Air of “exclusivity” increases hype around invite only Clubhouse App - The social engineering hack that jump-started the app in Germany, the rough start of German politicians on Clubhouse, the privacy concerns and cancel culture.

The App “Clubhouse” has been around since March of last year, but in Germany, where I live, it was mostly unknown. In fact, I only heard about it for the first time about a week ago. Apparently, the hype in Germany began already in the middle of January, when the hosts of the Doppelgänger Tech Talk tech podcast started a campaign to get German users onto the platform and generate German content. In a social engineering hack, podcasts hosts Philipp Glöckler and Philipp Klöckner (ergo Doppelgänger…) started a Telegram group to distribute Clubhouse invites among their listeners. Everyone who got invited to the platform would contribute at least one of their two invites back into the group, allowing for further people to get in. The appeal was huge, since invites had been so rare, that some people were selling invitations to the app for as much as a 100 EUR on ebay. A clever marketing move also for the Doppelgänger podcast, no doubt.

While Instagram-savvy German influencers, like Ann-Katrin Schmitz („NovaLanaLove“ Blog, „Baby got Business“ Podcast) immediately knew how to profit off the hype around the new platform, the debut of the first German politician on Clubhouse, Thuringia’s prime minister Bodo Ramelow, ended in a little scandal. Attending a talking event on Clubhouse (“Trash und Feuilleton”) he boasted to listeners, that he liked to play “Candy Crush” during meetings with Angela Merkel and the leaders of German states on the Coronavirus pandemic. He also called the Chancellor “das Merkelchen”, which translates to “the little Merkel” (endearing, in this context highly disrespectful). He has since publicly apologized for this.

But what exactly is Clubhouse and why should you care? The short answer is: I am not sure. For now, the app is invite only, and is only available on the iPhone (ergo I am out). From what I could find out, it is your run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley startup company, founded last year by Paul Davison (ex Pinterest) and Rohan Seth (ex Google). Officially, Clubhouse is termed a “drop-in-audio” service. Very soon after its debut, the app was already valued at a 100 million dollars, even though it is officially still in beta version. The invite only system is supposed to ensure scalability and optimum service, but to me it mostly looks like a marketing trick. In the Doppelgänger podcast, the app was mostly explained to offer something like “Podcasts where you get to talk back”, even though admittedly, the “episodes” (sessions) tend to end in endless debates according to the two Philipps. I guess the biggest appeal, is that several famous people are (very publicly) on Clubhouse, so theoretically you could get a chance to talk to the likes of Elon Musk or Oprah. It is safe to assume, that it is engineered to be highly addictive and take up a lot of your free time: audio sessions are presence only, nothing gets recorded, “nothing leaves Clubhouse”.

Well, nothing except for your personal data. According to a German data privacy expert, Clubhouse employs very questionable privacy practices. When signing up, users need to provide access to all their contacts’ information, so this way, Clubhouse is collecting information on people not even on the app (or not even owning an iPhone). But they even go one step further: so-called shadow profiles are generated for people without accounts using the network information from users’ contacts and their preferences. To illustrate this, “people” like a popular German car-tow service (ADAC) or the emergency number (112, the German 911), numbers which are stored on many people’s phones are reported to have a lot of friends on Clubhouse :-) At the very least, Clubhouse claims not to store audio, except in the case of abuse reporting by one of the users in the session. In this case, audio will be stored for moderation purposes. Nonetheless, people and especially celebrities should be careful on the app, since you can never be sure who is listening - as demonstrated by Bodo Ramelow’s debacle above. In his latest post, Glenn Greenwald writes about how it has become a new brand of (pretty pathetic) “journalism” to listen in on Clubhouse sessions and then try to take down famous people by speech policing some of the things they said, often taking single words or expressions completely out of context. A new and lovely aspect of the rampant “cancel culture” that we live in.

Only time will tell, if Clubhouse really is going to be the next big thing, or if it’s a short lived hype that will vanish as people move on to whatever is next. For now, my fear of missing out on it, or FOMO is relatively low.