Clubhouse is the latest example of how capitalism screws Black creators

The audio app is among many with a track record of monetizing Black influence without sharing the economic value this historically marginalized community generates.

Last month, a cast and crew of over 40 actors, narrators, musicians and a choir presented a musical of The Lion King to an audience of over 5,000 listeners — including author and podcaster Luvvie Ajayi and director Ava DuVernay — on Clubhouse, the popular voice-based social app. The event featured live instrumentation plus imagery and scenes from the original movie as constantly updating profile pictures of the participants while the performance progressed. ”What started as a random conversation on Clubhouse has scaled to something much greater. We have so many talented people contributing their time and energy to this performance,” marketing executive and event producer Noelle Chesnut Whitmore said in a press release. “Our goal is just to spread some joy to people through these events. I never imagined this would get such a huge response.”

Just a few months ago, Clubhouse was a hangout for venture capitalists and other tech bros who believe in so-called cancel culture and enable all sorts of racism, misogyny and digital harassment. But now the app, which requires an invitation and iPhone or iPad to use, is riding the wave of a new funding round and $1 billion valuation less than a year, thanks in part to the influential halo of Black creators who have innovated new ways to enjoy the app and evangelize its brand. “A few months ago you might’ve opened the app to a panel discussion on the future of artificial intelligence or the potential of Bitcoin. Now, you’ll still see the tech talk, but it’ll be alongside debates over the music of rappers DMX and 50 Cent or the latest happening in the NBA,” Salvador Rodriguez wrote for CNBC. “Nowadays, you can find folks shooting their shots in dating rooms, cracking jokes in virtual comedy clubs, talking about the latest celebrity gossip or having musical jam sessions with their friends.” Creators are also carrying their communities from other apps to Clubhouse for discussions, Q&As and tutorials.

In a blog post announcing its latest funding round, cofounders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth outlined how they plan to use its latest round of funding. There’s a new Android app in the works, along with accessibility and localization features to expand the app’s global user base. (Clubhouse will also upgrade its technology and infrastructure so its servers can handle the app’s recent and future growth.) Resources will also go to building algorithms that personalize the people, clubs and rooms according to listener interests, which will probably pave the way for Clubhouse to sell engagement-based ads. Creators will eventually be able to monetize Clubhouse experiences through features like tipping, tickets and subscriptions and get support from a Creator Grant Program. And Clubhouse will bolster its trust and safety teams with tools designed to detect and prevent abuse, support its moderators and provide same-day approval to everyone’s clubs. A spokesperson for Clubhouse did not respond to a series of questions from The Supercreator, including if how the experiences of users who experienced abuse due to the company’s lax content moderation policies will shape its trust and safety efforts going forward or if Clubhouse employs any Black people in leadership roles.

It’s obvious that social apps offer plenty of material benefits. It feels awkward to mention it since we’re in the middle of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, but most millennials lived through the last worst economic collapse since the Great Depression a decade ago. Despite possessing more education than any previous generation, inadequate labor demand and sluggish wages compelled us to muster and monetize as much social approval as possible — likes, retweets, followers, comments, clicks, et cetera— to hatch a diluted version of the American Dream, thanks in part to social apps and search engines like Instagram and YouTube. We all know at least one “influencer” who’s benefitted from the so-called passion economy. Maybe you’re one yourself or have dreams of becoming one.

Or perhaps you’re just attracted to the new media formats these apps unlock. “Audio offers us a welcome break from the screens to which we have become glued, in the form of a more personalized and intimate experience,” Hayati Alaluf wrote for The Drum last February. Clubhouse, in fact, was created with voice in mind, according to its founders: “Instead of posting, you could gather with other people and talk.” Added Davidson and Seth: “The thing we love most is how voice can bring people together. No matter where you live in the world or what networks you have access to, in Clubhouse you can be in the room—often with people whose lived experience has been very different from your own.”

