Elon Musk, Zuckerberg are helping Clubhouse break out from its exclusive beta

The audio-only app is capturing the attention of notable names like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and readying for expansion.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
7 min read

Clubhouse is a buzzy new social network.

Screenshot by CNET

On a Wednesday evening, there's a room filled with a handful of people, talking about their plants. The ones they have, the ones they want and the ones that've passed on to that big flower pot in the sky. 

"Someone gave me an aloe plant two weeks ago, and I'm already killing it," one person says.

"Welcome to the world of killing unkillable plants," another responds. 

This room isn't happening in defiance of pandemic protocol. After all, plant parents aren't a notoriously rebellious crowd. It's happening on a buzzy new app, launched in 2020, called Clubhouse.

Clubhouse, which is still in beta and isn't yet available to the public, was founded by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. It's an audio-based social platform. You can enter rooms (or create a room) and hear or participate in discussions on topics: how to pitch your startup idea, the future of marriage, whether Clubhouse is getting boring. Rooms generally have speakers, the way conference panels do, and moderators. The conversation is in real time, meaning you can hear folks throwing in their opinions about the subject at hand, and you can raise your hand to toss in yours as well. 

"Imagine if you were in class with everybody in the world," said Natasha Scruggs, an attorney from Kansas City, Missouri, who's been on the app for a couple of weeks. 

Clubhouse is the latest manifestation of our desire to connect to each other at a time when social distancing and remaining isolated at home is the new norm. But while videoconferencing services like Zoom have blown up for everyone, Clubhouse's largest appeal is its exclusivity and its ability to draw in notable figures including Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. 

Watch this: Clubhouse explained

That hasn't always been a good thing. Over the summer, Clubhouse garnered headlines for an incident with New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz, which kicked off a debate over Silicon Valley culture and how the media covers it. It also brought light to the more serious issue of how the platform will handle harassment and questionable content, like conspiracy theories and anti-media sentiment, cropping up in conversations. 

The app has also garnered attention for the famous names who've popped in: Jared Leto, Tiffany Haddish and Ava DuVernay, to name a few. Musk turned up in early February to discuss everything from Mars to memes. Zuckerberg made an appearance about a week later and talked about AR and VR in remote work. And with this kind of spotlight has also come the type of juicy internet drama that people can't help rubberneck, like Tom Hanks' son Chet getting lambasted for his inexplicable proclivity for speaking Jamaican patois. 

To borrow a line from Hamilton, Clubhouse is getting to be the room where it happens. 

Join the club

Clubhouse isn't the first audio-based app. Even Twitter is playing around with letting users post audio clips in their feeds. Why Clubhouse, though, is experiencing the kind of attention it is could be for a mix of reasons, including the perceived exclusivity. 

"I don't think this exclusivity thing was part of the design," said Charlene Li, Altimeter founder and senior fellow. 

Part of the point of a beta is to avoid opening your doors to the public while you're still trying to figure out how to make the app work. And yet sometimes making something exclusive will make people want it all the more -- it's the thing they can't have.

It's hard to say just how many people are actually on the app, though you can find individual rooms with upward of 2,000 people. To get an invite, you have to know someone who's already on the app, and who has one to extend to you. That person's face will be on your profile indefinitely as the one who invited you in. Android users are out of luck for now.

In a July post, Davison and Seth said they wanted to grow the Clubhouse community slowly.

"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," they said, also noting that their team is small. 

Clubhouse also hit at a time when congregating in person is outright dangerous. Because many folks are stuck in their houses and apartments, the chance to connect with other people from all over the world, to actually hear voices, is appealing. 

"Voice is so real," said Casie Stewart, a Toronto-based social and digital strategist who's been on the app for a little more than a week. "I was laughing with people." 

Opening up

One of the biggest questions surrounding Clubhouse, apart from where you can find an invite, is how it'll grow when it opens up and how people will use it. 

For Silicon Valley acolytes, Clubhouse is a chance to brush elbows with the upper echelons of Techland -- like Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, venture capitalists Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz (who've invested in Clubhouse), and Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover. The CEOs of Pinterest, Github and Roblox have profiles as well.

It might not always be like that, though. And to be fair, Clubhouse isn't just a place for the Silicon Valley elite to hold court. There are plenty of rooms, about everything from dating and sex to songwriting and the music industry. There are rooms devoted to the representation of Black people in film and TV, and where the heck the Christmas spirit disappeared to. And yes, plenty for marketing and branding -- panels finally finding a home after a year without the likes of SXSW and other conferences. 

Atmospheric color photo of a vintage microphone
Wander Vieira/Getty Images

Stewart said being on Clubhouse reminds her of the early days of Twitter. Brian Solis, digital anthropologist and global innovation evangelist at Salesforce, who knows Davison and has been on the app since nearly the beginning, echoed this, remembering how people came together to exchange ideas online. He can see parallels with the evolution of events like SXSW, which started off more intimate and more homespun.

Clubhouse still has some kinks to work through. One evening, in a room for new members, people asked about making it easier to find rooms as well as clubs (groups of people interested in a specific subject). 

Whether Clubhouse pulls this off on a grand scale could have a major impact on its popularity post-beta.

"You need to start to think about what is that user experience going to look like, so that they're finding conversations that are relevant to them at the right time, and also that they're able to host and bring people into those conversations that would find them relevant," Solis said. 

Silicon Valley drama

Then there's the question of how to handle harassment, particularly when there's not exactly a post to report or take down. And as many other social media networks are learning, the question of who decides what type of speech is appropriate or inappropriate is squishy. 

This summer, Clubhouse saw one of its most notable flaps so far, when The New York Times' Lorenz ended up being the subject of a room where venture capitalists railed against the role of the tech press and Lorenz in particular, Motherboard reported. Vanity Fair has also reported concerns over anti-Semitic and racist content popping up on the site. Stewart, early on, was in a room where a user started graphically describing a sexual fantasy before that user got booted from the room by moderators. 

Audio also presents the challenge of potentially offensive views disappearing as soon as they've been uttered, making them hard to flag. Clubhouse's community guidelines do mention the ability to report someone in real time, allowing the app to retain a "temporary, encrypted audio recording for the purpose of investigating the incident."

"How do you ensure that the, quote, good conversations happen, versus bad conversations, and who should be the judge of that?" Li said, also noting that she's reassured by the diversity among the user base so far. "That gives me hope that the best way to moderate is for lots of different voices to be there." 

Beyond talk

A place like Clubhouse will never just be for individual users looking for advice or camaraderie. 

Marketers and brand specialists are already thinking about what could come next. Li sees Clubhouse being able to leverage its exclusivity. For example, a brand might host some type of talk inside Clubhouse, promote it on other platforms, and pay Clubhouse to let them offer invites to Clubhouse for those who attend. 

"There's an opportunity for brands to kind of have roundtable discussions or do contests, or [host] chat with experts," Stewart said.

Scruggs imagines Clubhouse being a place for live performances, concerts, podcasts and even the home of something akin to the radio serials of the mid-1900s, some of which could be ticketed. And on a more personal level, Scruggs has been wanting to branch out into social responsibility and diversity, focusing on the sports world. Earlier in the month, she hosted a room called "How pro sports teams and athletes can engage in meaningful activism." She sees Clubhouse as a way to learn, network and market herself in that space. 

"With Clubhouse, you literally never know who's going to be in a room," she said.