Paul Davison and Rohan Seth’s audio-only app is the tech crush of the pandemic. Now comes the hard part: hosting a global gabfest, without the toxicity.

The Elle magazine article was a shocker. It went live a few days before Christmas and told a story of a journalist who lost her husband and her job because she fell in love with her source, who happened to be one of the most hated men on the planet, “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli. Why had Bloomberg News reporter Christie Smythe tossed away her “perfect little Brooklyn life” to pursue a seemingly doomed love affair with a sneering criminal known for jacking up medicine prices by 5,000 percent? And why had she then spilled her guts about it? I immediately wanted to dish about it. So did lots of other people. But in a pandemic, there are none of the usual gossipy gatherings.

Unless you were on Clubhouse.

Minutes after the story appeared, someone on Clubhouse had started a “room” to discuss it. Clubhouse, as you have no doubt heard, is an invitation-only audio social network that has drawn millions of people eager to socialize and listen in on an endless stream of conversations, as if all the text on Twitter, Facebook, and Interview magazine had acquired vocal cords. I joined the room titled “That Martin Shkreli Article” via the app on my iPhone, and my thumbnail profile photo was soon elevated from the “audience,” where people follow along as if listening to a podcast, to the “stage,” where you can unmute and contribute to the gabfest. I found myself among about a dozen people speculating about Smythe and the Pharma Bro. Maybe the whole thing was to solicit a movie deal? A scheme to help spring that nasty guy? We were talking out our asses.

Suddenly, a new profile icon appeared on the stage: Christie Smythe herself. Someone in the room had known her email address, slipped her a Clubhouse invite, and directed her to the discussion. For the next hour, she took questions from us, including a prosecutorial, borderline inappropriate grilling from venture capitalist Jason Calacanis. “When you kissed him,” he asked, “how did it feel?” Though we couldn’t see Smythe’s facial expressions or body language in the audio-only app, the nakedness of speech—spontaneous, nuanced, pregnant with pauses—made the discussion unnervingly intimate. It was as if one of the suspects in a mystery novel popped out of the book, asked for a cup of tea, and allowed you to interrogate her.

The Christie Smythe appearance was just one of the mind-blowing moments that the year-old app has delivered in its short history. Some memorable ones include a painstakingly rehearsed, joyful audio production of The Lion King, a summit meeting of famous hip hop originators, and an Elon Musk appearance that hit the internet with the force of a royal wedding. Thought leaders, politicians, and A-list celebrities have headlined countless Clubhouse rooms. More prosaic sessions include scammy get-rich-quick pitches and endless hand-wringing about current events. Some of the discussions have become notorious, with charges of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and disinformation. All of which has generated yet more curiosity about the app.

Clubhouse arrived at a perfect moment. It delivered spontaneous conversations and chance meetings to people stuck at home. For those weary of tidying and curating backgrounds for Zoom, its audio-only format is a virtue. Even being iPhone-only and invitation-only hasn’t held back its popularity. New users often become obsessed with it, spending 20, 30, even 40 hours a week on the app. Discussions are popping up in German, Greek, and Burmese. In early February, the app even earned the badge of respect accorded to free speech-ish platforms such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter: It’s been banned in China.

In an inversion of the Fight Club rule, people on Clubhouse do talk about Clubhouse. All the time. Every Sunday, thousands of Clubhousers attend a town hall with the app’s two cofounders, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Those sessions are sandwiched between pre-shows and postmortems in which users obsess over the future of Clubhouse. Even the Super Bowl doesn’t get that degree of analysis.

In those conversations, users have been trying to predict who will make money and wield influence on the app. Late last year, venture capitalists invested $100 million into the company, which they valued at a billion dollars. (Facebook, Google, and Amazon took years to achieve that valuation.) Naturally, after the news broke, a flurry of rooms opened up on the app itself to discuss those figures. The general feeling was that the valuation was too low. One professional investor remarked that he expected the company’s market cap to reach a hundred billion.

