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In 2020, a new social networking app called Clubhouse caught the eye of Silicon Valley. Now, it's breaking through to the mainstream — despite the fact that (technically) most people can't use it.

Here's what you need to know about the Clubhouse app, including how it works, who's on it, and when you might be able to join the club.

What's Different About the Clubhouse App?

Each major social networking platform has a primary form of communication — Twitter users share short written messages, for example, while Instagrammers post photos.

Clubhouse taps into a medium social networks have largely ignored: audio chat.

The app's users create and join audio chat rooms where they can talk about specific topics or just listen to conversations. It's like podcasting, but live and a little more spontaneous.

When you sign up, you choose other users to follow and topics of interest. You'll then be notified of conversations involving those people and topics.

There's no text chat feature, and once the conversations are over, they aren't archived (though some people have shared conversations featuring high-profile Clubhouse app users elsewhere online).

How Do Rooms Work?

The people in Clubhouse chat rooms fall into one of three roles: moderators, speakers, and listeners.

The person who starts a new room is its moderator — it's up to them to add or remove speakers and manage the conversation.

Anyone invited to share the stage with the moderator is a speaker. A room can have just two speakers or dozens.

Listeners in a room don't have speaking privileges. They can, however, tap a button to "raise their hand," letting the moderator know they have something to contribute. It's up to the moderator to decide whether or not to invite them to speak.

Who Can Use the App?

The Clubhouse app is currently in beta stage on iOS and invite-only. Only adults are allowed to join, and everyone must use their real name on the app.

Each new user gets to send out two invites, and when they decide to use one, the recipient gets a text message with a link to sign up.

The app's creators wrote in a blog post that their goal is to open the app up to the "whole world" in 2021.

The Clubhouse Show to Know

As of May 2020, the Clubhouse app had just 1,500 users. At the start of February, it was up to more than 3.5 million downloads on the App Store, and by February 16, that more than doubled to 8.1 million.

A major driver of that sudden interest? "The Good Time Show."

The show's focus is tech and culture, and it's hosted by two industry vets: Facebook employee Aarthi Ramamurthy and her husband, Sriram Krishnan, whose resume includes stints at Twitter, Facebook, and Snap.

In early February, SpaceX/Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared on separate episodes, drawing thousands of listeners, and app downloads soared after their appearances.

Coming soon: an episode featuring a conversation between Musk and Kanye West.

Who Can't Use the App?

The wave of interest in the Clubhouse app that followed Musk's appearance on "The Good Time Show" reached all the way across the globe to China, where the government strictly censors the topics discussed online.

"It was only five days, but it's like a hundred flowers bloomed."

Ken Young

On February 8, China blocked the app — as expected — but not before thousands used it to discuss banned topics, including Tiananmen Square, the Hong Kong protests, and the ongoing mass detention of Muslim ethinic minorities.

"You have amazing dialogues and conversations going on," Lokman Tsui, an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Washington Post. "Talking about sensitive issues in ways where people are really trying to understand each other and listening to each other."

"These five days show how possible it is for Taiwan and China to communicate and interact with each other in a normal way," Ken Young, a Taiwan-based Clubhouse user, added. "It was only five days, but it's like a hundred flowers bloomed."

A Word of Warning

The purpose of a beta release is to give developers a chance to suss out any bugs or weaknesses in their tech before unleashing it upon the world at large — and Clubhouse's beta period has revealed that its security measures could use some work.

On February 12, researchers at Stanford University reported vulnerabilities in the Clubhouse app that could let China access recordings of conversations.

What you say while using the Clubhouse app won't necessarily stay in the room.

This is particularly troubling since being caught discussing certain topics can land Chinese citizens in jail — and those topics were at the center of many Clubhouse conversations.

Clubhouse said it would work to address the vulnerabilities, but within a week of that announcement, a Chinese user breached the app and streamed live audio to another website.

Clubhouse responded to the breach with another vow to address security vulnerabilities, but for now, the people using the app might want to keep in mind that what they say in a room won't necessarily stay there.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected].

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