The highlight of the hot new social-media app Clubhouse, an audio-based platform where people go to talk, is the Saturday-night dinner parties hosted by Felicia Horowitz, a well-known philanthropist and wife of Andreessen Horowitz co-founder Ben Horowitz.
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More than 100 people typically join one of these parties, which usually revolve around a theme. This past Saturday, the topic was reopening sports leagues in the midst of the pandemic. But it wasn't just the topic that attracted the crowd -- it was the people discussing it. It featured former New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, former pro football player Marcellus Wiley and Los Angeles Lakers center JaVale McGee. They talked about protective measures, the ramifications of players getting Covid-19, and even exchanged some friendly trash talk.
Two Saturdays ago, the topic was criminal-justice reform, featuring the activist and author Shaka Senghor and the CNN host Van Jones. The most notable guest to attend recently was Oprah Winfrey, who accepted an invitation from Ms. Horowitz and dropped into a dinner party a month ago. Ms. Winfrey declined to comment.
Clubhouse, which allows multiple people to talk to each other at the same time, is a cross between a house party and a star-studded conference. You could be in a "room" talking about books or practicing Spanish with others. Or you could be in a room with Ms. Winfrey and, say, Michael Ovitz, who also is on the app. There are venture capitalists, entertainers, entrepreneurs and even politicians on the site. A few people from the Biden campaign use it. U.S. Rep Ted Lieu, whose 33rd Congressional District in California encompasses parts of Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, is on the app. Other famous names include Mark Cuban, Terry Crews, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Ashton Kutcher and Chris Rock.
Such a roster has given Clubhouse an outsize amount of attention. The conversations there spill out onto Twitter and into the press. That buzz was good enough for the app to draw a reported $10 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz.
Because the app is invite-only, you need to know somebody on it to get on it. That's normal for an app in test mode. What isn't normal is having Ms. Winfrey as a "beta tester." In some ways, then, being on it is like being in the ultimate insider network.
Even after getting in, users get excited about certain events. Meltem Demirors had Clubhouse on her phone, but hadn't checked it in weeks. Then she saw people talking about Ms. Winfrey on that Saturday a month ago. Clubhouse talks are not recorded. There's no transcript. Ms. Demirors, an executive at crypto investment firm CoinShares, knew if she wanted to hear Oprah, she had to go into the room right then. "It's all ephemeral," she said. "It creates this cool urgency."
If you haven't heard of Clubhouse, that's because the app is running as a test version and not available publicly. It has only about 3,500 people on it (the test version can have up to 10,000 people, so there's still room). The app's creators, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, plan to release it for the general public, but are still building the infrastructure that will allow it to operate at scale. They gave no indication of when that might be.
The idea is that having people speak to each other will be less caustic and divisive than other social media -- if its founders can get the details right.
In a chat last week, a group of Silicon Valley insiders got into a heated conversation about the journalists who cover them, just after a reporter who'd written about the app was in the room. The conversation was recorded, leaked to the press and led to a contentious exchange on Twitter.
The incident raised questions about issues of privacy and conduct that Messrs. Davison and Seth are already confronting along with the app's rising profile. "For a number of reasons, the 'build quietly' approach didn't work," they wrote in a blog post last week. They declined to comment for this article.
They haven't decided yet whether conversations will or should be recorded, if only to investigate allegations of harassment, they said in the blog post. The user base has been selected with an eye toward diversity and inclusion, they say, but they aren't sure yet what tools they can build in to maintain that when anybody can sign up.
The issue of privacy is one that gets talked about a lot on the app.
As a "beta," it's nominally a private space, and some of the people on it are very candid, sharing sensitive information about themselves.
In practice, though, a lot of what gets said on Clubhouse leaks out onto other platforms. And it's hard to claim privacy if you are talking with a group that numbers in the dozens or even hundreds.
"100%, they [users] should expect it could become public, just as you would any other social channel," says Jeremiah Owyang, a tech analyst at Kaleido Insights who is on the app. "The lesson across any of these is to own your words."
Some people already there give it high marks. "This voice-based thing is a really good substitute for the casual conversations you have in a normal day," said Muneeb Ali, the co-founder of a crypto-based startup called Blockstack who got his invitation from a somebody in the crypto space who knew the app's creators.
The dynamic of having people talk to each other creates more honest conversations than the text-based platforms, he said. "It feels more like a coffeehouse or a bar."
The app itself is still fairly bare-bones. The main page is a text-based listing of the people in every open room. Enter the room, and every person's avatar is displayed in grid form. When people speak, a small gray band highlights their avatars.
Sometimes, as with the dinner parties, famous and influential people discuss the pressing issues of the day, but most of the time it's ordinary professionals looking for ways to connect. "There's this cool balance between spontaneity and letting things play out," Ms. Demirors said.
Right now, Clubhouse is a small community. Maintaining the current spirit when the number of users grows will be a challenge.
"As soon as you get lots of people," Mr. Ali said, "conversations change."