Interview with Clubhouse’s Aarthi Ramamurthy – “We believe in empowering people”

Video might have killed the radio star but last year audio made a big and unexpected comeback with the arrival of Clubhouse.

Clubhouse founders Paul Davison and Rohan Seth originally designed a social media app for podcasts under another name, then reconfigured and came up with Clubhouse. The app they settled on enables people to connect and share their stories with like-minded individuals – unlike podcasts which are a one-way discussion Clubhouse invites collaboration and connection. And there’s no video involved.

They released the Clubhouse iOS app in March 2020 and it quickly became the year’s most buzzed-about social media app, with the pandemic accelerating its popularity.

Clubhouse describes it as “a new type of social product based on voice [that] allows people everywhere to talk, tell stories, develop ideas, deepen friendships, and meet interesting new people around the world.”

Part of that initial buzz revolved around its exclusivity. No invite, no Clubhouse.

Invited members were offered access to virtual rooms where on a good day they could listen to some of the world’s most famous people. You could also speak to them. Kevin Hart, Drake, Oprah, Elon Musk and Fab 5 Freddy were just some of the celebrities who joined a room.

By June 2020 Clubhouse was worth $100 million USD. By July that year Clubhouse dropped the invite-only restriction and today Clubhouse sees more than 700,000 rooms created daily.

If the app faces growing competition from many of the Big Tech players (Twitter’s Spaces, Facebook’s Live Audio) who have since rolled out their own version of Clubhouse – (I wrote about using Spotify’s Clubhouse-like Greenroom here) – Clubhouse does have first-mover advantage. 

The recent lockdown restrictions have seen Kiwis using Clubhouse in record numbers with active users increasing 16% over that time.

We reached out to Clubhouse’s San Francisco-based head of international Aarthi Ramamurthy to find out more.

You’ve recently become available on Android in NZ. What’s the response been like?

“Since we became available on Android in New Zealand, and globally, the response has been outstanding. There have been more than 10M downloads on Android globally as of May 20th 2021. Like the rest of the world, New Zealand’s interest in Clubhouse on any platform has continued to grow, with Kiwi users spending an average of 70 minutes a day on Clubhouse.”

Why did the Android app take so long to develop and roll out?

We’ve always taken a measured approach to growth. Clubhouse started as a single platform offering and for most of the first year was a two-person company, and then we ensured gradual growth through our invite model. When Clubhouse started to grow very quickly, the load stressed out our systems. It made us shift our focus to hiring, fixing, and company building, rather than on community meetups and product features. We needed that important time of investment, which would help us serve the community better in the long run. This growth model was very much the case with offering Clubhouse on Android as well.”

What are some tips for new users – how do they get followers and attract people to a room?

“One of the first things new users should do is start following Clubs and profiles that are aligned to their interests. Our ‘Find Conversations About’ section in the Explore tab, breaks out a whole range of topics that are being spoken about on the platform. Clicking on that topic reveals Clubs to follow, and top content creators who often speak to that area.

And then from that – just start participating in rooms yourself. Whether you want to listen quietly in a few rooms before you get involved, or participate and speak on topics you are passionate about, using the platform in spaces that are interesting and important to you, is the best way to attract more like-minded people to connect with, and from there more followers should follow.”

What are some popular rooms for NZ audiences?

“We know the New Zealand Club is a popular place for Kiwi users to connect with other Kiwis. It was founded by Paul Spain, who we know is a popular tech commentator in New Zealand. He is one of the Mods of the New Zealand Club and hosts nightly rooms where Kiwi users gather and connect. Some of the popular rooms are their ‘Tech Tuesday’ room, and their ‘Friday Cook Up’ at the end of the working week. Also ‘Chilli w/ New Zealand Wine’ hosted by the New Zealand Wine Club on some Sunday afternoons is quite popular too.”

Can users control who gets into their room?

“To start a room on Clubhouse, you tap the big green button on the home screen. Following that users can select the type of room they want to create – this can either be:

Open and free for anyone on the app to join.

Social and visible only to people you follow; or Closed where only people you invite can access.”