There’s a lot of gabbing to be done before any of those billions materialize. Clubhouse has yet to take in a dime of revenue, and its business model—which includes eventually charging people to join some conversations, among other things—is unproven. It also arrived at a time when our words are scrutinized as never before. Clubhouse’s founders may have learned from the ways that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have mishandled unsavory content, but they haven’t been able to sidestep the mire. Even ephemeral audio can spread hate and anarchy.

Davison and Seth have walked straight into the hardest question in tech. They have to encourage healthy conversation in real time, with huge numbers of chattering voices, across communities and social groups that don’t all share the same rules of engagement. As challenges go, it’s probably tougher than courting Martin Shkreli.

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Photograph: Margeaux Walter

Davison and Seth are startup guys to the bone. Davison is a boyish 41-year-old native of San Diego with the demeanor of an exuberant children’s TV show host. He’s prone to shouting “Yeah!” to any statement he mildly agrees with. It probably doesn’t hurt his mood that he now has within his grasp a dream he’s been chasing for more than a decade: a culture-changing startup that becomes a household name.

As a high school student in the mid-1990s, Davison interned at a startup near home and thought, I should get in on that. Like many Larry Page wannabes, he studied engineering at Stanford. He interned at a biotech lab and took a job at Bain, the consulting firm, but he was always plotting how he might start his own company. He returned to Stanford to get a business degree and interned at Google. Later, a professor helped him get a job at Metaweb, a startup that extracted information from the web to help computers better understand the world. When Google bought the company in 2010, Davison chose not to stay on. He became an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venture capital firm Benchmark, where he tried to figure out which of his 10 startup ideas to pursue. A year later, he thought he’d figured out the winner.

It was an app called Highlight. Using your phone’s location, it would help create serendipitous meetups by pointing out people nearby who had a mutual friend or shared your interests. When he explained it to venture capitalist Andrew Chen in 2012, the VC was impressed not just by the idea but by the person pitching it. “It took me about 10 seconds to realize that he was one of the most charismatic, energetic founders I’d met in a long time,” Chen later wrote in a blog post. (Though he did not invest.) Highlight, then all of six weeks old, was the darling of that year’s South by Southwest conference, just as Twitter had been five years earlier. In an interview at that event, Davison extolled founderhood. “It’s so satisfying to come in and say, ‘This is my company and it’s my job to make it succeed, and what I do has such a huge impact on that,’” Davison said, visibly giddy. Clearly, he thought he had made it.

But Highlight’s growth sputtered. (One problem: Leaving it on to hunt for nearby friends drained the iPhone’s battery.) The app shut down in 2015, and Davison sold what was left of the company, including his own services, to Pinterest. He left after three years, determined to start another venture. He took meetings with anyone who might help him brainstorm. One of those people was Rohan Seth.

Seth, 36, is the technical force behind Clubhouse. He shares Davison’s sunny demeanor but is less effusive. (During the company’s weekly town hall meetings, he is generally silent—the Teller to Davison’s Penn.) He had come to Silicon Valley by another well-trodden path: Born in India, he went to school there before jumping to Stanford to collect two engineering degrees. In 2009, while still a student, he joined Google’s then tiny mobile team. He worked on Android and location infrastructure, which was later integrated into Google Maps. His passion, though, was building a personal digital archive. “I’m one of those people who likes to record everything about his life, and I love obsessively journaling,” he says. In 2014 he founded a company called Memry Labs, which made an app that compiled people’s photos and journals. He sold it in 2017 and worked for the acquiring firm for two more years.

In 2019, Seth’s life changed when his baby daughter was born with a debilitating and rare genetic disorder, springing from a mutation in a gene called KCNQ2 that controls brain function. He began a project to fund research into personalized treatment for such diseases, and he reached out to Davison, whom he knew through the startup scene. They met at a coffee shop that summer, and their conversation naturally drifted into brainstorming ideas for companies. By the end of the meeting, they decided to find a project to work on together. They didn’t know what it would be, but they agreed on what to avoid—the roller coaster of a social app. Whatever they did, it would not be a consumer product.

