan said that Clubhouse is like “any other app that saboteurs will log into as happened before with other apps.”
“Instead of fighting it, try to find defensive solutions that would help limit its negative impact,” she tweeted.
It is not only in Saudi Arabia that the rise of Clubhouse is raising concerns, but across the world as well. Earlier in February, thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse before the start of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday.
The Clubhouse management faces criticism about whether it is equipped to deal with abuse and hate speech on the app, especially with its dramatic growth in popularity.
Through the app, anyone can broadcast certain content by creating a chat room, and then inviting a large number of people to talk about desultory topics without any restrictions.
Although the content may spread hatred, incite extremism or go against social values, the chats immediately disappear after the end of the chat room without anyone being able to monitor violations.
Recording of the chats is also not permissible and whoever tries to record can be subjected to the suspension of their account.
“It seems that the app is playing on the Fear of Missing Out or FOMO as well as allowing talk about any kind of topic,” Majalla was told by Fady Ramzy, a digital journalism instructor at the American University in Cairo and a social media specialist.
“This kind of FOMO-related content is very profitable and can be duplicated in many other social media platforms,” he added.
THE FUTURE IS AUDIO
Ahmed Esmat, executive director of Alexandria Media Forum and a digital transformation expert, said that Clubhouse chose an emerging niche market that will be the future of social media, namely, audio chat.
“People are now more inclined towards recording voice notes rather than texting and it is not something new. We have been talking about this for three years now. And Clubhouse understood that very well and targeted that niche market,” he told Majalla.