Apple's App Store page for the social media app Clubhouse is displayed on a smartphone screen in Beijing, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 Image Credit: AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein

The trending topic of the day is Clubhouse. For the uninitiated, it may make no sense yet – an app that requires an invite, involves audio-only chats and is totally free, for now. Clubhouse is a social media app that launched less than a year ago, and has already caught the attention of bigshot players such as Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook Inc. The Chinese government has even gone ahead and blocked it in the country.

Didn’t hear about it? Clubhouse has been installed 5.5 million times around the globe, with roughly 42 percent of downloads in the US, 16 percent in Japan, and 10 percent in Germany, according to Sensor Tower. Now Facebook is reportedly building a new audio chat product similar to Clubhouse, NYT reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. Twitter is also ramping up testing for Spaces involving audio-only chat rooms. So here’s what you should know.

What is it?

The iOS-only app, once you're in, lets you start or listen into conversations on a whole host of topics, and with a range of people from celebrities to thinkers and influencers. There are no posts, photos or videos, only people's profile pictures and their voices.

There is no pressure to participate and the conversations are moderated. You may have found yourself invited to a chat room of people who are all discussing a niche topic dear to you, or get an invite to a chat room where one person or a few people are speaking to a largely silent crowd. There are endless Clubhouse formats. As Washington Post reported, some are like concerts and others set up like old-school dating shows, and in one case a room was 40 cast members recreating the entire Lion King Musical.

Invite only

Unlike Twitter or a Facebook group, Clubhouse rooms aren't free-for-alls and like conference calls, with a set group of people acting as moderators on a virtual stage. The moderators, who can speak freely, can also call on members of the audience who want to participate. You can tell who is talking by looking for a subtle gray halo around a participant's photo. Anyone can start a room and set it to be "open," meaning any other users can pop in.

A "social" room means only people you follow can join. And "closed" is for invited guests only. The app also has "clubs," which can create re-occurring rooms and have members.

Several tweets we looked at show that invites to the app are now being bought and sold, or being given out in random draws and 'giveaways'. The app is not available on Android app stores. 

You can follow people or clubs to find out when they are moderating or participating in rooms. Click on the calendar icon and you can see a suggested or unfiltered list of rooms happening at any given time. There's no way to delete an account in the app or online, but you can email the company to request deletion.

Why did it get so popular

Clubhouse owes its fast rise to several factors including growth strategies deployed by start-up founders to drive downloads and hook users, along with good timing with the launch amid a pandemic. The invite-only format, WP reported, attracted Silicon Valley insiders, who treated the app like a safe space to speak to their acolytes.

A lot of Black users have also helped in the meteoric popularity of the app as there is a clear focus on bringing on Black creators, entertainers, and others on the cultural vanguard, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and CNBC. Reports suggest that the company has introduced a plan to potentially pay creators for their content.

The app launched in March 2020, less than a year ago just as coronavirus restrictions got strict across the world, limiting social interactions and events. The venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz valued the company at US$100 million when it was just a few months old in May 2020, had less than 5,000 beta testers and asked would-be users to sign-up via Google form to wait for an invite, Forbes reported.

As of now, Clubhouse is at a reported $1 billion valuation and recently raised US$ 100 million, after some notable technology executives, including Elon Musk, joined the service. The app saw global user numbers soar earlier this month after Musk and Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev held a surprise discussion on the platform.

Data privacy concerns

The Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) found potential vulnerabilities in its infrastructure that could allow external access to users' raw audio data. The SIO confirmed that Agora Inc., a Shanghai-based start-up with offices in Silicon Valley, provides back-end infrastructure to Clubhouse and sells a "real-time voice and video engagement platform."

Agora, known mostly within tech circles as an industrious but low-profile provider of software tools, has soared more than 150 oer cent since mid-January when online chatter began to circulate about how it powers the world's hottest new social media forum. That's because the little-known company - now worth almost $10 billion - provides developers with all they need to build real-time voice and video functions within application, using a template known as a software development kit.

For Clubhouse, User IDs are transmitted in plaintext over the internet, making them "trivial to intercept," the Observatory noted. User IDs are like a serial number, not the username of the person. Agora would likely have access to users' raw audio, potentially providing access to the Chinese government, it said.

SIO, a program at Stanford University that studies disinformation on the internet and social media platforms, said it observed metadata from a Clubhouse chatroom "being relayed to servers we believe to be hosted in" China. Clubhouse's core software relies on an old version of Agora's voice library, Federico Maggi, a senior researcher at Trend Micro told Bloomberg.

In a statement included in the SIO report, Clubhouse said it would roll out changes over 72 hours to add "additional encryption and blocks to prevent Clubhouse clients from ever transmitting pings to Chinese servers. We also plan to engage an external data security firm to review and validate these changes."

COVID-19 misinformation

Washington Post reported that Black doctors were working overtime to beat down misinformation and myths spreading on the app. Clubhouse leaves the moderation to the app's users, who control who gets to speak in certain rooms. WP added in their report that doctors said Clubhouse has become so popular and influential in the Black community that false claims about COVID-19 and its vaccines can't be ignored.

- Inputs from Washington Post, NYT, Reuters and Bloomberg