How the Copy Cats Came for Clubhouse

Last December, Chris Barnett bought his first iPhone at the insistence of his friends. They told him he needed to get on Clubhouse, an invitation-only audio app that was available only on iPhones.

He was known in his circle for hosting a fantasy basketball league, and they wanted him to join the basketball discussions they were having on Clubhouse. Once he signed up on his new phone, Mr. Barnett gained a modest following and started a discussion club about the National Basketball Association that grew to more than 4,000 members.

“We had instant success,” Mr. Barnett recalled. “People came in, they stayed.”

But today, if listeners want to hear Mr. Barnett break down a recent game, they’ll have to find him on Twitter. In August, he started hosting a basketball show every weekday on Spaces, Twitter’s audio chat feature that mimics Clubhouse. He also organized a network of other content creators to promote their sports and culture discussions.

Mr. Barnett isn’t the only audio creator who slipped away from Clubhouse and joined another platform as a slew of copycat chat apps debuted this year, challenging Clubhouse and wooing its users.

Downloads of the buzzy chat app dipped in the spring as pandemic lockdowns were lifted and new competition emerged, according to the data and analytics firm Sensor Tower. Major tech companies started similar audio platforms: Twitter rolled out Spaces, Facebook made an audio chat feature and Spotify introduced one called Greenroom. And some communities, like those focused on gaming and nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, gravitated to more established chat platforms like Discord, which offers audio features.

Chris Barnett, with his son in Indianapolis, hosts a basketball show on Spaces, Twitter’s audio chat feature.Credit…Kaiti Sullivan for The New York Times

The heated competition among so-called social audio companies raises questions about whether Clubhouse can remain the dominant platform for live conversation while the company and its imitators figure out how they will keep up with the moderation challenges that audio discussions present.

The social audio boom is reminiscent of Snapchat’s battle in 2016 against Facebook. Facebook copied Snapchat’s popular Stories feature, which allowed users to post photos that disappeared after 24 hours, and pasted the feature into its Instagram app. Snapchat’s growth faltered after Instagram introduced stories, and other social media services quickly added their own stories features.

Clubhouse faces similar challenges as it tries to edge out the competition. It might follow Snapchat’s path, eventually fending off the tech giants and cementing its position among the top social media apps. Or it might get squashed by them.

“More people getting into social audio is good for social audio,” Maya Watson, Clubhouse’s head of global marketing, said in an interview. “We’re not bothered by it, and, if anything, it makes us feel confident in where we’re going.”

At the start of the year, Clubhouse was booming. In February, the app was downloaded 9.6 million times, Sensor Tower said. A spokeswoman for Clubhouse disputed the accuracy of Sensor Tower’s metrics, which estimate user behavior, but said the company would not provide internal figures.

The app caught the attention of audio creators like Brian McCullough, who hosts a podcast for the news aggregator Techmeme, called “Techmeme Ride Home.” “I remember having conversations that were the best social media has been in 10 years,” Mr. McCullough said of his early days on Clubhouse.

Through the app, he connected with Chris Messina, who leads West Coast business development for Republic, a platform that allows companies to raise capital and unaccredited investors to invest in start-ups. Mr. Messina made a habit of recording snippets of Mr. McCullough’s show and playing them in Clubhouse so he could respond to them, and the pair decided to start making the podcast together.

But in March, Clubhouse experienced a slump as downloads slipped to 2.7 million, and in April the app was downloaded just 917,000 times, Sensor Tower said.

At the same time, Twitter was aggressively expanding Spaces. It began testing the feature in October 2020 and granted access to a broader swath of users in the spring. At the time, the development of Spaces was the top consumer product priority at the company, said a person familiar with the company’s plans who was not permitted to speak publicly about them.

That work appeared to pay off. By May, Spaces had more than one million users, that person said. The Washington Post previously reported the figure.

Twitter declined to comment on user metrics.

Twitter began testing its Spaces audio feature in October 2020 and granted broader access this spring.Credit…Francesca Tamse for The New York Times

But Clubhouse battled back. It dropped its requirement that users receive an invitation to join the app, and built a version for Android. It expanded in India, Brazil and Japan. Downloads of Clubhouse ticked back up.

