Clubhouse—the phenomenon that took the world by storm last year—became the talk of the town this summer in India, and soon, quite literally, facilitated many other talks itself.  

Launched as an invite-only app in the US in April of 2020, Clubhouse largely catered to venture capitalists and people employed in the financial and tech sectors. In India, the app faced a similar trajectory throughout 2020, and only became popular in the beginning of 2021. It was first used by iPhone-using individuals since it was initially only available on iOS devices, but saw an immense spike in usage once an Android version was released in May 2021. As of June of this year, Clubhouse has been downloaded 5.7 million times in India and boasts of 2 million plus active users. In the space of a few months, Clubhouse, an app seemingly committed to speech and conversation by design, seamlessly became a part of India’s “must-have” social media fabric. To boost its growth, Clubhouse recently removed its barrier of exclusivity by removing its invite-only feature—anyone in India can download the app now.

These users are now onboarded onto an audio-based social media app that allowed people separated by long distances to tune into conversations around the world. These live discussions, some between friends and often between strangers, brought with them the element of surprise and allowed for casual spontaneity, through midnight games sessions, evening discussions on politics, and carefully curated quizzes and other activities. By giving all its users a literal voice to talk about anything under the sun, Clubhouse spun a new digital number on India’s cherished democratic ideal of free speech.

An example of what a Clubhouse room looks like: with speakers in the conversation listed in the top two rows and listeners in the bottom two. | Courtesy of Clubhouse.

Free speech here unravels in Clubhouse’s conversation ‘rooms’, which are identical to conference calls, or indeed any real-life conversation: some users talk in them, while others listen. Appointed moderators ‘host’ the room: that is, they guide the discussion by allowing users to talk as and when they wish to participate. These discussions cannot be recorded by Clubhouse users on the platform—they disappear once the room has ended and the “conversation” has stopped.

Yet, in India, is Clubhouse the Utopian melting pot of ideas and speech it seems to be in other parts of the world? To gauge this, the quality of conversation, interaction, and speech on Clubhouse in India must be interrogated. What are India’s Clubhouse users communicating about on the app and how do they go about doing it? Can a platform like Clubhouse, that promotes free speech in the most literal sense by giving everyone a chance to be heard, be accommodating enough to create a space for everyone?  Do social media apps appear to be more democratic than they truly are? We spoke to six young, urban, English-speaking Indian professionals to find out.

The Arrival and Acceptance of Clubhouse in India

Clubhouse seemed to become extremely popular among already avid users of social media. While some joined the app just for recreational purposes and to explore the platform, others used it exclusively for professional purposes. From its inception, Clubhouse is consistently seen as a great medium to network with individuals from various fields. 

I enjoy exploring new apps, and a friend recommended I try it out, because the format was novel,” said Sandhya Surendran, a media and entertainment lawyer from Bengaluru, in conversation with The Bastion. “It started off with me just listening in, and then once I was able to form a club, I began hosting discussions. I run two clubs on Clubhouse, one called Feminism in India and the other dedicated to my podcast on the music business in India, called Lex Talk Music.” 

Clubhouse user and public policy practitioner Sujay initially joined the app out of curiosity. “It’s just audio-based and pretty much like the conversations my friends have, but open to the public to listen to. I wanted to check out what was really happening on the app,” says Sujay. The rest of the Clubhouse users we interviewed, share similar stories. “I originally joined Clubhouse a few months ago because everyone was talking about it and I just wanted to see what the hype was about,” says Rohin, a recently graduated lawyer. “A few weeks in, I now use it almost for six to seven hours every day.”

However, the enthusiasm and pomp which the app first received soon decreased for some users. Nowadays, Sujay’s usage of Clubhouse has decreased because “The conversations got a little repetitive. Many other users are also dropping off the rooms.” Pallavi, a lawyer from Delhi, first downloaded the app in April. “For the first two weeks, I think I opened it every day, sometimes listening to rooms where conversations can go up to three hours and beyond,” says Pallavi. “But now, two to three months down the line, I probably don’t open it more than once a week. So, the idea that I can speak for myself boomed initially, and then it just fizzled out.”

Notwithstanding this perceived saturation of interest in the app, Clubhouse has made space for itself, separate from those occupied by other social media apps. A certain element of mystery still remains attached to the platform, perhaps due to its peculiar release in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.

All that Clubhouse Offers that was Previously Unavailable

In India, Clubhouse’s rise in popularity coincided with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic: and thus a whole new set of lockdowns. In this environment of physical distancing, Clubhouse became a substitute for social settings, allowing people with similar interests to  connect via speech. 

This familiarity is missing from other text or photo based social media platforms, which often can’t accommodate the spontaneity of in-person conversations. “Clubhouse is different from other global social media platforms as it has a very human touch: you feel like you are talking to a real person,” opines Abhishek, a Clubhouse user. For Abhishek, this has tangible professional benefits. “I opt for rooms that align with my career as a political consultant. I’ve worked in the social sector too, so I contributed to development-centred rooms. I join self-growth groups, where people talk about careers and give motivational gyan too.”

On the other hand, Shruti, a social media manager, uses Clubhouse for more recreational purposes. “There’s a room for Indian film lovers that I listen to the most, where every week writers, actors, and screenplay writers are invited to discuss a piece of interesting work. There are also rooms on food culture, where people discuss their favorite restaurants or dishes, which are interesting to me because I like cooking.” Shruti prefers these rooms because they help her demarcate time to relax during the pandemic. “My job is to monitor Twitter and current events on a daily basis. I go to these rooms at night when I want to take screen time off, when I just want some background noise.”

So, during a lonely year, Clubhouse provides much-needed distraction and connection. “Being in the pandemic and locked in our house, there have been instances when we’ve all felt lonely and isolated,” says Rohin. “I think that’s what it has done for me: it has given me a sense of community. It often made me feel like I’m not as alone as I thought I was.” Pallavi notes the benefit of social media-based conversations too. “There were no geographical restrictions,” she says. “In fact, I followed many Pakistani groups and I interacted with their members. It was a different kind of experience, because normally you wouldn’t get to do something like that.”

The platform that Clubhouse built and offered to people seemingly became a medium for them to voice their opinions, freely express themselves, and find safe spaces amidst the continued chaos of COVID-19. None of this, however, was without its own limitations.

The Other Side of the Platform

As is the case with any online platform, Clubhouse, in spite of its unique approach to free speech, has its own set of problems when it comes to regulating it. Some are inherent to its design and others due to the precarious nature of user interactions themselves. 

The issues starting with the app’s privacy policy: where data collection and storage processes are ambiguous and affect user privacy. “It has a terrible privacy policy,” says Shruti. “Personally, I think that Clubhouse is losing its charm because it’s not taking its users seriously.” The app poses as benign as it doesn’t explicitly ask for much information when first registering for it. However, it has access to the user’s phonebook, and other features on the phone if the user permits it,which could lead to misuse of data.

Besides the app’s developers, Clubhouse users themselves are prone to compromising others’ privacy, with many screen recording the conversations as they take place, creating a permanent video of the room. Now, as per our respondents, the fear that conversations may be selectively recorded, misinterpreted, and weaponised prevents many users from participating in discussions with ease, hindering free speech. 

The app faces issues frequently in rooms where hate speech is indulged in, targeted at various communities and individuals, including women, the queer community, Muslims, and other oppressed groups. “Objectifying women is very common on clubhouse,” says Abhishek. “There are many rooms where people discuss women and how to pick them up, which to me are very problematic. There’s nothing wrong with two people being attracted to each other—but that public discussion should happen with both of their consent.” Rohin adds how the rooms aren’t always safe for queer individuals. “I think safety has become another primary concern for people who don’t identify as cis-gender males. I’ve seen people hijack rooms and 10 to 15 young men changing the speaker’s display pictures to nude pictures.” 

