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Clubhouse's Entirely Predictable Privacy and Moderation Issues

16 minute read | Last updated 17-Feb-2021 |An icon depicting a retail tag with a heart for 'favourite'Social MediaPrivacy

On Tuesday, 16-Feb-2021, I discussed Clubhouse with Robyn Bresnahan on CBC Ottawa Morning. Have a listen…

Clubhouse launched in 2020 and has taken off like a rocket with more than 2 million active weekly users. It’s an audio-only network that allows users to joins discussions with up to 5,000 other users.

Each discussion has one or more moderators responsible for “passing” the microphone and maintaining some sense of order. Once a discussion is finished, it’s gone. There is no “news feed” or “timeline” on past content.

Users can organize into “clubs” around particular topics. This feature is still in its infancy but it aims to make it easier for people with shared interests to come together for discussions on the platform.

Discussions can be ad hoc or scheduled. The schedule itself can be overwhelming which speaks to one of Clubhouse’s biggest challenges at the moment, finding good content.

Growth Strategy

The network has been growing steadily as there is a sense of novelty to it. No other social network is audio only and the team has done a great job of leveraging a sense of exclusivity.

Clubhouse is currently invite only for iPhone users. The platform started with Silicon Valley influences like venture capitalists and other notable personalities within the tech world before expanding outwards.

Anyone can sign up for the network’s wait list. If someone you know is already in—and has shared your info—then you can jump to the head of the line get access a lot faster than you would’ve before.

This is not a new tactic. Facebook used this in the very early days. As did Gmail. It’s a good way to create buzz and to throttle the number of people joining the platform. This helps to avoid any technical issues as the platform scales up to accommodate new users.

When a new user tries out the platform, it’s critical that they have a positive experience to entice them to stay. If they already know someone on the platform, that makes it easier to show them new content right out of the gate and to start to make connections.

Another accelerator for this growth is the pandemic itself. With a large swath of the population being isolation for almost a year in most parts of the world, there is a desire to reconnect with others.

No other social network lets you speak directly with strangers so easily. The panel and group discussions held on Clubhouse feel like an extended dinner conversation. That’s very appealing to a lot of people right now.

The “In” Crowd

While you may have to be invited, the team at Clubhouse has done a great job expanding the “who’s who” of the platform. After all, venture capitalists and tech executives aren’t that appealing to those outside of the valley.

Either through the invite system or direct outreach, the Clubhouse team have managed to get a solid list of celebrities onto the platform. Elon Musk, Drake, Aston Kutcher, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, and others have all made appearances on the platform.

It’s this type of name recognition that will help the platform growth in the face of stiff competition.

And make no mistake, that competition is coming.

The Incumbents

Both Twitter and Facebook are openly working on Clubhouse clones with Twitters Spaces feature already in limited release.

This raises a key question. Is Clubhouse a feature or it’s own platform.

The company appears to realize that they need to grow as quickly as possible while the other social networks develop their clones. The technology isn’t the differentiator for this type of discussion network.

After all, Facebook already allows up to 50 people in a Messenger audio or video chat and both Facebook and Twitter (and LinkedIn too) having streaming options that allow for much broader distribution of audio and video content.

Clubhouse has taken on $110M USD in funding. That’s a sizeable investment and indicates that the platform is going to make a run a staying independent…or it aiming for a very, very large payday if one of the larger acquires it in order to catch up to the others in the real time audio space.

Mistakes, Mistakes, and More Mistakes

With a laser focus on growth, Clubhouse has made some rather predictable and some would argue, easily avoidable mistakes.

Apparently having learned nothing from Facebook and Twitter, content moderation is a growing issue for the platform.

There have been widely reported issues with racist and misogynistic content along with—what’s sadly now expected—disinformation and misinformation.

The format makes it difficult to track down these issues. Unlike Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and others, there is no historical record to point to when reporting abuse.

In a specific room, you can report a user for trolling, abuse, or breaking the community guidelines. All Clubhouse rooms are recording temporarily for just this purpose.

If there is any type of trust and safety report, the platform will review the recording and hold it during the course of investigation.

The problem? Only the platform has access to the evidence and each incident will be examined essentially in isolation. If a user hasn’t previous been reported for an issue, the platform won’t have a record of past behaviour.

That’s in stark contrast to other platforms where a users history can be reviewed to find patterns of unacceptable behaviour.

Scrambling To Catch Up

To their credit, Clubhouse is working to resolve some of these issues. They have stated that they will be providing moderator training and adding more tools to help moderate rooms.

Their community guidelines are also a solid foundation to build on but not nearly visible enough to users. They are currently hosted on a 3rd party site and users need to go out of their way to read through them.

Community guidelines for any network site should be front and center. And on a site with no available history, every effort should be made to remind users of the expected conduct on the site.

One of the biggest challenges will be speed and scale. How quickly can Clubhouse build and deploy moderation tools and train up a content moderation team that works for the platform?

