The First Rule of Clubhouse Is Don’t Talk About Clubhouse

What Happened: “Do you have an invitation code?” Seemingly overnight, Chinese social media channels were flooded with this question. Ever since Elon Musk hosted an audio-chat with Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev on Clubhouse, a US-based, invite-only chat app, the platform went viral and was downloaded 2.3 million times by January 31. To join, Clubhouse requires every user to have an invitation code, with each new registered user receiving two additional invitation codes. Given the scarcity of access, Chinese iPhone users were paying up to $77 USD for an invitation from various e-commerce sites and bypassing China’s censors. However, on the evening of February 8, thousands of Chinese users suddenly found themselves unable to access Clubhouse. Inside WeChat groups, Clubhouse users rushed to report the situation and help each other with ways — besides using a virtual private network (VPN) — to get back onto the red hot live audio app.

Jing Take: It’s no surprise that tech-savvy Chinese users flocked to Clubhouse. However, it was also no surprise that the popular app would meet the same fate as other US-based apps and services, like Facebook and Instagram, and be blocked by Beijing’s strict Internet regulations. According to people familiar with the platform, a handful of well-attended Chinese-language rooms touched on topics that are normally censored in China, from crypto trading to protests in Hong Kong to concerns of Uighur treatment. 

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Clubhouse’s success can be attributed to its innovative model compared to other platforms in China. WeChat communication is two-way, but does not require real-time responses; Soul’s voice chat room is mainly for social interactions, not theme-based round-table discussion content; Kuaishou and Douyin have live-streaming features, but Clubhouse allows everyone to be the audience and the interactive speaker. The arrival of this app filled a blank in the Chinese social media sphere, where the potential instant audio chatting services with substantial content has not been tapped. On top of that, the pandemic, scarcity factor, as well as Elon Musk’s celebrity halo all contributed to the perfect viral app. 

The invite-only marketing model is not unprecedented. The luxury brand agency Studio Succes was the ancestor of this strategy, specializing in creating high-end experiences for customers’ brands. But not all customers can access their website without recommendations and screening. Other luxury brands that have adopted the invite-only system include the high-end jewelry platform Net-a-Porter, Tiffany & Co.’s Secret Salon, Ferrari and so on. They focus on giving customers exclusivity, thus creating a hunger effect.

On the other hand, reports have found that Clubhouse clones and derivatives are already in the making in China. For example, Lizhi’s social podcast app is not just about listening. It also lets listeners message hosts, tip them through virtual gifts, compete in online karaoke contests, and more. Nevertheless, before apps like Clubhouse can survive in China’s ultra-sensitive, socio-political environment, they need to somehow solve the inherent issue that any app based outside of the mainland must contend with, which is namely falling in line with Beijing’s censors. Clubhouse had been criticized for a lack of moderation and privacy violations in the West. Amplify that by a thousand in China, and it’s no wonder that Clubhouse enjoyed such a bright, short existence in the mainland. 

The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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Social Media, Trending in China