Controversy amid camaraderie

Clubhouse is now a hit but academics said it's too soon to conclude if the audio application will become the next big social media platform

The social audio app Clubhouse is seen on a mobile phone. (Photo: Reuters)

In less than a year after its launch, Clubhouse is challenging the social media paradigm. From those old days when people tuned in to popular television and radio shows, now they can be invited by existing Clubhouse users to join virtual rooms where they can hear people speaking and raise hands to enter the discussion.

The now 11-month-old app was launched last year by California-based software developer Alpha Exploration, but it was not until tech giants like Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg appeared that the app became a household name. Analytics firm App Annie estimated the app saw global downloads increase from 3.5 million to 8.1 million in the first half of February alone.

In Thailand, netizens are questioning whether Clubhouse will become the new social media sensation. The craze has led many Thai public figures to jump on the bandwagon, including Progressive Movement leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and Kla Party leader Korn Chatikavanij.

However, it was the appearance of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra under the pseudonym of Tony Woodsome last week that further stoked hype and shook the corridors of power.

Asked by reporters, Prime Minister Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha said he would not join the app because he didn't have time and could not understand why people gave Thaksin so much attention. Instead, he instructed officials to monitor his chatroom and check for any distorted information. Earlier, the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society warned users not to break the law after it became a platform for discussing the monarchy.

In light of this, Life talks with media and information academics who analyse if the audio chat app can sustain its momentum among the pro-democracy movement and create a peace-building dialogue.

Fear of missing out

Assoc Prof Pijitra Suppasawatgul, head of Journalism and New Media at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Communication Arts, attributed the popularity of Clubhouse to the social network effect.

"People will follow their friends. In fact, the emergence of new platforms is very difficult because online media are booming. A tweet by Elon Musk [that he would join the app] fuelled the demand," she said.

She said the exclusive nature of Clubhouse -- audio-only and restricted to iPhone users who each have a limit of two invitations -- recreates an experience of going to an exclusive party. People feel more privileged than outsiders even though this is possibly not intended by developers.

"Nowadays, they don't want to use a very open platform where people around the world can see them," she said.

When asked whether the app will become a mainstream social media platform, she explained that "it is too early to say", but the app remains professional -- at least for now -- because public figures can share ideas like they do in public forums, but, as time goes by, it will become user-generated content.

"Each platform has its own character. Influencers like Thanathorn, Pavin and Thaksin have sparked public interest. People enjoy the idea of interacting with them. We have to wait and see how it will develop. Whether the app will be a mainstream channel depends on influencers and user-friendliness. Building it is hard, but maintaining it is harder," she said.

Disruptive force

Critics point out that Clubhouse could spell doom for the mass media, already on its deathbed. Some said the app highlights the despair of journalists that are facing many challenges in terms of organisational structure, financial survival, and the fact that news sources no longer need them. For example, politicians can bypass reporters because they can launch chatrooms and moderate conversations themselves.

Pijitra said the app disrupts traditional media, but brings about new opportunities for them. Reporters can have their own channels and break free from capitalists and media tycoons. Anyone who can generate interesting content can build their online presence.

"Nowadays, content is king. It is a healthy environment for business and mass communication. When it comes to politics, it shows the government's inability to control technology and dissident views," she said.

Pijitra added that the manipulation of media by politicians is not different from what happened during the yellow-red political conflict. In those days, some media were affiliated with political parties, such as Democrat-operated BlueSky TV and red-shirt Asia Update TV. Therefore, reporters are still relevant.

"They are responsible for maintaining fairness and balance. If they take sides [in politics], they will go away very soon. They are not in the spotlight, but they can stay," she said.

In conventional media, editorial staff are gatekeepers of information. However, the notion of "truth" has come under scrutiny now that fake news floods social media.

Pimphot Seelakate, a lecturer in information studies at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Arts, asked what kind of content is on the app because it cannot be verified at the moment of speaking. Is it gossip, information or knowledge? Some users might be under the impression that reliability lies in the platform. For example, an influencer is talking about the same issue, but adopting a different tone of voice on each platform. He might appear professional on Clubhouse, but aggressive on Facebook.

"However, a platform is just a platform. It doesn't guarantee that the content in question is fact," she said.

Pimphot drew an analogy between the app and the classroom because Clubhouse allows public speakers to give an audience "lecture". This fits perfectly with our education system where students consider whatever teachers say to be "knowledge".

"In fact, the classroom environment is characterised by power relations. The reliability of content is derived from cross-check," she said.

Push for democracy

Many political groups are using the app for debating the pro-democracy movement. Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul and other protest leaders joined the app to discuss unlawful detention and civil disobedience last month. Pijitra said that the app can maintain the momentum of anti-government protests. They are finding new channels due to the attack of Thai army information operations on Twitter.

"It is the catch-me-if-you-can scenario. However, users are not leaving existing platforms. You can see that they are giving short updates on Twitter and discussing issues on Clubhouse. It is good to see freedom of expression," she said.

Some progressive celebrities on the app proposed the idea of founding a coalition to speak up for citizens. Move Forward MP Tunyawaj Kamolwongwat said the app is a force to be reckoned with by advertising agencies because the most popular topic of discussion is not beauty and entertainment, but politics. He asked whether they can take sides in politics to convey the message to consumers that their products are politically-friendly.

Meanwhile, Pimphot said the digital technology can strengthen democracy by enabling interaction. The app can create dialogue between those who take different political stances. For instance, TV host Woody Milintachinda and academic-in-exile Pavin Chachavalpongpun were reported to have joined the same chatroom. In world history, dialogue has played a remedial role and brought peace to war-torn countries.

"From the government's point of view, I think this is threatening. It is also true for the Chinese government. Dialogue can create empathy for those who are on different sides," she said.

The Chinese government has banned the app. It was reported that Mandarin speakers from mainland China and Taiwan discussed many sensitive issues in the same chatroom. Both sides, unusually, had more sympathy for each other.

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