“We’re older,” Seth explains. “We had families and wanted to work on something a bit more predictable.”

“And boring,” Davison adds.

Over the next few months, they batted around ideas: Productivity? Education? Marketing? Nothing grabbed them. Then they started talking about audio. Toward the end of his time at Memry, Seth had come up with an idea that didn’t quite fit his company. It was an app called Phone a Friend. “You would press a button, and it would notify all of your friends on the app,” he says. “The first one who was free would get connected to you in an audio conversation.” Other people could join in too. One night, after watching an episode of Game of Thrones, Seth pressed the button and spent several hours debating the plot lines with his GOT fanatic friends. It was a rare moment of conversational syzygy. “It didn’t work all the time, but when it did work it was pretty magical,” he says.

Davison had also had an audio revelation. During the intense period when he was working on Highlight, he didn’t have time to read, but he found he could pack audiobooks into his commute or a weekend run. “Suddenly I was reading all kinds of books again,” he says. “And then I expanded to podcasts.” Even with the abundance of spoken word, he felt something was still untapped. “There are so many interesting people in the world who are experts on something,” he says. “And so many other people who would love to listen to them.”

They decided to make an audio app, a mashup of a group chat and a podcast—a public, real-time conversation. The first iteration was called Talkshow. Seth and Davison hosted a few hundred conversations on Talkshow in January and February 2020, but one in particular would help shape Clubhouse. During a Talkshow on the future of remote work, Davison noticed a VP of a remote-working company—an expert!—in the audience. He invited the person to speak, and suddenly the conversation became riveting. It felt like the after party of a TED talk, when you get to ask the speaker questions.

The experience convinced them that Talkshow should be more about conversation than performance. The new version would bring warmth to small groups and large gatherings alike. Davison called it “scaling intimacy.” “Audio is potentially the most intimate medium,” he says. “You have all the intonation and fidelity, but you don’t have the anxiety of video. It allows people to be very real and authentic.” It also has a built-in advantage over text-based exchanges on social networks such as Facebook or Twitter: It’s really hard to fake who you are. Even if you set up a phony account, unless you are in the small minority who have Royal Shakespeare Company acting chops, one’s authentic self slips out. Talk reveals character, emotion, and sincerity in a way that short bursts of writing do not. And while there are stunning advances in artificial intelligence and voice synthesis, bots still can’t sustain a convincing and engaging conversation.

To reflect their goal of instant camaraderie, Davison and Seth named the revamped product Clubhouse. (They seem to have breezed past the elitist, clannish connotations of the word.) They made some important changes. Talkshow’s conversations had been recorded by default. The new app would be ephemeral—no replays. It would be a FOMO machine. People would keep listening because if you left, you might miss out on an epiphany or a new friend who could change your life.

And who you connected with on Clubhouse was critical. As with Facebook and Twitter, your network—who you followed—determined your experience. Davison and Seth found themselves building the one thing they had wanted to stay away from: a social network.

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Photograph: Margeaux Walter

On March 17, 2020—just as Covid drove people into their houses—the beta version of Clubhouse went live, open only to a few of Davison’s and Seth’s friends and family members. When you opened the app, you were thrust into the single conversation room. Everyone could speak. At first, when the app had only about 20 or so people, that room was often empty. Davison had an alert set up on Slack to let him know when someone opened Clubhouse. He’d drop whatever he was doing and pop in to say hi. Even when more people began to join, Davison continued the habit. He and Seth monitored the app constantly. “I hated the idea that someone would come in and have a bad experience and no one would join them,” Davison says. “Rohan would say, ‘Paul, don’t do it. We have to see if it can live on its own.’” It took Davison a few weeks to develop the discipline to not jump in.

