What happens when everyone is an “expert?” How to navigate a world where everyone’s “insights,” no matter how dubious, are cloaked in corporate-speak, strenuously hyped by like-minded cohorts, then injected straight into your brain via a mechanism intentionally designed to push your emotional buttons? And how much do you think your ideas and energy are worth?
How about your very voice?
These questions bubble up every time I dip into Clubhouse, the audio-only meeting place that slipped into the social media ecosystem during the spring of 2020 and immediately generated buzz and agita among the Early Adopter crowd. Since October, when a friend jumped me into the invite-only Clubhouse world of “rooms” and “hallways,” I have listened in as its user base expanded from almost exclusively white tech industry operators, venture capitalists, and business owners to a wide diaspora of Black, Latinx, and other ethnic minority groups here and abroad.
Similar to the concerns I shared here at The Root in 2017 on how Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media companies deftly exploited the energy, creativity and innovative ideas of Black users on their respective marches toward global dominance, what I hear when I visit Clubhouse is concerning, indeed. Over a few months, as the number of users increased, the app’s developers have expanded functionality so that you, too, can start a discussion and host it in a “room.” Whether you are a host a speaker or a listener, you can pop in on a range of live discussions; the topics advertised in headline descriptions run a wide gamut between rank marketing come-ons for LLC Twitter and Insta, such as “How to Build Your Personal Brand Through Clubhouse,” to philosophical themes like “Finding Inner-Peace Through Love and Loss.”
As recently noted by writer Chris Lubin for VSB, Clubhouse’s founders and investors are now rapidly onboarding Black, Latino, and other users from historically marginalized communities.
Color me cynical, but if Clubhouse’s primarily white founders and major investors eventually achieve a big payday, it will largely be due to the creative labor and intellectual property (IP) of its Black users. And as I’ve experienced the Clubhouse environment thus far —with its peculiarly insular nomenclature, and still-developing functionalities and performance protocols—it is this toxic aspect of exploitation, along with two other factors, that lead me to be extremely wary.
I have chimed in a few times in certain “rooms” at Clubhouse, usually in discussions related to my industry—journalism and strategic communications—or my hometown, San Francisco. I pipe up primarily due to what I consistently perceive to be an absence of values (as in morality)-based discussions on Clubhouse: Amidst pseudo-intellectual language and annoying TechSpeak about “cap tables,” “exits,” and the like, the broad discourse in many Clubhouse rooms strikes me as alarmingly free of humanitarian focus.
The app’s veneer of exclusivity and “insider-ism,” fostered in part by its limited accessibility (it is only compatible with Apple’s iOS programming interface, and doesn’t easily accommodate hearing-impaired users) also gives me pause.
The third source of my trepidation—and perhaps the most menacing, overall—has to do with the way Clubhouse echoes, in function and in its early socialization into the wider world, the path blazed by Facebook. Even its design look-and-feel updates Facebook’s initially cheery look and feel. “Hey, lookit these users who are in here,” the design says. “You know them—or you want to know them, right?” The unstated yet real goal is that users will trust other users who have made it into these tacitly “exclusive” Clubhouse rooms.
Yes, there are non-predatory discussions focusing on deeply emotional topics, such as conversations hosted by actor Lakeith Stanfield covering youth mental health and suicide. But these human-centered, solutions-oriented “rooms” tend to get lost amid the growing collection of discussions hosted by “experts” touting Get-Rich-Quick schemes.
What could possibly go wrong?
Contemplating Compensation for Users: Who Decides How Much Your Ideas (and Possibly Your Soul) Are Worth?
In a February 7 “Town Hall” on Clubhouse, co-founder Paul Davison sounded positively giddy in describing his goal of “scaling intimacy” via the platform, primarily by having millions of people around the world talk to each other in real-time in “rooms” where Hosts invite speakers onto a virtual “stage,” all of it organized as “social clubs.” (There’s an inherent contradiction between the literal definition of intimacy and “millions of people connecting in groups” but that hasn’t seemed to occur to Clubhouse’s founders or PR team.) Davison has also been vocal about wanting users to be able to make money on the platform; he mentioned that his developer team is exploring plans to eventually roll out a formal “tipping” model in which users who Host discussions in “rooms” can somehow receive compensation. Another plan in the works involves a subscription model that might allow users to earn money.
As I listened in on that town hall, Davison and his team struck me as predictably well-meaning in their stated desire to provide a new vehicle for building “communities”—but also shockingly naïve about the fundamental unpredictability of human behavior, and the infinite capacity for humans to not only turn against each other, but to also ruthlessly exploit and profit from aspiration, cultural fears, and ambition.
Sure enough, as I was working on this piece for The Root, The New York Times published an article about Clubhouse in which the writers spoke with Porsha Bell, a Black woman user who said she’d been subjected to misogynistic and racist bullying on the site—only to have the company suspend her account after she tried to push back. “My page is suspended, while the bullies get to roam free,” Bell told The Times.
It is almost as if Davison and his team and one of the app’s marquee investors, the VC firm Andreessen Hor0witz are convinced that whatever “magical experience” (Davison’s words, from the town hall) they can scale up could not ever turn into an evil giant genie that will never be controlled. Put another way, see: “Facebook,” “disinformation,” “rise of 21st century racist white nationalists,” and “the rise of Would-be Dictator-Former U.S. President Donald Trump.” Black people still using Facebook have by now developed technical and emotional coping skills to contend with the racist Terrordome that it has become.
I do not wish for it, but I can absolutely envision the real potential of new forms of social and economic havoc resulting from Clubhouse—especially if it turns out that sharing not just your IP and creative energy but also literally your own voice might eventually morph into economic or political forms over which you have little to no control.
Similar to facial recognition technologies that create major risks for Black people—thanks to racism baked into both algorithms and law enforcement agencies—how do we know what the future of voice recognition, also known as voice biometrics AI programs, will hold for Black people and other historically-marginalized populations? Clubhouse is surely a big test case, whether or not users consent. For users who are Black and hoping to leverage the app for material gain, the cost-benefit analysis is far more of a high-stakes proposition than it is for the VCs and other wealthy white people pontificating on the platform.
After listening in there for a few months now, I’m more skeptical than enthusiastic about Clubhouse—and not because I do not think Black users (or “creators” in the preferred language of the site) aren’t capable of finding delightfully creative ways of maximizing the audio-only format.
My most pressing worry is that despite the sheer hell we’ve all been through and are still living—thanks in part to social media companies that extract our labor while simultaneously failing to hold white people accountable—we might be on the cusp, again, of getting played by another sparkly “new thing” that draws us in through implied promises of material or cultural gain, only to leave us in worse shape than before. If we ever manage to “iterate” white racism out of existence, I might be willing to tune in without reservation.
Amy L. Alexander is a journalist and author of numerous nonfiction books, including Uncovering Race: a Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention.