Something very unusual happened in China over the past week. Tech savvy Chinese who are usually cut off from the outside world by the so-called Great Firewall of China, suddenly found themselves able to speak their mind online and to talk openly with people from outside China’s borders. It happened on a new site called Clubhouse which got a boost this month from Elon Musk. People were actually paying for invite codes so they could become part of the conversation.
Clubhouse was first popularized in China by Elon Musk, who has a cult following among tech-savvy Chinese and joined the platform to much fanfare on Feb. 1. Despite the app not existing in Apple’s Chinese App Store, many found ways to download it, eager to try out the new audio “drop in” social media platform for themselves. Invite codes for the app were for sale on Chinese social media for up to 300 yuan ($47). Long queues formed in WeChat groups, where the next person to get into Clubhouse would invite those behind them. These users represent the upper echelons of China’s socio-economic strata, with access to an iOS device, a foreign app store, social connections to an early invitee, or leisure time to queue for an invite code.
Early users were lured by the high density of Western tech investors and entrepreneurs on the platform. However, as Chinese-speaking users reached critical mass, cross-border curiosity took over. Rooms aimed at connecting those outside of mainland China and those inside mushroomed. Those inside were eager to learn of different views and perspectives outside, and those outside were hungry for authentic voices from inside. The result? A decade of pent-up demand for communication with the other side of the Great Firewall was unleashed onto Clubhouse.
Clubhouse is different from other social media sites because people use their own voices to make their points. Conversations are moderated to prevent arguments and people yelling over one another. The result was considered “unforgettable” by some who participated.