This is a new model for content moderation and while I applaud the effort, as existing models haven’t worked out well so far, this echoes some of the challenges presented by Parler’s “model” for content moderation.

If someone in that room doesn’t report at issue at the time, negative behaviour will go unchecked. The tone for the community will be set.

Privacy Concerns

Like all social networks, Clubhouse monitors the behaviours of its users in order to both highlight content of interest to them and to profile for possible monetization opportunities down the road.

The biggest problem right out of the gate is that the app prompts users to provide access to their contacts.

Vacuuming up all of your contacts data not only allows Clubhouse to move waitlisted users to the front of the line, but it quickly allows them also map out a large social graph.

The challenge here is legality and consent.

While some jurisdictions without strict privacy laws may allow this type of data gathering. Others may now. It will have to be tested through due process, but it appears this may run afoul of GDPR and European data privacy rights.

The issue in question is whether or not you can share other peoples contact information without their consent.

This is what’s happening when you provide Clubhouse with access to your contacts. They now have those details for everyone in your address book. Your doctor. Your friends. Your family and more.

Is that information yours to share?

Clubhouse uses this data and your Twitter and Instagram accounts—if you connect them—to pre-seed your network and make the platform more attractive to you.

They also use it to map our relationships and behaviours creating a very valuable social graph sacrificing privacy along the way.

The Format

For a moment, let’s put these issues to the side. After all, we’ve seen networks make these mistakes and continue on to success…though plenty have failed as well.

The format Clubhouse is pioneering is fascinating. While a lot of time time it can be hard to find conversations that interest you, there’s something to the ability to have real time conversations with a large social group.

If we look at the swath of virtual events over the past year, they’ve all been missing something. The type of interaction offered by Clubhouse’s format could be it.

This format is easily replicable by other social networks and even individual sites and services. The streaming infrastructure is already in place on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

These services will need to work on the user experience of inviting the audience into the live stream but that’s a much easier problem to solve compared to discoverability and building out a massive user base (which they’ve already done).

This is a format worth experimenting with. Clubhouse may not be around in a year or in the five years from now but the format they pioneered certainly will be.

Further Reading

Transcript of My Chat With Robyn Bresnahan

[00:00:00] Robyn: It has been described as a podcast with audience participation by a n-, a user in the New York Times. Others say it’s like walking into a coffee shop or a party and striking up a conversation with a stranger. But an article in Vanity Fair described it as “a haven for the powerful to flirt with misogyny and racism.” Clubhouse is a new social networking app that lets people gather in audio only chat rooms. The early beta vision version is getting a lot of buzz, but it’s also receiving backlash over who is moderating the conversations on it. Our technology columnist, Mark Nunnikhoven, is one of the select people who got an invite, and he joins us now. Hi Mark.

[00:00:40] Mark: Hi Robyn.

[00:00:41] Robyn: Tell us more about Clubhouse. How would you describe it?

[00:00:43] Mark: I think that description as a podcast with audio participation is good. I think another way to look at it is all of the worst parts of radio and podcasts combined into one.

[00:00:55] Robyn: [Laughs] How

[00:00:56] ** Mark**: the challenge is quality. So podcasts are curated, they’re edited, and then they’re put out on whatever schedule works for that show. Radio i-is a longstanding medium with a lot of professionals involved obviously we say that on the radio.

[00:01:09] Robyn: [Laughs]

[00:01:10] Mark: But there’s just different bars there, whereas when you go to Clubhouse anybody can fire up a discussion, anybody can fire up a room, so there’s some good content there, but there’s a lot more bad content to be found and it’s really challenging to moderate these types of discussions.

[00:01:24] Robyn: So I’m still struggling to, to understand how it works. So basically, if you log in you can go into one of these rooms, and it’s like eavesdropping on a conversation or can you participate as well?

[00:01:35] Mark: Yeah it is that kind of experience. You log into this, into the platform and you’re present with a bunch of topics that are being discussed in various discussion rooms. Each of these rooms could have up to 5,000 people listening in and each of these rooms has one or more moderators, and the moderators are the ones who designate who is allowed to speak. Now the most popular of these rooms have a set speaking panel, so it would be like Mark and Robyn are talking about social media and then other people in the audience who are listening can actually click a button to raise their hand, and the moderator can then invite them to speak as well. So most of them center around a small group of people speaking, but anybody can raise their hand to participate.

[00:02:12] Robyn: So tell me about your experience on it, and, first of all, how did you get an invite to join?

[00:02:17] Mark: Yeah, it made me sound very fancy in the intro, and I appreciate it. The reality is much simpler. When you sign up, when anybody signs up, and anybody can put themselves on the wait list it asks for access to your contacts on your phone, and if somebody else signs up on the wait list and they’ve already, been added to the system through someone else’s contacts, then they get pushed up to the line. So I got an invite because I was on the wait list, and somebody I know had shared my information with the network, and I’m sure we’ll touch on that later. But that’s how I got in.

[00:02:47] Robyn: Okay, and so when you logged on, what were your impressions? What did you… What kind of rooms did you end up in?

