Remember Google Plus? The search giant debuted its own social network in 2011 and promoted it for years before quietly giving up in 2019. When it launched the service, membership was invitation-only. Initial interest was intense, with people asking their friends on Facebook and Twitter for access. Some invitations were even sold on eBay.
A decade later and the invite-only audio app Clubhouse is hoping it could be the next big thing in tech. It is marketing itself with an exclusivity angle as well, making clear that the app isn’t going to be made available to everyone. That piqued the interest of plenty of people in China. “Do you have a Clubhouse invite code?” was a question doing the rounds on social media.
Since launching on iPhone in April 2020, Clubhouse has built a strong following among tech investors. It raised $100 million in its last funding round, pushing the start-up’s valuation to $1 billion. The app has focused on voice, allowing real-time discussion in chatrooms. Audiences can participate by raising their hands to speak, with the host opening up access to the in-chat microphone.
Clubhouse is said to have about five million users. But it was Elon Musk that made it more of a sensation in early February when the Tesla and SpaceX chief executive made his debut on the platform. As many as 5,000 people tuned in as Musk discussed everything from Bitcoin to his love for the Netflix show Cobra Kai. He also invited Robinhood chief executive Vlad Tenev onto the ‘stage’ to discuss the fallout from the GameStop investment frenzy.
Where Musk goes, China wannabes often try to follow. Luo Yonghao, the serial entrepreneur and e-commerce livestreamer, saw a chance to ride in the slipstream of Clubhouse’s popularity, writing a weibo post about his personal experience using it. Despite sounding unimpressed – “there wasn’t a chatroom I wanted to stay in for more than 10 minutes” – the post created more interest in the app (after all, people often want something when it is hard to get). Although Clubhouse doesn’t charge members to join, on Alibaba’s Xianyu, the secondhand marketplace, invite codes started circulating for Rmb300.
“A big reason for Clubhouse’s popularity is because of hunger marketing,” explained Beijing News. “Clubhouse is still by-invitation only. Each registered user is allowed to invite two new users, and they must also use the iPhone. Even with the code, you need to have a non-China-based Apple ID to download the app. And to register, you need some basic English to navigate the app. All of these barriers mean that only those who are in finance, investment and technology could afford to join, which gives the app its cachet.”
But it didn’t take long before the conversation in and around Clubhouse became too hot for the country’s regulators. According to the Financial Times, one of the most active chatrooms last week featured more than 700 participants who identified themselves as being from mainland China and Taiwan. Early discussions compared the political systems of the two places, with many participants expressing sympathy for the island, and even their frustrations with one-party rule in mainland China.
Not all of the discussion was politically charged. For instance, someone from Hong Kong asked why so many people in China were so keen on getting a Beijing hukou or securing work as a civil servant (a response from a mainland Chinese contributor was that a hukou in Beijing offers better access to resources in the capital, while work as a civil servant offers a stable career path).
Some of the other discussion was about the different foods from China’s diverse regions, with chatters offering recommendations to one another. “This room tonight is probably the most peaceful and profound exchange between young people on both sides of the Strait since 1949,” one participant applauded. “All those who participated were respectful and civil… there was very little trolling. I could feel a sense of equality and freedom. Each respecting their differences,” another wrote.
However, on Saturday another chatroom turned to another controversial topic, with the title: “Are there concentration camps in Xinjiang?” The chat reportedly included participants who were Han Chinese that grew up in Xinjiang, Uighurs exiled abroad and other overseas Chinese.
Discussions like these were also being debated on weibo. “I don’t know how long this environment can last,” said one user in a post that was liked over 65,000 times. “But I will definitely remember this moment in internet history.”
Surprising no one, Clubhouse was quietly banned on Monday night, with no explanation offered. China’s news media didn’t say much either, although the Global Times put together a quick editorial complaining that political discussions on the app were “one-sided”.
“Political topics on the platform are not discussed as rationally as other topics like technology or culture,” it added.
Sure enough, users were soon reporting error messages when they tried to use the platform. “How could the Chinese government allow free-flowing discussions to happen and spread without control?” a founder of another Chinese audio app explained, as told to TechNode.
Although Clubhouse was soon kiboshed in China, voice-based networking has been around in the Chinese marketplace for years. Livestreaming platform YY first experimented with audio-based social networking, called YY yuyin (which means ‘voice’ in Chinese) as early as 2007. More recently other tech firms have tried to build followings based around the same concept. For instance, the Guangzhou-based Lizhi’s social podcast app is more interactive, letting listeners message hosts and tip them with virtual gifts. The Clubhouse craze, despite being so short-lived in China, sent Lizhi’s stock on Nasdaq soaring more than 300% since the beginning of the month. Agora, also listed on the Nasdaq, has been another major beneficiary, because it provides voice technology that some newspapers cited as being used on Clubhouse’s platform. Shares of Agora, which boasts online tuition firm New Oriental Education and dating app Momo as two of its clients, nearly doubled last week.
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