By mid-April, the founders were confident they’d created something worthwhile. “It was like an interesting dinner party where you’d see a couple of friends, but then you’d meet new people,” Davison says. They were stunned at its addictiveness. When people came to Clubhouse, they stayed, sometimes for hours. The next day, or even in the middle of the night, they would come back. They invited more people but kept the app small, and most of Clubhouse’s users were from the Davison-Seth orbit of tech entrepreneurs and investors. The intimacy worked, and new users were soon tweeting ecstatic descriptions of what they heard on Clubhouse, increasing demand for invitations and further agitating the non-invitees who had their noses pressed against the Gorilla Glass on their smartphones.

“When there were no conferences, where people were not traveling, people found this a great substitute,” says tech analyst Michael Gartenberg, who joined that summer. Kat Cole, a prominent Atlanta-based businesswoman, was drawn to its spontaneity and the ease with which you could drop in and out of conversations. “It felt a lot like Burning Man in that you just choose your own adventure,” she says. “You never know what camp you’re wandering into.”

The founders churned out new features and refinements at a lightning pace. They quickly added the ability for people to start their own rooms. To fend off verbal chaos, Seth coded an update that split the screen into two tiers—a stage of speakers and an audience, separated by a permeable membrane. To avoid some blowhard dominating a room, Davison and Seth gave the room’s creator and any other moderators the power to invite speakers to the stage. They came to regard the person who started a room as the auteur of its conversation. “We’ve learned the importance of keeping the creator in control,” Davison says. Moderating a Clubhouse session—maintaining diversity among speakers, keeping the subject on track, selecting the audience members who might enrich the discussion—required a unique set of skills. Davison began holding training sessions to help people raise their moderation game. They also introduced the concept of clubs—groups with standing memberships that could meet regularly. Clubs could be organized around shared interests, localities, or even workplaces.

Just as the retweet and the hashtag bubbled up from Twitter users who claimed an informal platform ownership, Clubhouse users began to innovate. Because there was no way to share images, people started changing their profile pictures as a workaround. There was also no direct messaging on the app, so a room’s moderators, and often lurkers as well, would leave their Twitter DMs open so participants could contact each other. When users became frustrated that there was no way to express approval or excitement, they adopted the convention of pulsing the microphone icon, miming applause or laughter.

As Clubhouse gained attention, investors smelled a generational slam-dunk opportunity and began to hound the founders to take their money. The most ardent suitor was Andrew Chen, the Andreessen Horowitz partner who had been so impressed with Highlight. Chen had written a 2019 memo predicting that the next huge social media trend would be audio. As with a podcast or an audio book, you could spend time with it while driving, doing laundry, or walking the dog. And while in lockdown, Clubhouse provided the human contact that everyone missed. “I found myself listening long into the night, like almost falling asleep with the app,” he says. Chen checked the metrics on his iPhone and discovered he’d been spending over 20 hours a week in Clubhouse discussions.

To woo Davison and Seth, Chen brought them (virtually of course) in front of a16z’s cofounders, Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. Part of the VC firm’s pitch was to let Clubhouse access its Cultural Leadership Fund network, which connects well-known figures in the Black community with founders. Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart were among those in the a16z orbit. The two influential comedians not only got coveted Clubhouse invites but a much rarer perk: the chance to participate in super-early-stage funding. The round was completed in May, an investment of $12 million that valued Clubhouse at $100 million. At the time, 1,500 users were on the beta.

One person who quickly found a good use for the app was philanthropist Felicia Horowitz, who is married to a16z cofounder Ben Horowitz. She began holding a “virtual dinner party” at 5 pm Pacific Time every Saturday. Her stage hosted celebrity friends, often including Gayle King, Van Jones, Fab 5 Freddy, and MC Hammer. Hundreds of attendees listened to discussions with Covid experts or activists explaining Black Lives Matter to the largely white audience.

