Clubhouse, a Tiny Audio Chat App, Breaks Through

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SAN FRANCISCO — Robert Van Winkle, who is better known as the rapper Vanilla Ice, held court online last week with more than 1,000 fans.

In a rambling conversation, Mr. Van Winkle praised the poses of the 1990s band Bell Biv DeVoe and demurred when asked about his relationship with Madonna. He dispensed advice on real estate and life, saying, “You got to protect your happiness to protect your life.” At one point, an attendee serenaded the gathering with an a cappella version of his hit “Ice Ice Baby.”

Several hours later, Mr. Van Winkle confessed that he needed to leave before the mother of his child got angry.

It was the kind of freewheeling and unpredictable event that has been happening around the clock on Clubhouse, an 11-month-old social media app that has exploded in popularity with the tastemakers of tech and popular culture and that is quickly becoming a town square for debates over free speech and politics.

Clubhouse is also contending with rising complaints about harassment, misinformation and privacy. In one incident last month, a user promoted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus vaccines and discouraged people from getting the shots, leading to harassment of a female doctor.

This month, German and Italian regulators publicly questioned whether Clubhouse’s data practices complied with European data protection laws. And China blocked the app after political conversations popped up on it outside the country’s tight internet controls.

Clubhouse is following a classic Silicon Valley start-up path that social media companies like Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook have also trod: viral growth followed by the messy issues that come with it. It is the first American social media company to break out in years. The last global social networking hit was TikTok, a Chinese-owned app that catapulted 15-second videos into the cultural discourse.

Mr. Davison, 40, and Mr. Seth, 36, declined to be interviewed. In a Clubhouse discussion on Sunday, Mr. Davison said the company was rushing to hire, build new features and release an Android version of the app.

“It’s just been crazy, we’ve had so many people joining,” he said.

Mr. Davison and Mr. Seth, who both attended Stanford University, are repeat entrepreneurs. Mr. Davison created several social networking apps, including Highlight, which allowed users to see and message people nearby. Mr. Seth was a Google engineer and co-founded a company, Memry Labs, which built apps. Those start-ups were either bought or shut down.

Clubhouse has a “blocking” feature to give users more control over their spaces. That has in turn sometimes created disputes about access, including with a New York Times journalist.

Kimberly Ellis, 48, an American and Africana studies scholar at Carnegie Mellon University who leads workshops on digital safety, said she had also been in Clubhouse rooms where people appeared to dispense financial advice but were instead “doing multilevel marketing.”

“Some want to coach you and get money from you for their courses,” she said.

In Sunday’s Clubhouse discussion, Mr. Davison said the company has explicit rules against spreading misinformation, hate speech, abuse and bullying. The start-up said last year that it was adding advisers and safety features and empowering moderators.

Yet Clubhouse has also enabled people living under strict censorship in countries such as China and Turkey to speak freely about many topics. Some users said they were hooked.

Brielle Riche, 33, a brand strategist in Los Angeles, said Clubhouse had opened up her world since she started using it in November.

“Clubhouse gives us the opportunity to connect with strangers,” she said. “Only Clubhouse can get you off TikTok.”

A week after Clubhouse announced its newest funding last month, Mr. Musk set off a frenzy when he appeared on the app and interviewed Vlad Tenev, the chief executive of the stock trading app Robinhood. Mr. Musk has promised to return to Clubhouse with Kanye West and has invited President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to the app.

A few days later, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, turned up to chat about virtual and augmented reality. Then China banned the app.

On Sunday, 5,000 people — the maximum in a Clubhouse room — attended a weekly “town hall” session with the founders. Mr. Davison joined late because he had been in another room welcoming Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, to the app.

“We’re just trying to keep up,” Mr. Davison said.

Adam Satariano contributed reporting.

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