'You can't edit live speech': Exclusive audio app Clubhouse brings Arabs together in unfiltered conversations
This audio social networking app is a cross between a live podcast and conference panel. Launched by entrepreneurs Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth in March of last year, it started off as a little-known app in America with 1,500 active users in May 2020, and as of February this year it had over 2 million users, valued at $1 billion.
It's invite-only, meaning an active user has to invite you to join – you can't just set up an account like you might do on Twitter or Instagram.
It is the marketing of this exclusivity that is making it so appealing to young people in the Middle East. In the past month Clubhouse has soared in popularity in the region, and in Saudi Arabia, some users are selling invites for anywhere between SR15 ($4) and SR200 ($53).
With Clubhouse having been around for a while now, why the sudden popularity in the Middle East?
"I think it's the whole exclusiveness to it. FOMO (fear of missing out) is killing people. Also, at the same time, people want something genuine. You can't edit live speech," says Clubhouse user Alia from Kuwait.
|I think Clubhouse became big right after Elon Musk made a room there and everyone heard about it, and the fact that you can let people in, and others have to be waitlisted, is a great marketing technique, so it's 'exclusive'
Haidy Zakaria, head of business at the SYNC School for creatives in Egypt and host of a Clubhouse room for women in business, agrees with Alia.
"I think Clubhouse became big right after [Elon] Musk made a room there and everyone heard about it, and the fact that you can let people in, and others have to be waitlisted, is a great marketing technique, so it's 'exclusive.'"
Twitter fan Rabeea in Qatar believes that one of the core reasons for its immense popularity in the region is due to the platform it provides for the sharing of views.
"People with opinions here usually go to Twitter to vent, and Twitter is very calculated in what people say. [Because it is] written, people can phrase what they say most of the time. Clubhouse is unfiltered."
Wafa Alobaidat, founder of digital marketing agency Obai&Hill in Bahrain, and creator of Women Power podcast, sees its massive popularity being a result of COVID-19, and lockdown restrictions.
"With COVID cases rising people are being extra cautious, and are still limiting their outings… so in the evening there really isn't much to do. Clubhouse has become a social outlet where we can hang out with different people based on interests. The best part is it's an audio experience, so you don't need to dress up or worry about your background or lighting."
All sorts of conversations are happening on Clubhouse in the Middle East. From live panels hosted by an official moderator with allotted panel members and listeners, to guided meditation sessions, and live music performances, to talks on polygamy, you'll find it all on Clubhouse.
Author, public speaker, and social media fan Asmaa from Kuwait gave The New Arab an insight: "People are having open and honest conversations on all topics under the sun: marital woes to choosing the right career path, and whether the influencers and paid sponsorship are still effective in the post-COVID world.
"From folks being able to raise capital for their start-ups to others mentoring high school and college students, people finally have the chance to have conversations they were craving, without the pressure of being on video as many can simply participate as a silent listener."
|Clubhouse has become a social outlet where we can hang out with different people based on interests. The best part is it's an audio experience, so you don't need to dress up or worry about your background or lighting
While Clubhouse users in the Middle East are mostly singing its praise and share mainly positive experiences, the app does not come without its trials. In a region where some topics are still considered taboo and others elicit passionate debate, hosting or participating in a Clubhouse room can be challenging.
Khalifa Al Haroon, social media expert, entrepreneur, and founder of I Love Qatar Network in Qatar shares his observations on Clubhouse decorum.
"I found it interesting how different communities handle groups. Some are respectful and people take turns, where[as] some groups are just everyone talking louder than the other so they can hear the sound of their own voice."
Ayman Ashour, an Egyptian-American and founder of a strategic consulting and angel investment company in London, is passionate about equality, peace, and reconciliation. He recently hosted a Clubhouse room on Middle East peace prospects and shared his experience with The New Arab.
"I had my first mentally draining and emotionally exhausting experience [on] Clubhouse," says Ashour. "I found it very hard to manage the anger and emotions by some of the participants, and found it particularly hard to keep on topic. Like everything related to [the] Middle East, it is very trying not to descend into arguments over facts, including things that are not typically controversial."
|What's particularly interesting is that most people aren't voicing opinions anonymously, [which is] what Twitter is usually like
Clubhouse is currently an uncensored platform that provides a space where people can talk openly, free of anonymity.
Khalifa weighs in on its benefits. "It gets people talking about important topics, seeing they aren't alone, encouraging dialogue with people you might disagree with, and hopefully getting others to think. What's particularly interesting is that most people aren't voicing opinions anonymously, [which is] what Twitter is usually like."
The social connectedness is something that Wafa echoes. "We are all navigating this challenge, and trying to find safe spaces to discuss things. People are feeling inspired, there's a lot of storytelling and lot of shared experience of success stories. I think people go to get inspired and to feel less alone… it puts our comfort first."
In a region that has been plagued by an increased desire for democracy and freedom of speech, is Clubhouse finally the app that can do that job?
"Clubhouse is very nice in creating a space for dialogue that we are not used to having as the Arab world on social media. Using the app to discuss central topics will enrich our knowledge and open many eyes to the methods and foundations of constructive and critical conversations that we are really missing," says Ayah Alfawaris from Jordan, who works as an engineer and energy policy manager in Leeds.
"For users who are mature and use it in moderation, the application has been good. But, for users who hail from regions with limited freedom of speech, they need to watch what they say because there could be repercussions and unintended consequences of sharing without thinking things through," says Asmaa.
Rabeea agrees with Asmaa. "It's as public as Twitter, so it might get dangerous if people speak freely in an environment that doesn't have freedom of speech as a concept."
|Clubhouse is very nice in creating a space for dialogue that we are not used to having as the Arab world on social media. Using the app to discuss central topics will enrich our knowledge and open many eyes to the methods and foundations of constructive and critical conversations that we are really missing
Social media platforms come and go. While Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have retained a steady amount of popularity, others such as hi5, My Space, Vine and Kik have either been completely forgotten, or are even extinct. Is Clubhouse just a fad, or is it here to stay?
"I think it's just going to grow, right now it's only on iPhone so I think they need to get Android users on; I know a lot of Android users that are getting frustrated that they are missing out on the conversation," says Wafa.
Alia adds, "We thought Tik Tok would blow over, but it [hasn't]. I can't deny it's a big part of society now."
It is clear that in the Middle East, Clubhouse is providing a space for everyone regardless of background to partake in events and discussions that may not otherwise be accessible, whether that it is due to the topic of conversation being too controversial to hold at a public venue, the need to travel, or to events that pre-pandemic may have been held in 5-star hotels with hefty ticket prices.
For those who hold conservative cultural or religious beliefs, it also allows them to engage or silently listen in to talks that may otherwise not be possible in the real world if they do not mix freely with other genders.
It remains to be seen whether Clubhouse will continue to reach new heights in the region, or if it will fade into the background as countries emerge from the pandemic, and life returns to normality.
Yousra Samir Imran is a freelance journalist based in West Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press in October 2020.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA
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