Another early user was reporter Taylor Lorenz, who covers the influencer economy for The New York Times. At first she had fun hanging out in some of the smaller rooms. But she was irked that in larger conversations, women often seemed to be interrupted or not listened to. In some sessions, the participants taunted her by changing their profile pictures to that of a venture capitalist known to antagonize her, and she says she’s been outright blocked from joining rooms where she’s the main topic of discussion. She complained to Davison that Clubhouse lacked basic moderation procedures. “I refuse to log on to that toxic app,” she told me this summer. (Though now that Clubhouse is a huge story, she’s there all the time.)

When Lorenz, whose social media footprint is vast, went public with her complaints, Clubhouse’s reputation took a beating. Commentators who hadn’t experienced the app dismissed it as a toy of snobby Silicon Valley elitists. Pundit Scott Galloway declared Clubhouse dead on arrival. The founders freaked out and hired a person to manage public relations. In a July blog post, Davison and Seth promised more detailed community standards. The post also addressed the pleas of the thousands clamoring for an invitation, some of which were going for hundreds of dollars on eBay. “We think it’s important to grow communities slowly, rather than 10X-ing the user base overnight,” they wrote. “This helps ensure that things don’t break, keeps the composition of the community diverse, and allows us to tune the product as it grows.”

Davison and Seth were trying not to replicate the sins of Facebook, where a reckless early pursuit of growth led to Mark Zuckerberg’s current woes with content moderation. But Clubhouse’s slow approach wouldn’t last the year.

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Photograph: Margeaux Walter

I joined Clubhouse in early August, when a friend sent me an invitation. The population was still in the four figures. When I showed up for the first time, the app notified other Clubhouse members who were on my phone’s contact list (a practice that’s frowned upon in privacy circles) and encouraged them to start a room to introduce me to the ground rules. From there, I could jump into the deep end.

Clubhouse had started giving its users more invitations to hand out, and new rooms proliferated. At any given moment you might see discussions about the NBA, Kim Kardashian, climate change, Joe Rogan, Bitcoin, and “how to get a sugar daddy in Atlanta.” Sometimes I’d see someone I knew in a small room, and when I joined I’d get to know their friends through casual conversation. A major news event, such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, spurred a cluster of discussions, often featuring speakers with inside knowledge. A lot of rooms were simply fun. I joined a room because Napster cofounder Sean Parker was there; he railed about the frivolity of Clubhouse and announced he was off to another room to sing African American spirituals. I thought he was kidding, but I followed him to the second room, where he indeed was playing music while the group sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and protest songs.

Users quickly learned the tricks to luring people into a room: If you included an influencer, their followers on the app would automatically get notified. Giving a room a clickbaity name also helped. “I would use crazy, crazy titles, just to get the women in,” says Mike Lowry, a Los Angeles music producer. “Like, ‘Women Are Trash.’ And girls will be like, ‘What do you mean?’ I’d be like, ‘I just brought you in here to see how your day was going.’” Lowry later found Clubhouse fame for the dubious achievement of creating the best-known “moan room,” a recurring event at which attendees send cash to the women—and now men too—who emit the most impressive moans, using outside apps such as Venmo. Then there’d be an after-party, where people assessed the ululations, like CNN talking heads after a presidential debate.

Davison and Seth deliberately set out to cultivate a diverse population by seeding different communities with invitations. “There was a lack of Black people on the platform,” says entrepreneur Isaac Hayes III, who joined in mid-August (yes, the son of that Isaac Hayes). “So I started inviting a lot of Black people from Atlanta, the music industry, and stuff like that.” Others, including Horowitz, did the same. The result was a profusion of rooms started by and filled with people of color. Because anyone is welcome in a public Clubhouse room, I often found myself one of the few white people in the audience, privy to frank conversations I otherwise couldn’t have heard.