Do users or moderators archive audio that happens in a room? Does Clubhouse record the conversations?

“Yes, so we have this noted in our terms of service. Clubhouse generates a temporary encrypted buffer of the audio in a room while the room is live, solely for the purpose of supporting incident investigations. If a user reports a Trust and Safety violation while the room is active, Clubhouse retains the audio for the purposes of investigating the incident, and then deletes it when the investigation is complete. If no incident is reported in a room, Clubhouse deletes the temporary audio recording when the room ends. All temporary audio recordings are encrypted as well.”

Can NZ users link to their TikTok, Instagram or Facebook accounts?

“Yes definitely. Users can link to their Instagram and Twitter accounts on their profile, just by clicking the ‘Add Twitter’ or ‘Add Instagram’ button and typing in their handle. For Facebook and TikTok, there isn’t any link functionality, but users can add their username into their profile bio for people to search for them.”

Clubhouse doesn’t have any sort of verification system. How do we know we’re talking to a real celebrity or thought leader and not some random person?

“Part of our guidelines is that people are not allowed to imitate others unless it’s satirical (God, Jigsaw and Shakespeare all have accounts) or human rights-oriented. As such, those posing as others are identified and asked to amend their name settings. This has proven sufficient for the vast majority of users on the platform.”

Clubhouse was first but many other companies have rolled out Clubhouse-like platforms – do you welcome the competition?

“We believe that audio is a durable medium. Seeing other legacy tech giants realise the power social audio is validating. For Clubhouse, this is our singular focus – we’re working with our community to build the best and most simple social audio experience. It’s not a bolted-on feature.”

You’ve gone away from the invite-only idea and opened Clubhouse up to anyone – why?

“The invite was an important part of our early history. By adding people in waves, we’ve been able to grow Clubhouse in a measured way, and mostly keep things from breaking as we’ve scaled. But we always wanted Clubhouse to be open. Everyone in the world should have access to meaningful conversations. And the best rooms on Clubhouse are the ones where you meet people from far outside your social circle, who change your perspective on the world.”

The app doesn’t have an official logo but a rotating array of profile pics of Clubhouse users – why?

“As a part of our regular stream of updates to the platform, Clubhouse periodically changes its app icon to showcase a different member of the community who has been an active contributor and creator. Clubhouse is all about the community of people who use it, and we want to celebrate that. Our latest app icon representative is Leah Lamarr. Leah’s club Hot on the Mic consistently hosts some of the most popular comedy rooms on Clubhouse, and many of her 230,000+ followers can often be found in the audience of her real-world standup shows.”

How did Elon Musk turn up in Clubhouse and what other celebrities regularly use it?

“He and the mods of the rooms discussed and he just hops on. Same with Oprah, Nikki Minaj, Dr. Fauci, etc…that’s the ease of Clubhouse.”

Can NZ Clubhouse users monetise the platform?

“Not at this stage. We launched Payments in the US in April this year, where users can pay creators for their work. 100% of the profits go to the creators. And we’re going to roll this out around the world in the coming months ahead. We’re also exploring different ways for Clubhouse creators to monetise in the future such as ticketed events, subscriptions, opportunities to connect brands and creators, just to name a few.”

How do you police hate speech and abuse on the platform? 

“First off, all forms of racism, hate speech and abuse are prohibited on Clubhouse. Should any of this happen, it’s in direct violation of our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service. We have trust and safety procedures in place to investigate and address any violation of these rules, which can include suspension or removal from the app. 

“One of our key principles is to ensure that the user is in control of their own experience on Clubhouse. Features such as blocking and shared block lists are designed to help people make informed decisions about who they interact with on the app. Additionally, anyone can start a room on Clubhouse, and we provide the tools to help them moderate and control who can speak in the room that they’ve created. 

“We believe in empowering people to host important, and even difficult, conversations, and are continuing to invest in people, policies, and products to facilitate better content moderation. It’s still early days for social audio but it’s incredibly exciting to watch the creativity and connection occurring among this initial community. It will be amazing to look back in a few years and talk about what it was like to be in on the ground level, so come join us!”    

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