All our respondents noted negative experiences with hate speech by people subscribing to majoritarian and Hindutva politics. “I’ve noticed politically polarized rooms contain extremely self-righteous people,” says Pallavi. “They state problematic opinions about oppressed groups that they probably wouldn’t on Facebook or other social media platforms, because they’d face instant backlash. On Clubhouse, the only backlash received is that the moderator can kick you out of the room.” Nothing prevents a user from repeating the same argument in another room.

These issues may be exacerbated because of the app’s audio-only feature and the disappearing nature of conversations themselves. People can freely engage in obscene acts or speech and still not be held accountable, as the duty to raise the issue may depend solely on the user, whose concerns may not be adequately addressed by the moderator. Paradoxically, as seen above, even “holding people accountable” by taking screen recordings has its own limitations. 

“There were certain rooms where people started to talk over each other and the moderators didn’t do anything about it,” says Sujay, describing the sometimes chaotic nature of the conversations on the app. In Sujay’s experience, this leads to discussions running into ruin, creating a space where only highly polarized people are left speaking, with no one listening to what the next person is saying.  “In other rooms, there are 18 people on the speaker’s list, and everybody’s talking over each other,” Sujay continues. “Everybody wants to butt in with their point of view. So, I don’t know if there is a clear cut answer as to how it helps the flow of free speech. Good examples of discussions were very few and far between.”

Our respondents generally noted that the Clubhouse users with such a need to speak were motivated much less by an equal conversation, than by anger and emotion. This led to the slow decline of conducive discussions, with rooms becoming echo chambers of speakers with few listeners. 

The audio feature, however, also prevents people from speaking too harshly on the platform: directly disrespecting an individual or their opinion verbally, as opposed to anonymously, prevents many people from doing so. The app by extension of this phenomenon, could be considered as equally or rather less polarized than other social media apps. Yet, does all of this nuance create a platform suited to free speech?

“Clubhouse is very hierarchical,” says Shruti. “There are the moderators, the speakers, the people followed by the speakers, and then the users. Neither is it the most democratic app, nor is it one that puts its users first. So, I do not think that Clubhouse strongly contributes to free speech or to people’s digital presence.”

How Do We Then Evaluate Free Speech on Clubhouse?

It is interesting that with each new social media platform, the expectation of free speech sans hate speech issues rises again, even before the extent of its use or limitations are fully known. The same expectations have been levied worldwide on Clubhouse too.

To its credit, Clubhouse gives a voice to its users, and accommodates Indians by lifting the barriers of articulation that text or photo based apps require. Since the app boils down to hosting conversations, it opens avenues for people to communicate in more than one language, as opposed to only in English or Hindi. Clubhouse thus posits itself as a social media platform with the ingredients for limitless, perfect free speech. 

However, “as much as it promotes free speech and has made interaction between people who share a passion or cause much easier, it has also become a new avenue for trolls and hate speech,” argues Sandhya. “But, I guess that would be the case for any social media platform.” 

To expect so much from a social media app, is perhaps a flawed expectation. The shortcomings of free speech in offline India are to some extent transported to India’s online spaces: which is why alongside its internal privacy issues, Clubhouse has its limitations when it comes to delivering perfectly free speech. A general reading of our interviews has only shown that wherever there is space for nuanced arguments and dialogue in a conversation, there will also be space for vitriol and talking over another too. What is required are stronger privacy and security settings on the app to control for this.

Democratic conversations are not a one way street of free speech or simply talking: they also, and most significantly, include listening to free speech, without which the former is but a hollow right. Neither is Clubhouse perfect, nor can it be relied on to be the perfect bastion of free speech. But, it is one where people can talk and also listen to ideas and conversations previously missing in offline spaces in India. Perhaps that is where the real democratic potential of Clubhouse lies.

Featured image courtesy of Prithivi Rajan on Unsplash.


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