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AN EAR TO THE GROUND

Clubhouse’s next moves in India will determine if it’s the next Facebook or the next Foursquare

FILE PHOTO: Illustration picture of social audio app Clubhouse
Reuters/Florence Lo
At a crossroads.
  • Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

Published

On Clubhouse, there is something for everyone: rooms on pop culture, feminism, cricket, music, gaming, and even religion and prayer. That variety is among the many reasons the invitation-only social audio app has taken off in India, where users of different ages, backgrounds, interests, and even languages are coming together to discuss anything and everything, including topics the government would prefer they avoid.

Since its May 21 debut on Android, Clubhouse has found millions of takers in India, which accounted for the majority of the US-based app’s downloads in the first half of June. But experts remain polarized about Clubhouse’s future. Will it join the big leagues with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, whose entrenchment in users’ social habits is at least somewhat offset by hate speech and other challenges that come with scale? Or will Clubhouse follow the same fate as Foursquare, a once wildly popular social geolocation app, since cut down to size.

It all depends on what the app does from here.

Clubhouse’s popularity in India

When Clubhouse launched on iOS in March 2020, it grew quickly in the US, and caught the attention of app users around the world. But in Android-dominated countries like India, there was nothing to do but wait. By the time Clubhouse launched on Android in May 2021, its air of mystery and exclusivity was palpable, and Indians were clamoring to experience it for themselves.

In the first 22 days of June, more than 5.2 million Indians download Clubhouse. Between June 1 and 22, a whopping 80% of Clubhouse downloads came from India, which is already among the app’s top markets.

It didn’t hurt that both launches—iOS and Android—aligned with waves of Covid-19 in India, which forced millions into isolation and lockdown mode. The iOS app became available at a time “when people were missing connections, hangouts, and networking and they were bored of webinars and live sessions,” says Hitesh Rajwani, CEO of online publication Social Samosa Network.

In India, Clubhouse also found a market primed for the audio experience. “Audio platforms have been around for ages and podcasts have become common,” says Yugal Joshi, vice president at consultancy Everest Group. “The concept is well understood and that makes users comfortable.”

Clubhouse’s strengths in India

Clubhouse
Cricket, startup, hiring—take your pick.

Many of Clubhouse’s strengths are global: It zeroed in on a gap in social platform offerings—audio—and used that gap to reimagine everything from the conference call to the open mic night.

But some of Clubhouse’s advantages are particularly advantageous in India. People in tech and marketing often use the platform to host networking events. Renowned entrepreneurs like Unacademy’s Gaurav Munjal, Flock’s Bhavin Turakhia, and CRED’s Kunal Shah are active users. Late at night, comedians, musicians, and storytellers perform to grow audiences or simply unwind. Several Bollywood celebrities—actors, directors, fashion designers, and others—have also started exploring rooms on the app.

The live, transient nature of the conversations also means Clubhouse offers “an uncensored and open platform to discuss politically sensitive topics when the government is controlling other social media apps,” says Swati Verma, a thematic research associate project manager at GlobalData. Earlier this year, the government asked Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to take down hundreds of accounts chiming in about farmers’ protests and Covid-19 mismanagement, claiming misinformation. Clubhouse, reliant as it is on live audio—no transcripts or recordings are made available to users after the fact—has yet to face the same pushback. 

Knocking down the language barrier

But perhaps Clubhouse’s biggest strength in India is how language-agnostic the app is. While its physical interface is mostly in English, the audio format means there are no linguistic barriers while speaking. People can find rooms in any language, including those not typically found on other social platforms.

Browsing the app in India reveals that several room titles appear in regional languages, and conversations occur in many vernaculars. Malayalis, for instance, have started rooms to discuss dosas, host karaoke nights and put up theatre shows. Startups in Tamil Nadu are using the app for recruitment purposes.

Clubhouse knows its unique capabilities around language are an advantage. In a town hall on June 2, co-founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth hosted a Clubhouse conversation that was being translated by someone into Hindi in real time. Davidson encouraged the audience ask questions in Hindi, Malayalam, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, or English. “Someone on stage speaks any of these languages,” he said.

“We are consistently expanding language support, and adding more accessibility features,” Aarthi Ramamurthy, head of international at Clubhouse, told Quartz.

Clubhouse competitors

Clubhouse has no doubt managed to carve a niche for itself. But the clock is ticking. “They have a very tight and limited window to acquire new users before the social audio feature gets democratized, as it happened with stories or short video content,” says Social Samosa’s Rajwani.

