Does Clubhouse owe its Black users for the platform’s success?
Feb 26, 2021

Does Clubhouse owe its Black users for the platform’s success?

Black influencers, musicians and comedians have driven Clubhouse's growth.

Clubhouse is an invite-only audio app that came out last spring with a very small community of, at the time, mostly Silicon Valley tech-y people in it. Back then, they were talking mostly about tech-related stuff. Now, the app has 10 million active users on a weekly basis and a valuation of about $1 billion.

And although there was recent buzz about SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk going on the platform, or even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, many of the people who have driven Clubhouse’s growth are Black influencers, musicians and comedians. I spoke with Aniyia Williams, a principal on the responsible technology team at Omidyar Network, a Marketplace underwriter. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Aniyia Williams, principal on the responsible technology team at Omidyar Network and board chair of Black & Brown Founders.
Aniyia Williams (Photo courtesy of Williams)

Aniyia Williams: This convergence of cool people, exclusivity and celebrities all being on this thing just really has had it explode. And then, when you combine that with just the very kind of Black culture, I just think that there’s something that’s very oral about Black culture and how Black people communicate with each other. So it’s just, I think, a real natural fit.

Molly Wood: OK, so now, here we are in the present. What’s happening with the platform now? What are the growing pains?

Williams: Oh, man … it’s interesting. It feels a little bit odd because I’m like, “I don’t work at Clubhouse. I’m not getting paid any commission on this.” And I think I have both positive and not-so-positive thoughts about Clubhouse. I would also say, from my time working at a company that made a social networking app, [that] if you put humans on a platform together to communicate with each other, you are inevitably going to get some of the dregs of humanity as well. And just in terms of how people interact with each other, obviously, that looks a little bit different than what you’re going to see on a Facebook or a Twitter because it’s audio-based, but also, just the way in which people have access to each other. Having that fresh slate of a social network for some people means that people that they have blocked on other social channels now have access to them. Not only do they have access to them, but in what feels like a very intimate medium of communication — voice, and that they could pop up in any room that that person might be in. So there’s just a lot there. I think also, moderation has played a really important role. I think that has been true since the very beginning. But it definitely remains true now that a good moderator or set of moderators in a room kind of makes or breaks the experience. And they also tend to be the enforcers of what is acceptable and unacceptable in that space. And so it really depends on the moment, the room, the moderation, in terms of what kind of experience you’re going to get.

So, because there’s so many different people with all kinds of different levels of experience … like in the beginning, when it was small, there was a communal culture that Clubhouse had in those early days. There was a very active group of people who would be there to onboard you. There was a whole experience. There was actually a whole notion of instance, like the actual kind of like a wiki online that had pro tips like, “Oh, you just joined Clubhouse? Here’s what you should know, these are things we do.” Just all the things so you could just kind of be in the know, like when you came in and know how things work around there. And then, when it kind of blew up, all of that sort of started to dissolve and devolve into all the shenanigans we see on typical social media. And it changed the experience a lot. So you can still really have some amazing moments there. But if I’m being completely honest, the best conversations I have now are not the rooms that have 5,000 people in it. It’s the rooms that have less than like 20. Maybe a room with a few hundred people, when you have some really good, interesting conversation happening with the people who are on stage. But really the best conversations are very small groups, in my experience.

Wood: As Clubhouse grows and has gotten this reputation for having had that growth be driven by Black creators and hosts and moderators, there is this conversation about whether there should be remuneration, whether there should be payment. Where do you come down on that?

Williams: Yeah, this is a very hot topic with the Black community. We also have to recognize the moment, too. When we see all of the conversation around us socially and the push for racial and social justice, I would say that being very top of mind for people, I think also really makes it like the obvious next question: Well, who’s benefiting from this? When we think about a lot of other social networks and how Black users have really kind of been the thing that helped it spark and everyone kind of seems to make profits off of Black culture except for Black people. And that’s like a really common undertone to the conversation. But then, when I put my Silicon Valley hat on, I’m like, they’re not in the business of, “Oh, how do we bring a community together?” They’re in the billion dollars of moneymaking business. I think when it comes to that, there’s a question about what Clubhouse could do to allow the crowd to also become investors in the app if they want to have some skin in the game.

