What happens when a buzzy app pegged as a digital soapbox for tech bros suddenly lands on the global stage?
Since December, people have joined Clubhouse, a fast-growing audio platform reportedly valued at $1 billion, from countries including Ghana, Saudi Arabia, and Thailand. The app, which is currently invite-only, has been installed more than 5.5 million times, with 16% of those downloads in Japan, according to one estimate. From Berlin to Delhi, people are hosting live conversations that sound like a mix between a Zoom webinar and happy hour gossip.
Clubhouse is perhaps best-known for attracting Silicon Valley insiders like Elon Musk and receiving funding from Andreessen Horowitz, a major venture capital firm whose partners are also noteworthy Clubhouse users. Launched in March of last year, Clubhouse is already confronting the challenges many social media platforms face when they scale internationally, especially when it comes to moderation and security. As it grows, Clubhouse will need to consider how to protect users in more authoritarian countries like China, where it was recently blocked by the government after users created conversations, or “rooms,” to openly discuss taboo topics like human rights abuses in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
Rest of World took a look at four places that have seen a recent spike in Clubhouse users — Japan, India, Nigeria, and Hong Kong — to better understand the app’s global rise, as well as the ripple effects new users in each location are leaving in their wake.
JAPAN — Chasing celebrity
Elon Musk first hopped on Clubhouse in late January to discuss cryptocurrencies and investing in GameStop. The Tesla CEO’s appearance helped bring mainstream attention to Clubhouse in the U.S., but it would be a mistake to cite Musk as the catalyst for its rise elsewhere.
“He has very little to do with the Japanese growth,” Koichi Tsunoda told Rest of World in a private Clubhouse chat, his preferred venue for an interview. A week before the Musk cameo, Tsunoda, the CFO of a platform for businesses called Yappli, was part of the first wave of Japanese entrepreneurs to arrive on Clubhouse. Tsunoda said it took only three days for the majority of Japan’s best-known tech influencers to secure invites. Tsunoda joined hoping to connect with investors abroad and bring more visibility to Japan’s startup sector. But the app quickly expanded beyond the country’s tech bubble.
A handful of Japanese celebrities were invited to Clubhouse in late January by friends in the tech industry, including TV commentator and comedian Atsushi Tamura, who was one of the first widely recognized figures to log on. He was followed by actress and fashion designer Naomi Watanabe, who racked up over 500,000 followers in her first two weeks on the app. Celebrated kabuki and film actor Ebizo Ichikawa is also a Clubhouse convert, appearing in rooms every few days in recent weeks.
This constellation of celebrities made the app enticing to the general public. “Clubhouse, maybe due to a lack of users, is very intimate,” said Tsunoda. “You can talk to singers in Japan, you can talk to those comedians, and you can actually have a conversation with them.”
Some Japanese-langauge rooms made passing references to Musk’s talk when he finally joined Clubhouse on January 31, but by that time, the app’s “hallways” — the Clubhouse equivalent of a news feed — were already full of Japanese users hosting their own conversations. The app was established enough that government minister Taro Kono even jumped on to recap his recent visit to Davos, Switzerland.
INDIA — The iOS barrier
Every day, Pankaj Jain said he receives from 200 to 300 Clubhouse notifications. The angel investor and COO of the startup Workomo joined in September, as members of the South Asian diaspora working in Silicon Valley carved out a space for themselves on the platform. But Jain, who lives in New York, saw no communities — or what the app calls “clubs” — devoted specifically to India, let alone its startup ecosystem. After roping in Utsav Somani, a Delhi-based partner at AngelList India, he co-founded The Indian Startup Club, which now has nearly 8,000 members.
The club often runs a handful of rooms simultaneously, which have included pitch stages for budding Indian entrepreneurs, mental health and personal finance workshops for founders, and deep dives into cutting-edge industries like cryptocurrency and agricultural technology. “I never dreamt Clubhouse would blow up so quickly,” said Jain. “Now it’s turning into a job. I just sit there and keep letting people in.”
Jain hoped to broaden the conversation on Clubhouse beyond Silicon Valley, but when he tried inviting friends and colleagues from India to the platform, he found himself scrounging through his contact list for anyone who used an iPhone. Clubhouse is currently only available on iOS, but only around 3% of Indians smartphone users have an Apple device, which cost 40% more in India than in the U.S., due to taxes and importation costs. “There’s a significant amount of FOMO that’s been going on,” said Jain. “Immediately, a huge part of the population can’t get on the app — no matter what.”
In early January, noted Silicon Valley venture capitalists Balaji Srinivasan and Naval Ravikant announced they would host a Startup Bharat conversation on Clubhouse for “taking questions from Indian founders and open sourcing the Silicon Valley playbook.” Indian tech Twitter lit up with pleas for invites as well as posts bemoaning iOS elitism. The moment captured Clubhouse’s limitations in India: When moneyed investors created a space for the country’s tech workers, most of the industry was still stuck at the door, waiting to be let in.
