Privacy and security / March 10, 2021

Why all the “talk” about Clubhouse?

Nimmi Kanji

Nimmi Kanji

Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise

Man using phone and laptop

Everyone is talking about it, and an exclusive, invite-only group are talking on it.

Clubhouse, a free voice-based social media app (often referred to as a social audio app), is the latest hype that’s attracting celebs and Silicon Valley insiders. Launched in March 2020 just as the world was shutting down and isolation forced people even deeper into cyber connections -- Clubhouse already boasts 4.7 million downloads.

What’s the hype?

The likes of Oprah, Drake, Elon Musk, Chris Rock and Mark Cuban have taken to “rooms” on the app to talk with followers publicly. Designed as a space for authentic conversation and expression, Clubhouse lets users schedule conversations or create open rooms anyone can join if interested.

The first two people to join a room are automatically labeled as “speakers.” The remaining users are “listeners,” who the speakers can invite to talk. Select users are also designated as “moderators,” who control and set the rules for the audio chat room. It’s like a live podcast, but listeners have the option to join in the conversation.

The audio-only app is currently only available for iOS. The exclusivity of an invitation-only app is only adding to the hype and demand.

A new kind of social community

The “open” format offers great opportunities for curiosity, debate and discussion. According to Clubhouse, “the world is not a monoculture, and we want Clubhouse to reflect that. Ideally the experience is more like a town square, where people with different backgrounds, religions, political affiliations, sexual orientations, genders, ethnicities and ideas about the world come together to share their views, be heard and learn.”

But it is difficult to moderate and track what is being said when people are talking to each other instead of recording ideas and opinions in text. The content is shared live. There is no opportunity to record or playback. So it’s not surprising that there have been complaints about hate speech, racism and harassment, which Clubhouse addresses in its Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. To maintain the integrity of the community, Clubhouse commits to taking action on all incident reports. It is also scaling its safety and trust operations by adding advisors, engaging with the community, growing its team and shipping new safety features.

In a blog post, On Community Moderation, Clubhouse states:

“Our hope for Clubhouse is that it can be a new type of network based on empathy, discussion and sense making, rather than polarization. We think social media needs more of this.”

The app’s Community Guidelines outline five core codes of conduct for participating in “rooms” including:

  • Be yourself
  • Be respectful
  • Be inclusive
  • Build empathy and understanding
  • Foster meaningful and genuine connections

But is it safe?

Security and privacy are both works in progress. Parents take note -- according to Clubhouse’s rules, users must be 18 years of age or older. Security provider Avast points out in this blog post that there is no age checking or content/topic filter on the app. With adult topics and rooms full of strangers, Clubhouse is not for kids. Period.

Here are some of the key security and privacy concerns that have arisen so far:

  • Existing users must grant permission for the app to access their entire iOS contact list to send any invites to prospective users.
  • An unidentified user streamed Clubhouse audio feeds from multiple rooms into his own third-party web site, creating privacy implications and jeopardizing people who participated in the chats.
  • According to a Bloomberg News report, the Stanford Internet Observatory identified that Clubhouse does record conversations. Clubhouse has indicated it uses recordings only to support incident reporting and investigation.
  • The app uses cookies, pixels and other technologies to track what users do on Clubhouse and across the web (this will become increasingly problematic once Clubhouse implements its monetization strategy)
  • There is no way to permanently delete an account – you need to send an email request and wait until a Clubhouse admin responds and acts.

The application does offer certain controls for activity in rooms including:

  • Room access: rooms can be open (accessible to any user), social (only followers) or closed (invitees only).
  • Moderation: moderators can decide who is in a room and who can speak by accepting/rejecting speakers, muting/removing speakers or removing someone from a room.
  • Privacy settings: users can choose whom they interact with by unfollowing, blocking and accessing shared block lists to see other users who have been blocked from a room.
  • Incident reporting: users can report rule violations either in real time or after the fact.

Looking ahead

Clubhouse has plans in place to continue creating intentional gathering spaces that cater to many interests and styles. As the app evolves, it plans to introduce the ability for club founders to write rules specific to a club’s values, norms and codes of conduct. Both members and non-members will be asked to accept the rules before participating in any discussion. Moderator training is also in the works.

Clubhouse plans to roll out tools including:

  • Safety alerts: notify moderators if there is a safety concern in their rooms
  • Moderator badges: allow people to know who is in charge of the room, so they can provide feedback to the right person.

With all the hype around Clubhouse as the next social media disruptor, it’s only a matter of time before anyone can use it. Like every social media app, there is a trade off between connection and engagement and security and privacy. Educate yourself so you can make choices that are right for you and your family.

To learn more about staying safe in our digital world, explore TELUS Wise online workshops for youth, adults and parents.

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