phone app

With ‘audio-only’, social media app Clubhouse is starting to hit the news after its launch one year ago, we take a look at exactly what it is and why you might consider using it.

What Is It?

Clubhouse is an invitation-only iPhone app where users can set-up their own (or join other users’) virtual public or private chat rooms.  Everything is live and in real-time and only a certain number of people are allowed to speak while others listen and have the opportunity to raise their hand (virtually) to ask to be allowed to speak.

The Hype

Some commentators have pointed out that Clubhouse’s rise has been extremely fast and surrounded by some hype.  For example, the app was only launched in April 2020 by Paul Davison and Rohan Seth of Alpha Exploration Co. and by May 2020 was valued at nearly $100 million, a total which had risen to a staggering $1 billion by January 21, 2021! Clubhouse only has around only two million active users but has already proven to be very popular in the US, China, Brazil, and Turkey.

Part of the Hype, which has been increased by the exclusivity of ‘invite only’ (users can only invite two other people) has been boosted by some of the big business names and CEOs who are reported to be using the app (e.g. Elon Musk and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg).

Strengths and Opportunities

Some of the strengths and opportunities of Clubhouse as a user include:

  • Users can have the kind of direct access to and an audience with influential people and industry leaders from around the world that it would be very difficult, costly, and time-consuming to get normally.
  • The real-time conversations mean that time is saved – issues, ideas and plans can be addressed and discussed instantaneously.
  • The app can help save the cost, hassle (and now the risk) of having to travel to meetings and conferences with users being able to get similar or perhaps better results. This is also a way of safely beating global lockdown restrictions.
  • Users have a fair amount of control.  For example, they can move between groups and discussions, set up their own groups, and talk privately or publicly.
  • The discussions and the other users of the app could provide new business ideas and opportunities. For example, users can easily find groups relating to their industry, thereby finding a new, authentic way to boost their brand.  Also, conversations can be very interesting and diverse, and journalists have now start hosting their own weekly rooms discussing trends that could represent new publicity opportunities.
  • Although now banned in China, the app provides a way to avoid the government restrictions that some states have placed on other social media platforms.

Weaknesses and Threats – Mainly Security and Privacy Concerns

Many of the possible weaknesses and threats are based around security and privacy concerns about the app. Some of the main weaknesses and threats include:

  • There does not appear to be end-to-end encryption on Clubhouse (unlike competitors like WhatsApp).
  • Some commentators have pointed to the app’s China connection. For example, Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) has recently suggested that user data is routed through Chinese servers and by implication, the Chinese state. This means that data could technically be intercepted, transcribed, and possibly used against people.
  • The app has been designed so that all conversations are not recorded/and no playbacks of conversations are made available, and the app’s terms and conditions stipulate that there should be no recording or streaming without the explicit permission of the speaker.  However, individual users could choose to record the audio as it happens. This could result in recordings being shared without permission, constituting a privacy breach, accidental and/or deliberate disclosure. Making any real privacy promises is, therefore, likely to be very difficult and the onus is on users to be very careful what they discuss using the app.
  • Recently, it was reported that a Clubhouse user (now banned) found a way to stream multiple rooms from their own feed to a website in what has been downplayed as a data ‘spill’. After realising that it was possible to be in multiple rooms at once, the rogue user reportedly connected a Clubhouse API to his website, thereby sharing his login remotely with anyone who wanted to listen to audio chats from the app.
  • The app is audio-only.  Although this does provide the benefit of a podcast feel, other apps allow more media such as text, pictures, and videos.
  • Having the app on a work device could expose the network to another security threat.
  • There is concern over the requirement on sign-up that users must upload their device address books, thereby sharing other peoples’ contact details without consent.
  • The app’s apparent privacy weaknesses may mean that it isn’t taking account of data protection laws like GDPR.  For example, the app has already fallen foul of German data protection authorities for possible breaches of GDPR.
  • Discussing work/business matters on the app could technically constitute breaching an employment contract and company policies (privacy).

Looking Ahead

Clubhouse has risen fast with the help of some hype and is currently burning brightly which has led some commentators to suggest that it has the appearance of something that may be short-lived.  Others, however, have suggested that it looks a little like the pattern that Zoom took when it started out.  Clearly, the app offers many unique opportunities for business users in terms of access to other important contacts and finding new opportunities.

There are clearly many security and privacy concerns for the app to address before it gets better press, although it is still early days for Clubhouse, and the company says it is reviewing cyber-security.

The popularity of the app means that it now faces the threat of big social media players quickly launching their own versions (e.g. Twitter’s ‘Spaces’).

For users, it may simply be a case of weighing up the known risks against the possible benefits, accepting that this is simply an exclusive space to meet and chat but that it comes with potential privacy and security risks at this stage in the app’s life.

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