That’s already happening. In May, Twitter launched a similar offering with Twitter Spaces for accounts with more than 600 followers. On June 21, Facebook debuted Live Audio Rooms in the US. Spotify has a rival feature called Greenroom, and LinkedIn is also testing out a social audio experience. Just as FourSquare became redundant once bigger apps folded location tagging into their features, Clubhouse runs the risk of being drowned out by a Goliath with an enormous base of habitual users.

The Davids are coming for Clubhouse, too: In India, homegrown competitors like three-year-old Leher and month-old Fireside, created by the founders of TikTok copycat Chingari, are also making a play for social audio.

How to make money on Clubhouse

Valued above $1 billion, Clubhouse is anticipating generating revenue through tips, ticketed events, and paid subscriptions. To get there, though, Davison and Seth are focused on incentivizing creators.

In June, the app brought its three-month old “Creator First” program to India, where Clubhouse will assist creators with production, creative development, and promotion, and will provide financial support via brand collaborations or a monthly stipend.

Unlike other social platforms, Clubhouse rooms don’t have engagement metrics such as “likes,” “comments,” and “shares.” But that doesn’t mean the app’s reach can’t be quantified: Room participation and time spent are likely to be relevant metrics for creators and brands looking to cash in on Clubhouse participation.

“In today’s world, social media and monetization go hand in hand,” says Snehja Sanganeria, co-founder of digital marketing firm Meraqi Digital. People can charge to be a part of rooms. Brands and content creators can create their own community in this app and indirectly sell their products or services. Content creators could charge to talk about products or services in a certain room. People could host live shows like a concert or a comedy gig…which brands could sponsor. The possibilities are many.”

The app is already home to virtual press conferences, launch events, and workshops.

Clubhouse could even bring its payments feature to India, which allows users to visit creators’ profiles and send them money directly. While YouTube takes almost 30% of any “super chat” money users send to creators during live streams and video premieres,  Clubhouse currently takes nothing. That’s unlikely to be the case for much longer. 

As it scales and starts monetizing its content, Clubhouse will also need to further embed itself in the existing social media sphere—just think about how easy TikTok made it to view posts outside the app. Clubhouse is already considering letting users link their Twitter and Instagram accounts, and Rajwani says it should next “catch up on adding features such as recording, live chat, and direct message.” (A text support option on the app did recently leak.) With thousands of conversations happening on the app simultaneously, Clubhouse’s recommendation engine also needs work.

Can Clubhouse fight hate…

Like all social media platforms, Clubhouse comes with its share of troubles. Already, the company has been mired in controversies over hate speech, users impersonating celebrities, and a spying Indian government.

There have also been more serious violations, including trolling, harassment, and the emergence of Islamophobia and casteism in Clubhouse rooms. The onus is largely on moderators to define guidelines and monitor conversations, standards are inconsistent, and opportunities for recourse unclear.

“Clubhouse will encounter the same problems, if not more serious problems, related to misinformation, hate speech, and harmful content that affect other social media platforms,” says Laura Petrone, senior analyst in the GlobalData’s thematic research division. ”The chat rooms in Clubhouse are not regulated, neither recorded, transcribed, reproduced, or shared without explicit permission.” Even if they were, Rajwani warns that controversies can emerge because a piece of an audio discussion was shared or reported on without context. 

While that may be true, it is also true that content moderation is currently an afterthought for Clubhouse, a decision that could cost the app in the long run. The company would do well to invest in artificial intelligence and algorithms to detect hate speech, and perhaps should begin tackling in earnest the unique challenge of moderating harassment and hate speech via live spoken chat.

“There’s absolutely no place for bullying, hate speech or abuse on Clubhouse,” Ramamurthy said. “When  we find someone that breaks these rules, we take action against their account.”

…and comply with IT laws?

When violations do occur, Clubhouse will need a way to address grievances, says Salman Waris, a partner at legal firm TechLegis. In fact, grievance redressal is one of the mandates in India’s new social media guidelines, a labyrinth of problematic rules that giants like Google and Facebook are already struggling to navigate. WhatsApp even filed a lawsuit to block them.

The biggest point of contention is a clause that says platforms must offer “traceability” to the origin of content. If the guidelines were to be strictly enforced, Clubhouse’s need to track myriad conversations in case the Indian government sought out information could be enough to stop the app’s explosive growth in its tracks.

So too could a decision by the Indian government to classify Clubhouse as more trouble than its worth. The app was banned in mainland China (where it had also been used for free speech) 11 months after it launched, and India’s government has bared its teeth when it comes to global tech firms. “The standard principle in criminal law is innocent until proven guilty,” Waris says. If Clubhouse is dragged to court in India, “unfortunately, it’s the opposite situation…The burden of proof lies on Clubhouse.”

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