The iOS-first, invite-only strategy is at it again. We have seen it far too often already, but this time, it is exploited by Clubhouse — the new audio only social network that is getting a lot of media coverage, primarily boosted by the likes of Elon Musk being there (yeah, Mark Zuckerberg was there, too, but only to find out how it works before moving heaven and earth to copy it and bake it on Instagram, or even Facebook). There is the attraction of having an invite-only platform, the exclusivity of being among the select few who gets access and to use it. Is it worth it?
Like many in the technology sphere, I was curious and hoped to get an invite, too. Heck, I am still waiting for TwitterSpaces to be enabled on my account, too, but that is another story. Going back to Clubhouse, I was lucky enough that a friend, a former student, had an invite to spare, so I was able to get the invite, but I had to give my mobile phone number first, because that is how Clubhouse rolls.
I am lucky enough to have a spare iPhone, used mostly for testing iPhone applications we develop, to install Clubhouse on. On first run, it will ask you to grant it access to your Contacts, which I immediately declined, of course! My only connection there is, of course, my sponsor. 🙂 Browsing through the list of users, I found a couple of familiar names, mostly personalities in tech. There’s even a Filipino room there, which was an automatic join for me. At this point, I was browsing through the service, jumping in on a few rooms to listen in for a few seconds, but did not try to engage. I left the application to simmer for awhile, maybe I’ll find it useful after using it regularly.
After a few weeks, Elon Musk publicly hosted a Clubhouse session, and this blew up the service — the limit on the number of listeners on the room got breached, which required spill-over rooms to be added. A just like Musk promoting Signal, the messaging app, Clubhouse became a sought after social network. Invites have started to pop-up on Ebay.
Ebay listing for a Clubhouse invite
Another friend was looking for an invite, and since I am familiar with how it might be used, I volunteered to provide him with one. To send the invite, Clubhouse requires access to my Contacts, so I added my friend’s number, and granted the app access (I had two entries on my Contacts, mine and the newly-created entry). Just like Signal, Clubhouse tells you who among your friends on your Contact list are on Clubhouse already — meaning, they have hoovered up every name and phone number, and every other data points in that Contacts app, without the consent of those people. Unlike Signal, which hashes the phone numbers and have a business model that renders using the name and hashed phone numbers useless, Clubhouse is like any other surveillance company (think Facebook and Google) — the data in your Contacts will be fair game, at the cost of the innocent people in your Contact list who never consented to have their data collected! If this isn’t a privacy concern, I don’t know what is.
Like any other social network, Clubhouse will need to do some content moderation. Imagine when someone in the room complains of abuse and it remains unresolved, it will be a blow to the company. This is the reason why Clubhouse records the audio, keeps it for a while, and deletes it. It won’t take that long to extract some information from each recording before it is deleted, and we know how often companies change their tunes when money is involved. So treat it like any other social network, everything you say is public! And oh, for what it is worth — you want to check the report from Stanford’s Internet Observatory on the use of China-based platform by Clubhouse. And if you think Clubhouse complies with the European GDPR, well, check this LinkedIn post (warning: LinkedIn has tons of trackers!). The next question is, does it comply with the Philippine Data Privacy Act, too?
On the usability end, what Clubhouse brings on the table is nothing really new. There are similar services available for years already, but not as a single dedicated function. As I have mentioned earlier, there is the pull of the iOS-exclusivity and invite-only strategy, specially for tech personalities, influencers and journalists, which buoys up Clubhouse. Without publicly available recordings, there is the issue of timezones, i.e., when the room is active, you have to be on at the same time, or you will miss it, and there is no back-listening available, unlike podcasts.
Until Clubhouse’s privacy issues are addressed, I’d say stay away. If you have an invite, please do not provide the app access to your Contacts (unless you hate everyone in your Contacts), unless you got their consent to share their personal information, if you respect that. If you want an invite, I have one for only… , I kid, of course.