The new voice-only app Clubhouse has been taking the internet by storm since spring 2020. Its founders banked on its exclusivity attracting users, and the approach so far has paid off impressively well. You need an invite to use it, and the media and music worlds have been falling over themselves to get one. Once you’re in, periodically you can invite a limited number of contacts to join, thereby curating your own community within the app.
So how does it work and why is it good? As with all great tech ideas the underlying principle is straightforward. It is all about voice. Think less traditional social media app and more talk radio station. Each user can create chatrooms within the app and start conversations. Other users can then join those conversations to listen, and if they wish to speak they can ‘raise a hand’. The host can then invite them to ‘the stage’ to talk. The point is you talk – yes, actually talk! By using your own voice, your own inflections, your own emphases, your own nuances, etc, in a real time, actual conversation, it solves at a stroke the problem of writing your thoughts and ideas and then having subtlety missed and words misinterpreted.
The app, which is currently in development and so only available to iOS users, although an Android version will follow, was floating about generating a reasonable amount of attention but hardly setting the world alight. Then Elon Musk appeared on it talking about sending humans to inhabit other planets and the world wanted in. Here, then, is where Clubhouse becomes a potential goldmine. It allows genuine conversations to take place between a huge variety of leading voices in the world today, without their needing to go to any trouble to participate. You can’t be seen, so you might be sitting at your desk at work dressed in business clothes, or you might be folding laundry at home dressed in your pajamas. Image counts little. It’s all about words. The intention is even that the app will be almost entirely voice activated.
There is some competition, most notably in the form of Twitter’s ‘Spaces’, but for the moment at least it appears that Clubhouse got in there just early enough to steal a march on everyone else. So could it have an application in the legal world? In considering this, we need first to look at the pros and cons. We have dealt with some of the pros already, but we could add that there is an obvious opportunity for legal minds to exchange thoughts and ideas. Clubhouse ‘rooms’ are already hosted by experts, venture capitalists, journalists, etc., so there’s no reason for the law not to be in on the act. That, definitely, would be a pro, but there is a con there as well.
The creators of Clubhouse have tried their best to make it a safe space. They have hired moderators to ensure there is both free speech and healthy debate, but there have been several instances already of controversial figures being invited to join, with the resulting potential for the app’s providing a platform for extremist views. We were already living in a social media world in which many people imagine themselves closely connected to the celebrities they ‘follow’. Clubhouse’s creation of ‘rooms’ in which actual conversations with celebrities take place might easily push this into even darker forms of ‘parasocial relationship.’ Clubhouse has struggled, in the aftermath of some users joining, successfully to answer what it can do to prevent suggestible people falling under the inappropriate influence of a controversial figure that they believe is genuinely their friend.
From a legal perspective then, the problems here are pretty clear. Whilst it may be great for leading legal brains to have the opportunity Clubhouse provides to debate and question the law in its many forms, and thereby advance it, it is decidedly more questionable that it could ever be a safe space to discuss actual legal cases.
It is true that room hosts are provided with tools to mute people, or eject them instantly, but the damage is usually done by the point at which that happens, simply because whatever a participant in the discussion said to get them muted or ejected they have already said. Being talked over and shouted down is still something that requires work for Clubhouse, but unhelpful comment and gossip in general could create many more problems for the law than Clubhouse solves. Bullying, misinformation, hurtful commentary, even off-the-cuff remarks are all as likely to dog Clubhouse as they are any other social media platform, but with the added difficulty if you are on the receiving end of something unpleasant of actually hearing a person speak their hurtful words to you.
Central to this issue is that in a real-life panel discussion, in a hall with speakers on an actual stage and audience members in actual seats, a real-life moderator would play an integral role in the proceedings. Clubhouse provides tools for room hosts to moderate to an extent, but that doesn’t automatically mean that those hosts will be any good at it, and of particular significance is that the host in this instance will almost never be impartial. Moderating is a skill. Anyone who has ever watched a political debate, or even the BBC’s Question Time programme, can imagine easily enough what the situation would descend to very rapidly were the impartial moderator suddenly to pick one of the panel to be in charge and leave the stage. This is not the safe, impartial space that many legal discussions require, so again Clubhouse’s usefulness in the legal profession takes a knock.
Then there is that exclusivity. As mentioned, at present the app is in beta. The full-features, public version isn’t yet available and at the moment only iOS users can get it. But even if you have an iPhone you cannot simply download and use it. You can download and open it, but all you will then be able to do is register your interest and reserve a username. From there on you just have to wait for an invite. It is questionable how much all of that is going to change, since the whole concept of a clubhouse is exclusivity – you have to be a member of the club to get in, meaning you have to have been judged somehow. The legal profession as a whole has worked extremely hard over recent years to make the law more accessible to the average person. It is difficult, at the moment at least, to see how Clubhouse is ever likely to play much of a role in that. So maybe it is possible only to say that it has potential to enable lawyers to talk to lawyers, but does not offer much that facilitates lawyers talking to clients that isn’t available more easily and just as effectively elsewhere. If you are a lawyer and you want to lead an online seminar where you have hundreds of mute listeners, there’s Zoom, or Teams, or a multitude of others. If you are a lawyer and you want a conversation with a client, pick up a phone.
Finally, it is worth a reference to the times in which we are living. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many social media platforms that offered some form of live, interactive experience, found themselves inundated as people living and working at home, cut off suddenly from their real world social interactions, sought out all manner of substitute interactions online. Will that continue post-Covid? The real question for Clubhouse here is whether it will continue to be a place where genuinely significant conversations with leading thinkers and influencers take place multiple times every day, or will it become a niche opportunity occasionally to talk to someone famous for the bragging rights of having done so. Is half the world going to be telling the other half that they are now best mates with Elon Musk and know exactly his thoughts on everything?
In an overview like this it has not been possible to look at all of the things that Clubhouse can and will do, or anywhere close to it, and to be fair to them the developers would almost certainly want to cite different types of room on offer, the different types of interaction that can happen in them, and a doubtless ever-growing wealth of tools to protect users. But the fact remains that this is an interesting app trying to do an interesting thing, but it may be trying to do the impossible. Where the law is concerned there are certain uses and they could be amazing, but they are very specific, rather limited, not really in harmony with the non-exclusive image that the legal world wishes to project nowadays. So, is it fair to say that where the legal sector is concerned Clubhouse is therefore unlikely to progress beyond the niche?