Inevitably, some of Clubhouse’s OG users became agitated as the app expanded to people whose values diverged from what you’d encounter in Palo Alto or New York City. Hostilities emerged when a 21-year-old self-described youth consultant, Connor Blakley, created a room entitled “Would Rather Be an Asshole Than Stupid—VOTE TRUMP.” Blakley now admits, “It was a bit of a troll.” Many people got upset. In a counter-room called “Stop Entertaining White Supremacists Like Connor,” they unloaded on Blakley. When a speaker attempted to excuse him because of his youth, one woman had none of it. “He’s not 12, fuck him,” she said. “Fuck his mom, fuck his dad. The last thing we owe people like that is empathy. We should treat those racists like animals.” Blakley, who says he is not a white supremacist, says he was stunned by the reaction and toned down his language thereafter.

When people complained to Davison in that week’s town hall about why the app let in trollish provocateurs, he shrugged it off. “We do not control who joins Clubhouse, the user community does,” he says. But when some people started intentionally disrupting conversations, he drew the line. The app adopted a “one-strike policy” against trolling—bomb just one conversation and you’re out of the club.

In mid-September, Clubhouse found itself dealing with a series of controversies that made early concerns about the app look trivial. One of the most painful came to be known as the Yom Kippur War. On that most solemn of Jewish holidays, in a room dedicated to a conversation about Black people and anti-Semitism, speakers ended up engaging in the classic slurs against Jewish people. One user told me that in a room devoted to observing the Jewish Sabbath, someone got on stage and screamed, “Free Palestine!”

In October, the team unveiled some community standards in a blog post. It became easier for mods to bounce disruptors or to instantly end a room when it became unruly. But it wasn’t nearly enough to police the growing community, including the rise of disinformation.

Late last year I popped into a room called “Donald Trump Did More for Black People Than Obama.” A speaker said that paid trolls were promoting the Covid vaccine and warning the other Black people in the room against getting it. Facebook and Twitter can block or tag warning labels on these kinds of false claims. Not Clubhouse, where people just say whatever they want. By the time anyone can report the deception, it’s over.

Seedier Clubhouse rooms like “Strip Club” were also popping up. Men paid $25 to get on stage, and in exchange for donations to their cash apps, people changed their profile pictures to expose themselves or show them engaging in sexual acts. “It really felt like a strip club because the music was bouncing, and people were, like, ‘PTR for my pictures!’” says one observer, referring to the shorthand for “pull to refresh,” a common bit of Clubhouse lingo for viewing updated profile pictures. Other users have complained about people changing their profile photos to images of the male reproductive apparatus.

In response, the founders started shadow-banning some of the dicier rooms so that they weren’t visible in the hallway, as the feed of rooms is called. They also gave people the power to block other users. Clubhouse has kept updating its policy standards—“a living document,” Davison calls it—and routinely dishes out suspensions to policy violators. But Davison doesn’t reveal how many and for what reasons. Revising and enforcing the standards “will be a top priority in perpetuity,” he says.

As the crises mounted, the founders began recording conversations and preserving them for a short period so they could assess reports of bad behavior. The change made some people nervous. The app’s own policy bans users from recording its sessions without permission. The whole point of Clubhouse was its intimacy, the way its ephemeral nature made people feel comfortable pouring out their souls. But users generally came to accept the somewhat creepy practice in hopes of keeping Clubhouse civil.

The safety features haven’t all worked as planned. Journalist Amhed Baba, who joined Clubhouse in January and initially loved the app, says he has seen people use Clubhouse’s blocking feature—the one intended to prevent nastiness and trolling—to keep Black women from joining rooms. If someone blocks you on Clubhouse, you will never know who did it or why. You won’t even see that a room exists if a speaker on stage has blocked you. If several people take this action against you, a warning appears on your profile, Clubhouse’s version of a scarlet letter. There is no appeal.