But when you snap back to reality, you recognize that it’s the creativity and generosity of the creators and communities — not the goodwill or innovation of altruistic founders — that make these apps so valuable. And while it’s a challenge to live off of your creative work regardless of your identity, Black creators are often excluded from the networks and opportunities that generate the relationships and credibility to both realize and command what we’re worth. There’s also the systemic and institutional barriers reinforced by white supremacy, in addition to the patriarchy and anti-LGBTQ+ bias Black women and queer creators are expected to navigate, that further disempower us from sitting at the table and setting the menu. (And, for the record, any Black creator you think of at this moment who defies this representation is the exception, not the rule.) Within this context, it’s easier to see how access to a new app that you didn’t ask for (and could comfortably exist online without), the potential of a viral moment or a one-time grant that often locks creators into creating on the apps that provided the financial support is insufficient in the grand scheme of things. And Clubhouse has accepted the torch from its social predecessors to uphold this inequitable status quo.

Clubhouse is among many social apps and consumer brands with a track record of monetizing Black influence without sharing or returning a meaningful share of the economic value this historically marginalized community generates. In an article by André Wheeler for The Guardian, André Brock, a professor at Georgia Tech, said that Black Twitter, the large network of Black Twitter users and their loosely coordinated interactions, allows “mainstream, white culture an unprecedented glimpse at how [Black] people talk and joke among each other. It was one of the first spaces that white people could see how creative [Black] people are with our discourse, and how we used a technology that wasn’t originally designed for us.” It was also what turned the Popeyes chicken sandwich into a viral campaign that generated an estimated $65 million in earned media for the restaurant chain during a two-week window when the sandwich sold out in August 2019.

But this exposure often leads to racial bias in media coverage, not economic opportunity. Adds Meredith Clark, a professor at the University of Virginia who is currently writing a book on Black Twitter, in Wheeler’s article: “Whenever you put ‘Black’ in front of anything, people think it’s deviant from what’s mainstream. I think that led to a lot of confusion for folks who were outside of Black Twitter. The term doesn’t necessarily signal the cultural richness we found within the space.” And on TikTok, digital Blackface runs wild. In a September 2020 WIRED cover story, Jason Parham reported 29 Black creators who shared stories about muted posts, in-app harassment, and incidents of racism. “Together, their experiences belie the perception of TikTok as an app of joy and creativity, revealing instead a place tangled up in an ancient pain — a site of blurred visions and youthful ignorances, where flattery quickly turns into mockery, mockery into theft, and theft into something altogether more disturbing,” Parham wrote. (Women and people of color share similar sentiments about the abuse they encounter on Clubhouse.)

This is why it’s critical to interrogate Clubhouse’s growth and the contributions of Black creators not only on their own merit but within the social-app ecosystem they exist. From Facebook and Instagram to YouTube and Twitter, we’ve seen what happens when we apply less scrutiny in their early-growth stage when history shows us that they deserve more. Even more critical is the sustainability of the Black creative class, which requires our collective ability to own our work, the relationships with the people who enjoy it and the economic value it generates. And until Clubhouse and its contemporaries make it as easy to share the fruits of our labor, then we should be far more discerning with our stamps of approval.


In The Know

CULTURE: Tom Brady is heading to his tenth Super Bowl in 21 seasons as an NFL quarterback after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defeated the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Brady will face the Kansas City Chiefs, winners of last year’s Super Bowl, and reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes. (Mahomes was in kindergarten when Brady won his first title. 🤯)

CORONAVIRUS: President Joe Biden plans to double down on requests for Congress to support his $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill against bipartisan opposition from lawmakers who prefer targeted legislation focused on vaccine distribution and bristle at the idea of wealthy Americans receiving stimulus checks along with those who need direct payments the most.

POLITICS: Republicans remain in the majority of most Senate committees and newly sworn-in Democratic senators haven’t received committee assignments due to a deadlock over Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s demand that Democrats pledge to retain the legislative filibuster. (The filibuster essentially requires a 60-vote supermajority on all legislation and would render most of President Biden’s agenda dead on arrival.)

BUSINESS: Film director Ava DuVernay will produce scripted and unscripted audio programming through an exclusive multi-year deal with Spotify’s Gimlet studio. It’s the latest move in Spotify’s strategy of partnering with A-listers like The Obamas and acquiring podcast advertising and publishing assets.

TECH: Apple released its new Time to Walk feature for Apple Watch and Fitness+ subscribers, which features 25- to 40-minute episodes of original audio from influential people like country music star Dolly Parton, NBA player Draymond Green, musician Shawn Mendes and Emmy Award winner Uzo Aduba. The company says it created the new experiences to “encourage users to walk more often and reap the benefits from one of the healthiest activities.”


