Since its introduction last year, the invite-only social media app Clubhouse has garnered a lot of buzz. Social media has been around long enough that everything old is new again, and unlike other apps that encourage users to share links or fragmentary thoughts in exchange for “likes,” Clubhouse facilitates voice conversations using your phone. Essentially, you can pick a topic and host your own panel discussion with friends. If you’re lucky, you get to join a conversation and share your thoughts with the likes of Elon Musk or any number of the site’s famous and influential users.
However, I regret to inform you that a growing number of journalists are deeply troubled by Clubhouse’s growing popularity. Why? It seems Clubhouse won’t accommodate their inner Big Brother.
In GritDaily, an online publication that bills itself as “the top news source on Millennial and Gen Z brands – from fashion, tech, influencers, entrepreneurship, and life,” staff writer Olivia Smith took aim at the new app in a late January story. Her primary complaint was that she heard “an alarming amount of casual sexism.” Readers have to take her word for it, though, which was the point of her critique – and the point, in some ways, of the app itself.
“On Clubhouse,” Smith wrote, “there are no screenshots. There is no way to drag up old Clubhouse posts years later like a user might do on Twitter. There is no way to record conversations — meaning there is no way to prove that someone said anything controversial at all. There’s no path to accountability. Users on Clubhouse know, or at least believe, that they can openly speak their mind with zero repercussions.”
Smith also asserted that in one conversation she overheard, “a moderator was actively spreading misinformation” about the COVID vaccine and a female African physician who objected was “bullied” into leaving the conversation.
This article prompted a follow-up on the website of the Poynter Institute — the journalism foundation that launched PolitiFact — from a prominent Poynter editor. In a Feb. 11, item headlined “A Fact-Checker Lands on Clubhouse,” Poynter’s Cristina Tardáguila approvingly quoted Olivia Smith’s concerns about the lack of a written record on Clubhouse, and added one of her own. “The lack of these features will surely produce barriers for fact-checkers. It will be not only hard to choose what club to join but Clubhouse also requires that fact-checkers listen to hours and hours of conversations before selecting what claims should be assessed.”
For those old enough to remember when unrecorded conversations about culture and politics were normal, let alone preferable to the social media hellscape we have today, this attitude is jarring. Increasingly, the social media “path to accountability” consists of getting random people fired from their jobs and made national objects of scorn for a single intemperate or misinterpreted remark that may not be representative of a lifetime of behavior. Those pursuing this path toward social justice seem oblivious to the most chilling aspect of their behavior: They are unconsciously emulating the behavior of tyrants and totalitarian regimes everywhere. Or, sometimes, doing so consciously: Here’s the kicker to Cristina Tardáguila’s Poynter piece: “With the myriad of other platforms fact-checkers are forced to contend with, would it be best for them to ignore Clubhouse for now? … After a rare moment of cross-border dialogue between users from mainland China and others outside the country, Chinese censors moved in. If Xi Jinping’s administration isn’t ignoring Clubhouse, why should fact-checkers? Why should you?”
New York Times tech reporter Taylor Lorenz also put Clubhouse in her sights, with instructive results.
Earlier this month, Lorenz hopped on Twitter and accused legendary venture capitalist Marc Andreessen of using the word “retarded” on Clubhouse in a pejorative fashion and bemoaned that “not one other person called him on it.” As it turned out, Andreessen was not the speaker who used that word, and it wasn’t employed as a “slur,” as Lorenz claimed. It arose in reference to a name that the online community “Wall Street Bets” (recently in the news for roiling the stock market) had given themselves.
Once upon a time, such an irresponsible accusation would earn a reporter time in the penalty box. Instead, Lorenz was given the chance to co-author a Times piece highly critical of the app, noting that it “grapples with harassment, misinformation and privacy issues.” All of that may be true – but how does that make Clubhouse different from, say, Facebook or Twitter, both of which journalists happily use on a daily basis?
And it was journalists who led the charge to get the right-wing social media app Parler deplatformed following the U.S. Capitol riot last month, even though the subsequent charging documents and other evidence shows that the vast majority of planning for the insurrection was done on Facebook. Perhaps one reason why there’s been no serious movement to deplatform Facebook is that Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth provides a great deal of revenue to the publications paying the salaries of our perpetually censorious journalists. Those are the kinds of conflicts of interest that reporters in a more benign economic environment once felt free to explore.
Instead, it seems that Clubhouse’s real problem is that it lets people have actual conversations. The New York Times’ official Twitter account announced Lorenz’s story by noting “unfettered conversations are taking place on Clubhouse, an invitation-only app that lets people gather in audio chatrooms … despite grappling with concerns over harassment, misinformation and privacy.” While the Times probably wasn’t using “unfettered” in a literal sense – after seeing journalists laud Xi Jinping’s approach to free speech, it’s hard to tell – it is revealing to note that fetters are chains used to keep people from escaping.
If the medium is the message, Clubhouse is at least attempting to harness some measure of humanity by fomenting actual person-to-person dialogue. That shouldn’t be assumed to be threatening. Yes, it’s true that spontaneous, unmoderated human interaction can have bad outcomes – but by the same token, meaningful conversations are also powerful enough to change minds and touch hearts. Good luck doing that with Twitter’s 280-character limit.
Instead of running around trying to root out wrong-think like a bunch of Orwellian truffle pigs, have journalists at places such as Poynter and The New York Times considered how they can use their own platforms to bring people together? To promote real engagement in a deeply politicized and polarized country where we could all stand to make more of an effort to see the humanity of those we disagree with?
In the end, it’s easier to build consensus around truthful and unifying messages than to smack down every fringe voice that might be wrong. The default message that unmonitored conversation among reasonable people is a threat will only drive those who are spreading actually damaging ideas into dark, encrypted corners of the Internet.
It’s best to remain skeptical of social media and all its forms, but for now what’s happening on the still-nascent Clubhouse is clearing a low bar by being more promising than other social media platforms. Elon Musk recently asked Vladimir Putin to have a conversation with him on Clubhouse, and the Kremlin says that request is being considered. There’s always the chance such a conversation would end badly, but if you’re worried about social media hostilities, World War III is a lot more likely to be started on Twitter and planned on Facebook.