Porsha Belle, a Houston businesswoman who hosts a regular Black town hall on Clubhouse, says that she and other Black women have been harassed continuously on the app. One white man who objected to her views on inclusivity emailed her to boast that he had reported her as a policy violator 35 times. Belle says that her repeated efforts to speak to a Clubhouse representative have all failed. “It’s a microcosm of the real world,” she says. Davison, she says, “wants to scale, scale, get everybody in here. But he doesn’t want to address what we’re going through on this app—Black people being terrorized.”

In a profusion of rooms, people have worried that the entering throngs were ruining Clubhouse. “I used to be really pumped to open public rooms,” says Ivy Astrix, an early user. “But I find now there’s just tons of trolling, transphobia, and anti-Semitism.”

Davison doesn’t agree. “If we ever felt we weren’t able to keep pace with the growth we would slow down growth,” he says. I note that I’ve spoken to users who think that he hasn’t kept pace. “We feel like we really care about it,” he says. “When you’re a social network, people will have thoughts about what you do. You just need to have a strong set of principles and invest in what you believe is right.” Some critics have wondered why Clubhouse has not hired an executive with deep experience in moderating social networks, and I ask him why he hasn’t yet. “We are excited to look at problems through a different lens to understand what’s unique about live group audio and ask where we could do better,” he says.

One year in, and Clubhouse is already in the familiar “do better” stage so well known to its older siblings in social networking. “If you think this is a safe space, you haven’t been here long enough,” one longtime user said in one of the endless discussions about what would happen when Clubhouse flung open its doors. “How is this going to work when 50,000 people can get into a room?”

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Photograph: Margeaux Walter

By mid-January, the floodgates had opened. Within a month, the number of users had jumped from about 200,000 to more than 2 million; meanwhile, the company still had just nine employees and some contractors who moderated content. A month later, there were 4 million users. Thousands of rooms were open at any given time and 10,000 clubs had formed. It was exactly the quick, exponential growth that Davison had sworn to forgo. It was as if Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had grown to the size of Boston in six weeks. In another month, Clubhouse had more people than New York City.

The app started to show strain. Rooms were routinely hitting the 5,000-person limit. (More recently, the room limit went up to 8,000.) Eventually, Davison and Seth assured me, you could have unlimited people in a room. You could imagine Clubhouse hosting a presidential debate in 2024.

Davison told me that the philosophy was to “turn up the knobs slowly, watch the experience,” and then open up to users. But they seemed to be turning the knobs with abandon. “We’ve always said from the start that we’re building this for everyone, and opening up to the rest of the world has been a really big priority,” Davison told me in late January. He implied that part of the spike came from current users inviting their friends, but of course Clubhouse has always controlled the number of invitations that are issued. Davison insists that he and Seth were making sure that Clubhouse retained its intimacy. “There are thousands of rooms going on, but you only see a small subset of them,” he says. “The idea is that as we grow, the experience feels the same. There are just more great conversations to choose from, right?”

Part of the rush may have come from worries about competition. Though it has not gotten a fraction of Clubhouse’s buzz, the leading audio chat app is six-year-old Discord, which started as a way for gamers to talk to each other as they jockeyed their joysticks. Now it positions itself for general-purpose conversations and events. “In 2019 we started hearing a lot of anecdotes about people coming together to study or work, or hosting a comedy club or just hanging out on voice chat,” says Jason Citron, CEO of Discord. “So last year we launched new branding for the company. Discord as your place to talk.” Since the change, Discord has doubled its user base to 140 million; last year it hosted 1.4 trillion minutes of voice chat. Since Discord is already hosting Clubhouse-style gatherings such as book clubs at scale, Citron sounds a bit put out by Clubhouse’s buzz. Referring to hot apps in general, he says, “It’s really hard to say in the early days whether a service will be big. There are many services that get to a million and go to zero.”