Verbatim

“This routine definitely reflects everything I am today as a woman. And of course, I had to incorporate a lot of parts of my culture. I wanted to have a dance party because that’s my personality, and of course, I had to shout out L.A., because we out here, UCLA.” —Nia Dennis, the UCLA gymnast who went viral yet again over the weekend after another incredible floor performance


Read All About It

Phillip Picardi at Fruity on whether we should care about what politicians are wearing:

As someone who loves fashion, I was thrilled to see the celebration of style that was on display. On the one hand, I felt overjoyed for Christopher John Rogers, Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss, Gabriela Hearst, and the countless other designers who would undoubtedly benefit greatly from these history-making moments. On the other, I felt uneasy. We were supposed to walk away from the past four years of abused democracy with a greater consciousness—an awareness that there can be no “back to normal,” since “normal” in America meant blatant inequality, before, during, and after Trump. I worried that this all could read as a proverbial “going back to brunch”—a nod to the 2017 Women’s March signs which stated that if Hillary Clinton were elected, we’d have fun and relaxing lives and would not be out in the streets protesting. The threats to our democracy—and the systemic racism, transphobia, and misogyny that underpin all of our American institutions—are not going anywhere just because there’s been a changing of the guard.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic at Harvard Business Review on the lack of barriers faced by mediocre men:

Editor’s note: Although I typically publish new writing in this section, this piece from 2013 is worth the read.

In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.

Meghan Moravcik Walbert at Lifehacker on how to teach kids about sexism:

[E]ven though you, as a parent, might buy gender-neutral clothing and toys, and read them stories full of strong female characters in positions of power or leadership, that’s not what they’re seeing when they turn on the TV or step outside your home. One trip down the toy aisle in Walmart or Target will demonstrate how colors and pictures are used to categorize toys as being either for boys or for girls. It’s not long before kids start to internalize that traits like being nice or sweet are applied more often to girls, while boys are more physical; they receive the signals that women are more often in charge of cleaning the home, while men cut the grass; and they notice that the “leaders”—in their schools, in their community, in politics—are most often male.

Katharine K. Zarrella at The Wall Street Journal on why men and women are trading their sad WFH uniforms for snazzy sleepwear:

It might seem counterintuitive, but a sharp pair of PJs can look more put-together than the sad WFH uniform to which so many have succumbed: sweatpants, T-shirt and hoodie. The former is “crisp and happy,” said George Cortina; the latter, “sloppy and slovenly.” Mr. Cortina, 55, is a New York fashion editor (who contributes to WSJ.) and pajama evangelist who’s worn custom cotton pairs everywhere from Tony Paris eateries to scene-y Los Angeles hangouts. “If you have a fresh set of pajamas,” he said, “there’s something beautiful in the choice you’ve made. If you’re wearing sweats, it’s gray and dreadful.” Mr. Cortina so strongly believes that PJs are the ultimate all-occasion ensemble that, this March, he’s launching a line of unisex poplin pairs with Savile Row tailor Anderson & Sheppard. They’ll come in un-dreadful “1960s Italian Riviera” hues like hot pink and lavender.

Dayna Evans at Vox on the essential shoes for essential workers:

For the hundreds of thousands of essential workers in fields like health care, food service, and education who are tasked with being on their feet for the entirety of their work shifts, shoes are second only to masks as the most important piece of garb they put on for the day. In some professions, workers can be on their feet as long as 16 hours, and coming home with sore feet is just not an option. In the midst of a pandemic, when the burden on essential workers is especially high, supportive shoes have to be an afterthought. There are more important things to focus on.

Claire Lampen at The Cut in conversation with public defense attorney and podcaster Rhiannon Hamam on coping with devastating outcomes:

It’s the human connection that keeps me going. You lose all the time as a prison abolitionist. If one of my clients pleads guilty to something and takes prison time, to me that’s a loss in the big scheme of things. Sending people to prison is a loss. But when you’re there with a person, and you have fought for them to get the best possible deal, when you have represented somebody and humanized them in a courtroom — within a system that is designed to dehumanize, that is designed to kill, that is designed to punish incredibly traumatically — I find it invigorating. When you individualize the work, it becomes more sustainable.


Michael’s Pick

When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep by Antonio Zadra Robert Stickgold ($26): This book — which explores what dream are, where they come from, what they mean and why we have them — is like catnip for my curiosity about one of the more bewildering aspects of sleep.