As a result, Clubhouse has become a haven not only for the tech jet set that formed its earliest base, but for Black, Indigenous, and many other marginalized communities. Contrary to the perception that most conversations there involve venture capitalists bashing journalists and cryptocurrency geeks pumping dogecoin, Clubhouse is kaleidoscopically diverse. On a recent evening, I came across rooms devoted to veganism, mental health, UFOs, dating, and Inuit throat singing (which is truly delightful, if you’re not familiar with it). The start-up was rewarded in April with a funding round that valued it at $4 billion. Its success has sent Facebook and Twitter scrambling to build copycats. Twitter released its version, Spaces, widely last week.
Now, however, Clubhouse faces a crucial juncture. In the weeks before its Android launch, its iOS downloads cratered, a warning that the app’s cachet had faded. “The Clubhouse Party Is Over,” Vanity Fair’s Nick Bilton declared last month, writing off the social audio experiment as one best suited to pandemic times. But the positive reception of Twitter Spaces suggests that Clubhouse’s problems may be more specific than timing.
In fact, some have come to see its block-centric moderation system as part of the problem. About a dozen highly active Clubhouse users interviewed for this story, all of them women and most of them women of color, said the block feature has created its own array of opportunities for abuse, tactical silencing, and intimidation. The targets, in many cases, are the same vulnerable groups the tool was meant to protect.
“The problem I have with the blocking is that it can also be weaponized,” said Shireen Mitchell, a Black entrepreneur and activist who founded the nonprofit Stop Online Violence Against Women. For instance, she’s seen vaccine conspiracy theorists block doctors on Clubhouse to avoid debunkings (a phenomenon documented earlier this year by Motherboard’s Kaylin Dodson), and misogynists block feminists who challenge their views. “They love the power of having someone up onstage that they can then dismiss and send back down,” Mitchell said.
Sarah Szalavitz, an entrepreneur and self-described “accountability architect” who researches online platforms, was an early adopter of Clubhouse, and remembers advocating for a blocking feature before it had one. “I argued that the block function should work in a way that was social,” she said, so that you could see which users had been blocked by others in your network. “I would like to know why my friends blocked people … If you’re blocking someone for hate and misinfo, I could see that and decide whether to block him for that reason as well.”
Instead, she said, Clubhouse made a block feature that carries sweeping implications for people’s ability to use the app. “On Twitter, the impact of blocking is that I can’t see your messages,” Szalavitz said. “On Clubhouse, I can’t participate in any conversation you’re having, or know about it. It doesn’t give anybody the actual choice, except that one person who gets to be the dictator.”