During a weekly Clubhouse town hall session on 20 June, the app’s co-founder, Paul Davison, made an interesting observation. Clubhouse, he said, was like a blank canvas—it was nothing without its users. Since its launch on iOS in March last year, and its entry on the Android platform this May, millions of users worldwide have painted this canvas in different colours with their voices. The audio-only social app now has more than 25 million downloads globally, according to latest reports based on data from the app analytics firm Sensor Tower.
On Clubhouse, you can host a room—a conversation or discussion—with other users. People are discussing everything, from politics to spirituality. There are rooms on ghost stories, gender fluidity, tips on how to work smart, not hard, and even conspiracy theories. Artists are entertaining thousands of listeners through audio-only live concerts while medical experts spread the word on the coronavirus through information rooms on covid-19. Even journalists are using the platform as a news-gathering tool.
But Clubhouse is not the only name gaining ground in this format. In recent months, there has been a melee of other launches: Facebook rolled out a live audio rooms feature this week, Spaces lets you have audio conversations on Twitter, and Spotify launched Greenroom, its social audio app, just days ago. Others trying to leverage the power of audio include Discord and Reddit.
With so many users taking to these platforms, how do moderators and these apps ensure conversations do not get out of hand?
“It’s something you learn along the way,” says Arjun Madan, a Delhi-based food and marketing consultant. “There have been rooms where things have gone sideways.” Madan, 27, has more than 3,600 followers on Clubhouse. The former lawyer has hosted sessions on topics relevant to his profession as well as issues such as gender identity and sex positivity. “We do like to keep the speaker panel smaller. Just to ensure that the conversation does not become controversial, at least in my rooms, I always give the disclaimer that we do not want to make the discussion political,” says Madan. “We just have to be very vigilant as moderators. I have no hesitation in reporting or blocking troll accounts or people who are saying something unsavoury. When you are on an audio social app, you are talking in a flow, right? It’s very easy to get carried away so you have to consciously keep yourself in check.”
Each platform has stringent community guidelines for moderating content. Spotify Greenroom, for instance, does not allow hate content. Harassing other users, posting sexually explicit content or any content that incites or glorifies violence and promotes self-harm is prohibited. Clubhouse, too, has a similar set of rules that prohibit the spread of misinformation or spam.
Sudha Varadarajan, co-founder and CEO of Swell, a new asynchronous drop-in audio or voice-based social platform, says that while users have the power to moderate on Swell, if the moderator is believed to be in the wrong, they can be reported to the Swell moderation team. “One of the best practices users have adopted is citing links and references to support what they are saying. It could be a good journalistic source. We give people the ability to do that. They can attach images. If they are talking about a (news) article, they attach links,” Varadarajan says on a video call from San Francisco.
Every post on Swell is five minutes; it can include links and photographs. These bite-sized, podcast-type entries—called Swellcasts—can be heard at any given time, making this an asynchronous format compared to, say, Clubhouse, which has real-time conversations. A user can respond to a Swellcast at any given time—the comments can also be five minutes long. Every user on Swell also gets a personal website (at swellcast.com/yourusername) to share their public conversations.
Some moderators are mindful of the topic and duration of discussions. Faizan Patel, a travel and lifestyle photographer, regularly hosts rooms on Clubhouse, including a club for smartphone photography enthusiasts. “If it’s too abstract, then listeners won’t join in. People always notice a simple discussion on current events and topics,” he adds. “We also try that nobody speaks for more than three-five minutes because then it becomes one-way communication. These are some of the basic moderation rules that I follow.” Moderators like Patel are even learning terms such as PTR, or “Pull to Refresh”, which updates a room to show who all are still tuned in or next in line to speak.
There may be takeaways from the way users moderate and express themselves on platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook but audio social apps are a different ball game. Sumit Ghosh, co-founder and CEO of Fireside, an Indian audio social app launched in May that also supports vernacular languages, says audio is the “next wave of communication”.
“I don’t think this is a fad (the sudden interest in audio apps),” he says. “As long as users are able to derive some value and learn new things from these audio social products, they will keep coming back.” He does add that in the audio-to-audio format, users have to be careful about “what goes out there”. “When you post something on Facebook and Twitter, it takes a certain amount of time to reach every user. You can even delete a post. But on audio social platforms, other people are listening to you in real time. You cannot delete what you have just said.”
Swell launched in India this month and, according to Vardarajan, has been welcomed by a younger audience that likes “spontaneity” and quick consumption of a “variety of content”. “With very little engagement—you could be listening to someone’s Swellcast posts for just a week— you can sense that people are building better connections. That is the power of audio,” she says. “And yes, audio definitely brings in a lot more empathy and civility than you will find on text. I don’t know what it is about the representation of humans in text but they don’t carry their personality over as much as they do in audio.”
More than just a passing fad?
For two months, I have participated in different Clubhouse rooms—sometimes as a speaker, more often as a curious listener. Just a week ago, when Spotify launched Greenroom, users on Clubhouse were busy discussing what made this new app different, while trying them both in real time.
While Clubhouse has the first-mover advantage, every app that follows suit will fix earlier glitches and offer more features.
The topics of discussion on these apps vary. In some rooms, experienced journalists are checking in every week on young reporters, who share their learnings and doubts. Some rooms on e-sport have brought professional gamers, lawyers and gaming purists together for an engrossing dialogue.
People are learning, building connections. Earlier this week, I spoke to TV presenter and cricket host Gaurav Kapur on his experiences while shooting the popular series Breakfast With Champions. It was a candid conversation.
These apps offer a sense of freedom. There is none of the pressure of being in front of a camera. You just bring your voice to the table.
But will these prove to be a passing fad? Eventually, when it is again safe to meet people, will these candid conversations continue to be as popular? Your guess is as good as mine. - NS