In June, more than seven million people downloaded Clubhouse, Sensor Tower said. A Clubhouse spokeswoman said the figure was higher, with more than 10 million people downloading Clubhouse on Android in the first six weeks after it was released.

Still, some Clubhouse users complained that the app was no longer frequented by celebrities and business leaders, and that the conversations that remained were less interesting. For creators who had already amassed a following on Twitter, it was easier to find listeners there, rather than rebuild their audience on Clubhouse.

That was the case for Mr. McCullough and Mr. Messina, the hosts of “Techmeme Ride Home.” On their best nights, thousands of listeners would join their Clubhouse rooms, Mr. McCullough said. But their audience declined during Clubhouse’s spring slump, and in April they moved their show to Twitter Spaces.

“Clubhouse was great for a while, but when Spaces came out, that was where my network happened to be,” Mr. Messina said.

Mr. Barnett, the creator who hosts basketball discussions, said he also found more consistent audiences on Twitter. Mr. Barnett was accepted into Twitter’s Spark program, which pays creators $2,500 a month to make audio content and gave him an extra incentive to host his conversations on Twitter instead of Clubhouse. Clubhouse also funds some audio creators, but Mr. Barnett was not invited to that program.

But other audio creators say Clubhouse is uniquely focused on social audio, so the product and community are better than those on platforms that split their attention among many features. They also argue that Clubhouse remains a venue to discuss emerging trends before they hit the mainstream.

“The thing that differentiates Clubhouse is the focus,” said Aarthi Ramamurthy, who hosts a popular Clubhouse show, “The Good Time Show,” with her husband, Sriram Krishnan. “It’s all from the lens of live social audio and social audio being successful. It’s not yet another addition to a platform.”

Chris Messina at Ciel Studios in Berkeley, Calif.Credit…Francesca Tamse for The New York Times
Brian McCullough at his home in Brooklyn.Credit…Dana Golan for The New York Times

In the year since Ms. Ramamurthy and Mr. Krishnan started the show, it has gained 187,000 subscribers. The couple also have about 735,000 followers between them on their personal Clubhouse accounts. The show helped Ms. Ramamurthy land a job at Clubhouse, where she is in charge of international growth. Mr. Krishnan is a general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, one of Clubhouse’s lead investors.

Tech titans like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have appeared on their show, and more recently they have hosted discussions about supply chain problems and an effort in the cryptocurrency community to buy the U.S. Constitution.

Those conversations have attracted a loyal audience. “They always use the phrase, ‘We were in the room with you,’” Mr. Krishnan said of his listeners. “There’s something about the intimacy, the community that’s almost magical.”

In recent months, Spaces reached two million users, the person familiar with Twitter’s metrics said. Twitter also created tools for hosts to moderate their conversations, added the ability to record and share Spaces, and let hosts charge an entry fee to their Spaces. But the feature has become a lower priority under the company’s new chief executive, Parag Agrawal, the person added.

Twitter, like Clubhouse, has also faced moderation challenges with its audio feature. In October, Twitter gave users access to a page that allowed them to find and join Spaces outside their networks. But the new feature also gave people visibility into how Spaces were being used, and many of them complained about Spaces that promoted racist or anti-Semitic conversations, as well as others that promoted violent groups.

Users also noticed that, on its website, Twitter required them to join the offensive Spaces to report the content, putting them at risk for trolling or abuse. In late November, Twitter said it would change its reporting process so that users could raise concerns about Spaces without joining them.

“Keeping Spaces safe and free of abuse and other harmful content has been a priority since Day 1 and remains a big part of our team’s focus,” Oji Udezue, the product lead for Twitter’s creation and conversation team, said in a statement.

Clubhouse says it is still growing. The company, which does not publish its overall number of users, said that about 700,000 conversations — known as rooms on the app — are created every day on Clubhouse, up from about 300,000 this summer, and that the average user spends about 70 minutes a day on the app. The app was downloaded 1.8 million times in November, a spokeswoman said, and the company was on track to exceed that figure in December.

Ms. Ramamurthy said she was confident that Clubhouse, and the world of social audio, was not just a pandemic fad. “We sometimes get judged as this very stable, big company,” she said. “We are just a scrappy start-up. We’re figuring it out; we have good days and bad days.”

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