The other thing that I would raise because one of the other hats that I get to wear is being a co-founder of an organization called Zebras Unite, and we’re pushing on more ethical, sustainable solutions around the startup ecosystem, in particular around capital, community and culture. And one of the things that we have been a part of helping to shape is this idea of “exit to community.” And that really kind of speaks to having that concentration of power and profits with just a handful of people become something that gets expanded to a broader group of stakeholders. And that can be lots of different things.

I say that to say that one of the other things that could happen is a critical mass of people in the Black community could pool their money together and they could buy Clubhouse. They can get those investors their return, and if they think there’s more money to be made here, they could buy it, and they could own it. And they could reap all the benefits from what Clubhouse does in the future. And they could have more of a say in terms of how it gets built and where it goes. So that’s, I think, a more productive conversation to have. I just know that the way that the world works today, at least that the conversation of “We showed up, and we’re using it. Therefore we should make some money off of it” is not going to be a thing. You’ll definitely be able to use it as a platform to use your brand on it, just like you do Twitter or Instagram or any of those other things, but that’s where I think it’s an interesting conversation. And I think there are valid arguments, but it’s a business. It’s a business.

Wood: And it seems like it’s largely a conversation about what direction this app could take or what direction a future app could take. But at least we’re acknowledging that historically, Black contributions online have either been erased or appropriated or turned into Fortnite dances. And so at least we’re talking about credit in a real way.

Williams: Absolutely. And I think it’s also really exciting, in a way, that this is the active part of the conversation because the progress I hope that we will see is the power being built up by the Black community, where we actually do get to own our own culture and it doesn’t get to just be co-opted or extracted by someone else who gets to put it in a insert-company-here commercial for the Super Bowl.

Wood: Before I let you go, I should point out that Clubhouse seems to have done better after intense criticism than some other platforms at building a diverse user base. But it’s not accessible, right? You can only use it if you can hear.

Williams: If you can hear, if you have an iPhone, if you have internet access. Yeah, I think that there’s so much there, too. I don’t know how the founders feel about this. I never really kind of asked them. And actually, they do still have these weekly town halls on Clubhouse to listen to what the community thinks. And they have chosen some things and listened and implemented, there are some things that they haven’t, but that decision is in their hands. I would say that the accessibility thing is a real issue. And I’m not also trying to make any excuses for the Clubhouse makers. But this is an issue across the tech industry in general, like just too rarely are we designing new products with the constraint of accessibility from the very beginning. It just all too often is an afterthought, and it’s just not OK. It’s not OK. There are people who also need to be here and in here. But as it relates to Clubhouse, I think that it just kept that air of exclusivity as part of its marketing tactic. Like, we want to make FOMO — the fear of missing out, for people who don’t know what FOMO is — and that’s going to make people want to be here and feel lucky to be here. And, I mean, I guess it works.

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Clubhouse did announce last month a grant program to pay some creators on the platform. It’s part of a new funding round the company raised last month, where it also said it will help creators on the platform get paid in other ways, too, like subscriptions, tips and ticket sales, according to TechCrunch.

As for some of those other issues Aniyia Williams mentioned, Clubhouse is working on an Android app, but there’s still no word on captions for those who are hard of hearing or other accessibility features. There’s a story we did recently about Twitter’s Spaces feature, which is basically voice-only chat like Clubhouse. But it will be captioned because Twitter got in trouble when it announced voice-only tweets that people pointed out were inaccessible.

There’s also a good story in Reuters about the new difficulties in moderating live audio formats, like Spaces and Clubhouse — and, of course, whatever Facebook is building to copy everybody else. Most moderation tools are built for text. It’s not feasible to have a human moderator in every single room happening on these apps, and few platforms are recording audio for later review — and users probably wouldn’t want them to anyway. Reuters reports that Mark Cuban’s upcoming Clubhouse competitor, Fireside, will be curated on purpose to hopefully avoid such issues. There’s a bit of a gold rush to figure out a tech solution, like some kind of combination of real-time transcribing and flagging offensive content. And in the meantime, it seems like name and shame on Twitter is the only consistent moderation strategy for when things get out of hand on Clubhouse.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Daniel Shin Producer
Jesús Alvarado Associate Producer