Clubhouse’s founders, Rohan Seth and Paul Davison, said in a January blog post that the company would “begin work on our Android app soon.” Clubhouse did not respond to a request for comment asking for more information about a specific timetable. In the meantime, Jain said he has heard whispers among Indian entrepreneurs about building an Android clone of Clubhouse for non-English speaking users in India.
HONG KONG — Transnational, multilingual
Jane Manchun Wong describes herself as Clubhouse’s first user in Hong Kong. Until recently, she was simply waiting for everyone else to show up. “The HK Clubhouse community was nonexistent before mid-January,” she told Rest of World over email. A technology blogger and software engineer, Wong said she searched for months for other Hong Kongers using the app. On January 18, she came across a Cantonese-speaking room hosted by Jonny Chan, who works in the tech industry in San Francisco and was chatting with a dozen or so of his friends. “It was this serendipitous moment,” said Chan. “I felt, wow, Clubhouse really nailed the organic connection.”
The pair had never met in person and lived on different continents, but they started working together to create some of the first Cantonese-speaking rooms on Clubhouse. The number of Hong Kong-based users on the app quickly grew, and the new arrivals began joining Wong and Chan’s conversations.
When Chan eventually decided to launch a 24-hour Cantonese room, he didn’t think they could keep it open for the full day. But one perk of making friends across the world is that when Chan decided to call it a night, he could hand over the moderation baton to Wong, who kept things going from Hong Kong. “I woke up, and it was still going: I was so surprised,” Chan said. When the session hit the 24-hour mark, everyone clapped by flashing on and off their mute buttons. “It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget,” Chan said. “It’s just this aha moment when you think, Wow, this app is so powerful.”
Transnational run-ins are not uncommon on Clubhouse. Even after the app was banned in China, Mandarin speakers have logged on to have honest and deeply personal conversations, often touching on sensitive political subjects like relations between China and Taiwan. Japanese entrepreneurs and German investors have stepped into Indian-hosted rooms to deliberate the merits of moving to Bangalore for work. And Wong has taken part in discussions between users in Hong Kong and the U.S. about the experience of being Asian-American.
The cross-border dialogues aren’t without incident. Wong recalled multiple instances of harassment in her rooms, where users talked in gibberish to mock Cantonese speakers or raised their hand just to tell Wong and others to speak in English. “I found these behaviors racist and offensive,” said Wong. “While we fortunately can report trolling, this kind of behavior can make us feel less safe on the platform.”
The problem of audio moderation is not new: social media platforms like Discord and YY in China have featured live-audio chat rooms for years. WhatsApp audio messages have also been a noted source of misinformation. But critics have already accused Clubhouse of struggling to moderate English conversations, let alone those in other languages. “I doubt Clubhouse’s moderation team understands all of the languages being spoken on the app, potentially leaving some abuses unchecked,” said Wong.
NIGERIA – Flirting, music, and charity
In mid-January, Nigerian radio personality Lanre Shonubi started a room on Clubhouse he called Shoot Your Shot Pro Max. It began originally as a space to host fun, casual discussions, and Shonubi enticed people to join on social media with promises of cash prizes and trips to Dubai and the Maldives (giveaways have become common on the app). Participants were also encouraged to “shoot their shot,” by revealing who in the room they had crushes on, turning Clubhouse into a mini dating platform.
But it wasn’t long before the room’s focus shifted from romance to something more serious: crowdfunding for charity. “We became more intentional, to accommodate people with proper problems — house rent issues, school fees issues, hospital bills issues — so we had a night for them,” Shonubi said. “There was a woman, we paid her daughter’s school fees, and she came back to say thank you. She was crying. Another person’s mum was in the hospital and needed urgent medical attention out of Lagos but couldn’t afford it. We paid for that.” Sonubi said he has raised over $3,000 for a variety of causes so far.
Thousands of Nigerians have also used Clubhouse to host tech and business conversations, including on female-led startups, pitching small business ideas, and whether venture capital is “the right model for Africa.”
Joey Akan, a Nigerian culture journalist and the founder of the music newsletter Afrobeats Intelligence, used Clubhouse to start a club with the same name that now has almost 4,000 followers. “The focus has been trying to create an audio experience for people who love music by bringing celebrities into the house, educating participants, having fan-based conversations, getting takes on the music they are listening to, and reviews on old projects,” said Akan. “It is just bringing the community together.”
Other Nigerians are using Clubhouse to talk about issues that are rarely brought up anywhere elsewhere. Queer Nigeria, for example is a club for LGBTQ+ people in the country that has over 1,000 followers. “These are discussions we hardly have time or space to have, and that’s the beauty of a space like Clubhouse,” said Bisi Alimi, a Nigerian LGBTQ+ rights activist and public speaker. “Also, it allows for privacy and safety. You can join the conversation anywhere and [are] under no pressure to speak. Like we always say, it has given us a voice like no other app.”