Besides Discord, a wave of other social audio apps, such as Wavve, Riffr, and Spoon, are also hoping to host conversations. Twitter is brazenly attempting to do its own version of Clubhouse, an audio feature called Spaces. A Facebook clone isn’t far behind. Davison thinks that Clubhouse’s strength is its unique set of communities, and he says he isn’t concerned with competitors. “We are obsessively focused on the product and the community,” he says. “You can’t control external factors.”

One factor they can’t ignore is the more than $100 million investment from Andreessen Horowitz and other funders, which has upped the pressure on Clubhouse to make money. The founders and their lead investor Andrew Chen say the company will not rely on advertising, which is now seen as a destructive force in social networking. “If Clubhouse had been started 10 years ago, the obvious thing would have been to put audio ads in the middle of conversation,” says Chen, who now sits on the boards of both Clubhouse and Substack, another would-be pillar of what is being touted as the creator economy. “Nobody wants that.”

Instead, Davison thinks people will be willing to pay for some of the experiences the app makes possible, and Clubhouse will take a cut. “When we started Clubhouse, we really focused on conversations,” Davison says. “We weren’t expecting opera performances, game shows, trivia contests, and all the things that are happening.”

Davison envisions four revenue streams at first: a cut of admission fees for sessions, membership dues for clubs, tips, and commercial brands sponsoring rooms. Clubhouse has started a pilot project to help creators build businesses from the rooms they moderate. Some of Clubhouse’s most popular moderators have formed their own company, called the Audio Collective, to help other power users find the financial success and cultural sway of Instagram influencers. All of this activity is based on the optimistic premise that people will pay for Clubhouse discussions just as they shell out for premium content on Netflix. Sure, everybody loved the Clubhouse audio rendition of The Lion King. But can such DIY fare compete with multimillion-dollar productions from Disney itself? “I think there are a lot of people who would be happy to pay creators for amazing experiences,” Davison says. “We’re not thinking about anything else.”

Davison and Seth have yet to craft policies on what kinds of entrepreneurial activities are acceptable, such as those in “Strip Club” or the many rooms promoting get-rich-quick schemes. As Clubhouse grows, they will also have to develop better algorithms for surfacing not just palatable rooms, but the ones most likely to appeal to its users. A significant share of the new investment, Davison says, will be used to hire a team of machine learning adepts. Think of the Clubhouse hallway as the equivalent of the algorithmically personalized feeds on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Ultimately, the most effective hallway feed would be determined by users’ personal data—what rooms they stay in or abandon quickly, which ones they speak in, and who they interact with. Clubhouse could end up gathering a huge trove of information on its users.

When I outline these concerns to Davison, his cheery logorrhea comes to a halt. “I think we’re in the early days of all this stuff,” he finally says.

For now, the app keeps getting bigger and buzzier, despite its troubles. If Clubhouse ever fulfills its founders’ ambitions and proves to be more than a pandemic tech crush, they might identify the last day of January as the tipping point. On that day, Elon Musk tweeted that he would appear as a guest on a nightly Clubhouse tech news show called “Good Time.”

Clubhouse erupted in a pregame ecstasy, with thousands piling into multiple rooms to discuss what his Muskitude might say and how they might squeeze into the “Good Time” room. Many thousands more packed into overflow rooms. The interview itself unrolled like a greatest hits album, with Musk offering his now familiar views on colonizing Mars, rewiring the brain, and dominating the auto industry. But late in the session, Musk called the CEO of Robinhood to the stage. At that moment the app was at the top of the news for suspending trades of the “meme stock” GameStop. Musk began to grill him. “Spill the beans, man,” Musk said, the world’s richest man suddenly channeling Mike Wallace. “The people demand answers, and they want to know the truth!”

Boom. Another Clubhouse magic moment.

That’s when the fast-moving train of Clubhouse went bullet, whether or not the current tracks could handle the speed. Every celebrity imaginable wanted to be on a Clubhouse stage, and everyone else wanted to be in the room where it happened. Paul Davison and Rohan Seth’s dream of a world-beating startup was finally within their grasp—and maybe beyond their control.


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