Is Clubhouse's "exclusivity" by design justified?

February 20, 2021
A critical look at the exclusivity practices of Clubhouse, an audio-only app fostering social conversations

Clubhouse is on fire, growing from 600,000 active users in December 2020 to 8 million users as of February 2021. Yes, 10X growth in 2 months thanks to word of mouth, incredible traction that startups can only dream of.

Source: App Annie

For those of you who don't know it, Clubhouse is an audio chat app — available only on iOS (as of February 2021) — that allows people to engage in conversation in clubs and virtual rooms (both public and private) on all sorts of topics: networking, politics, tech, design, music and so forth.

It was launched back in April 2020 and became a hit among the most exclusive company — venture capitalists and investors, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and stars like Oprah Winfrey and Drake. By May 2020, it was already valued at $100 million with only 1,500 users. And as of February 2021, it's said to be worth $1 billion after a $100 million round of funding.

A close-up of a person tapping a smartphone screen. On the screen is the Clubhouse app where you see the text All Rooms at the to and numerous user photos and names below
Source: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images

I missed most of this buzz because I'm part of the "excluded" group of billions of Android users who can't partake in the experience. I only heard about Clubhouse in late January when a friend of mine reached out to ask me if I was on it and to offer me an invite. "What's Clubhouse?" I asked, naively.

After that conversation, I started seeing it everywhere. Experts and content creators promoting their Clubhouse events on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. Dozens of news articles cropping up to cover the new "pandemic era social phenomenon." Discussions around invites and new clubs becoming the rage in every design and entrepreneurship community I follow.

Graphic showing two content creators, Chris Do and Brian Enns, on a black and red background with text below stating "Clubhouse Event Feb 15-27, 12 days of the Win without Pitching Manifesto with Brian Enns 7PM PST
A Clubhouse event hosted by Chris Do and Blair Enns. If only I could listen in.

Is this exclusivity-based marketing?

I mostly let all the hoopla fly by me since, as an Android user, I can't even get onto the platform.

But I started thinking more critically about the platform's exclusivity when I was reading an email from Jonathan Stark, a business coach, who expressed a strong conviction of not using the platform until it was made available more broadly.

Text that states: P.S. In case you’re wondering... Yes, I have created a Clubhouse account - to secure my username - but probably won’t use it much until they release an Android app and/or a web app. I don’t like the idea of creating content in a place where people can only participate if they can afford an iPhone.

After reading this, I felt the marketing, innovation and inclusive design parts of my brain light up all at the same time. Having worked in digital marketing at Google for nearly 8 years, the reasons behind the exclusivity-based marketing strategy were obvious.

You not only need an invite to join but you need to be part of the prestigious group of iPhone or iPad owners. Add to that the illustrious crowd of elites with a lot of star power and that's a formula for marketing buzz.

All of this amplifies the FOMO — Fear of Missing Out — effect and creates desire. People want what they can't have. And they're willing to do anything to get a glimpse inside this exclusive world — there's a whole market that has emerged to sell invites on Reddit, Craigslist, Twitter and Ebay from sheer dollars to over $100 per invite.

A screenshot of an Ebay auction for Clubhouse App invites priced at $125
Invites being sold for up to $125 on Ebay (15 sold already)

Launching first on iOS has its merits from a cost and resources standpoint. It speeds up go-to-market time and helps the team collect valuable data on whether they are heading toward product-market fit before spending time and resources on building an Android app. You could argue that their primary user persona, "the Technophile" (aka a white, upper middle-class male working in Tech in Silicon Valley) is more likely to own an iPhone than an Android phone, and so that justified the decision to build only on iOs.

Plus, experienced entrepreneurs know that with scale comes a series of problems that are more easily identified and addressed with a smaller, more manageable volume of users.

Or exclusivity by design?

Marketing justifications aside, there is a concerning pattern of exclusion that emerges when you break down and analyze the user experience. You find many layers of barriers to access and numerous opportunities for harm and bias to be amplified for marginalized groups who are clearly afterthoughts in the product design process.

Source: ConsideringApple

An invite-only experience makes it so that people with 1st or 2nd degree connections to elite early adopters (notably white, middle-upper class individuals) have privileged access to an artificially "limited" pool of invites. Those without the "right" social connections (who are subject to exploitative practices by other users — the black market of invites) and those who can't afford to shell out up to $100 for a free app are excluded by design.

An iOS-only experience makes it so that 75% of global smartphone users (billions of people who don't own an iPhone) are excluded by design. This means no access to social discourse or to valuable content being shared by content creators. And this disproportionally affects middle and lower income countries where Android has an average market share of over 70%.

An audio-only experience without real-time captions makes it so that people with speech and hearing impairments are excluded by design. Not only that, as Steven Aquino lays out in his Forbes article, there is a lack of baseline accessibility considerations for visibility-impaired folks, with a low-contrast interface, no support for screen readers or the inability to resize text.