[00:02:55] Mark: Yeah, so it’s very overwhelming to start with, because unlike other networks like a Facebook or a Twitter where you’re you feel like you’re in control browsing through the content and y-, if something catches your eye, you go in. For these rooms you just have a one-line description of what the topic is and if that appeals to you, you can jump in and then listen, but the, with the nature of this sort of dinner table conversation or coffee shop conversation format it may not be that interesting or that exciting or maybe they’re worrying about the logistics of, you know, been on all on those conference calls of like, oh, you speak, no, now I’m going to speak, and so there’s this clunkiness to it, and it takes a while to find a good discussion that’ll that aligns with your interests, and I was able to find a few but it is a rough experience. It’s not nearly as smooth as you would expect.

[00:03:40] Robyn: Who else is on it? Whose names would our listeners recognize?

[00:03:44] Mark: Yeah, so they started with this invite only system, which is of logical. They rolled that out to make sure the system doesn’t overwhelm it get overwhelmed, but also it creates this buzz, and it started with a lot of Silicon Valley sort of elite, a lot of venture capitalists and stuff that people wouldn’t recognize, but then it’s quickly gone to people like Drake Ashton Kutcher Tiffany Haddish Elon Musk, Oprah and they are quickly expanding to others, because there is this cool factor.

[00:04:07] Robyn: But there has been some backlash, because partly because it’s so exclusive, but party because of concerns around the moderation. What kinds of incidents have been reported?

[00:04:16] Mark: Yeah, there’s, and this is not surprising to anybody who has been online in the last decade but there’s a lot of bad stuff that’s being discussed as well. People feel this sort of freedom to say what’s on their mind, and because it isn’t, you, curated it’s all realtime, a lot of stuff is being discussed or being said that, that is not necessarily appropriate, so there’s been reports of racism. There’s been reports of misogyny there’s been a lot of disinformation and misinformation. In fact, there was one case involving a very big name who was coming out against what a doctor was saying in a room that was providing Covid 19 information. So this was medical information from a certified medical professional and then this star come in and was like, “No, that’s all wrong,” and tried to push their beliefs on what was a factual medical presentation.

[00:04:59] Robyn: Isn’t that something that the founders could have predicted would happen?

[00:05:02] Mark: You would think yes. I think everybody listening could have predicted this as well and the challenge of this format is because these discussions are temporary, they’re not recorded and shared afterwards, so if you’re not there you’re not going to hear it that makes it really difficult to detect patterns of behavior. The moderation tools aren’t really mature yet. Now the company is scrambling to add the type of content moderation that you would hope to see but they definitely did not learn any lessons from Twitter or Facebook or anybody else who has been online.

[00:05:31] Robyn: You also mentioned that people have to share all their contacts in their phone, is that right?

[00:05:36] Mark: Yeah, and this is, again, a very aggressive move that we’ve seen way back when with Facebook and Gmail when they started. The idea here is that these platforms will be successful or they’ll fail on their size, so the technology behind Clubhouse isn’t very unique. Facebook is copying it already, so is Twitter but if Face- uh, if Clubhouse can get more users, then there’s a better chance that they’ll be prosper and survive, so they actually ask for access to your address book when you sign up, and you can either deny it or allow it, and if you allow it, they’re going to take in all of your contact information from your address book, so not just your friends, but your doctor, the businesses you interact with, anybody you’ve got saved in your contacts because they’re using that to then try to spread access to the network, or in my case bump me to the front of the line.

[00:06:22] Robyn: Struggling to see the positives of this [laughs]. What would you say they are?

[00:06:28] Mark: I think there is some positives, obviously. They’re up to two million active users, so there’s something here. I think the positives, especially in a time of pandemic is that this feels more personal than other social networks, so instead of just a text interaction or a one-way video interaction this can be very conversational if it’s done right. And somebody had to try it, somebody had to get it out there and to try to see if that, if this format would work and because there is a seed I think it’s going to continue to go, but it’s not unique to Clubhouse. Facebook is already copying it, as I mentioned. Same with Twitter. I was able to jump onto Twitter’s beta of their technology, and it’s a lot more polished already, so there’s something to this format. It just may not be on Clubhouse for us.

[00:07:08] Robyn: Do you think that in five years time we’ll still be talking about Clubhouse? Do you think it will still be around?

[00:07:13] Mark: I think it’s going to be disappearing very quickly. I think of the moment it’s it’s here and it’s the cool thing, but we’ll be using these types of… This format is going to stay, but it’s going to be integrated into Facebook and Twitter where we’re going to have these conversations, and Clubhouse will just be $110 million investment that is no longer talked about.

[00:07:33] Robyn: Oh. Okay. Mark, good to talk to you. Thank you.

[00:07:36] Mark: Thank you.

[00:07:36] Robyn: That’s Mark Nunnikhoven. He is Vice President of Cloud Research at Trend Micro, which is an Ottawa cybersecurity company. He’s also our technology columnist here on Ottawa Morning.