A mirror of power dynamics in society

Moreover, the lack of foresight and critical thought around content moderation and privacy controls has amplified hate speech and harassment on the platform, which again, disproportionally affects and harms people outside of the "target persona" for the app. Numerous incidents have made waves showcasing the misogyny, racism, and anti-semitism that runs rampant on the app.

As Tatiana Walk-Morris from Vanity Fair explains, there are no visible disclaimers to counter misinformation, no comment section and no means for people in the audience to communicate their dissent to the hosts or other members within the app. Users can, however, flag violations of the Terms of Services in real-time to the Clubhouse team for further investigation. Removed users, however, easily find their way back onto the app under new profiles.

Moreover, the audio-only nature of the platform easily gives way to a recreation of real-world power dynamics that privilege the voices of white men over others. This means that women, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and religious minorities are subject not only to harassment, hate speech and abuse but are at times silenced, questioned and ignored.

Black women in particular are on the receiving end of a toxic combination of racism and misogyny, or misogynoir. A Black female founder and chief executive recalls her experience:

“There are people being actively malicious and you can hear it in their tone. That makes me scared to [speak] in these rooms. I don’t want to be publicly humiliated...I haven’t even started my first room yet, because I am traumatized after everything I have witnessed...I feel like some guy is going to [enter] my room and tell me I don’t know what I am doing. But I have never had that fear while using another app.”

The fact that users must use real names and photos on the app may somewhat quell the toxicity of anonymity found on other platforms, but it also exposes users to harassment off the platform and even in the real-world.

These problems aren't unknown to Clubhouse and have been publicly acknowledged. In response to a user complaint, the company communicated, “We’ve received feedback from several members of the community about this, and are actively working on next steps to keep the platform safe for everyone, including women and all others who were trouble [sic] by this experience.”

There are numerous technology and content moderation improvements underway and time will tell if they will have a positive impact. It's not an easy feat — the app, after all, is still in beta and its audio-only nature poses numerous technical and privacy issues when it comes to logging and reporting harassment.

A little bit of inclusive design could go a long way

Clubhouse's exclusivity and content moderation issues don't prohibit it from providing value to its growing user base, which is becoming more and more diverse over time.

The explosive growth attests to its ability to fulfill a deep human need of social connection in a time where people are feeling isolated and can't spontaneously strike up conversations with strangers on the street, at conferences and at social events. The app has also created an ample playground for niche discussions, especially amongst the Black community. Harold Hughes, a startup entrepreneur in Austin, Texas who founded the Black Founders Club on Clubhouse, tells CNBC:

“It’s been really interesting to see how Black creatives on the app have taken what exists and using it in unique and creative ways to further engagement with their audiences.
Source: Getty Images

It's thus interesting to see the team's intentional choice to feature Bomani X, a Black musician, in the app icon in the App Store. Bomani joined the app in July 2020 and is known for experimenting with unique musical experiences, including developing a Clubhouse version of "The Lion King." While Clubhouse's choice to make Bomani the face of the app can be seen as performative or an authentic commitment to diversity, it's still a visible move in communicating to the general public that the app welcomes a diverse audience.

But now that the app is showing 10X growth in its user base and has raised $100 million, including support from Black investors, it's time for a more intentional and deeper approach to inclusivity. You could argue that, in the past, the team didn't have enough time, money and resources to design for accessibility or to think critically about the traumatic experiences of the few with so many other legal, marketing and product issues at hand. But this is no longer an excuse.

The company has expressed a public commitment to diversity and inclusion and, as they open the doors to millions of potential new users on Android (as an Android app is now underway), they need to be held accountable for being true to that promise.

Clubhouse is being built for everyone and we are intentional in cultivating and maintaining diversity and inclusivity within our team, investor base and advisors as well as the growing community on Clubhouse

$100M in funding provides an opportunity for significant change and improvements and inclusive design should be an important part of this.

This means proactively breaking down the UI and UX accessibility barriers that have shut people with hearing and visual impairments out of the experience.

It means creating a more inclusive environment that is intentionally designed to promote open and fruitful discussions while minimizing exploitative abuse of the platform. This includes the definition and enforcement of community guidelines and norms for responsible use of the platform and accountability measures that are embedded in the experience.

And this means designing for a diverse set of users, those that go beyond the traditional or default persona, by incorporating them early and regularly in the design process.

As Tatiana Estévez lays out in her Twitter thread on Clubhouse's moderation issues, it mean cultivating a culture of listening to voices on the margins, particularly women.

And it also means taking a critical look at the people behind the scenes making decisions and the principles that drive their decision-making, as Melissa Brown, a Stanford postdoctoral researcher who specializes in Black digital life, explains.

“It’s great that they’re recognizing [Bomani], but it’s still a cosmetic change...Hopefully this means that we won’t see differential censorship against Black rooms or not enough Black people being hired at the executive level or engineering roles.”

All of these actions can go a long way to reduce disproportional harm to marginalized groups on the platform. But will Clubhouse's leadership take action? Let's hope so for the sake of their current and future users.

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