After years of dominance of social media by a handful of players, a new app has people around the world chattering with excitement.
Clubhouse has set its sights on shaking up a staid field. An antithesis to the visual quick takes that define Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and Facebook, the start-up consists entirely of audio chat rooms. A select number of speakers populate the “stage,” while up to 5,000 users can listen in. Audience members can raise a hand to be invited to speak, creating an experience akin to attending a forum or panel discussion.
Although launched a year ago, Clubhouse has seen exponential growth in the past few weeks, after its Silicon Valley-based creators loosened the app’s exclusive invitation scheme to grant users a limited number of invites.
The platform is particularly popular in China, where invitations are reportedly being sold for up to 400 yuan (US$61.97) each.
Many were surprised that it was only blocked yesterday evening, especially as Chinese-language clubs discussing sensitive topics such as Taiwanese independence, the Uighurs in Xinjiang and Hong Kong’s National Security Law are not hard to find.
Listening in on these chats reveals an eagerness for open and candid communication. While propagandistic talking points are inevitably rampant, people are also asking questions of each other, and responses are thoughtful and welcomed. In one case, a Chinese speaker tried to justify his stance on Taiwan by saying it has been part of China for 5,000 years, only to be interrupted by other Chinese who refuted his claim, telling him not to speak for others.
Granted, this population is invariably skewed by the hoops Chinese users had to go through to download it. The app was only available on iPhone — already cutting the potential pool to 20 percent of smartphones — and at the time could not be found on the Chinese App Store.
With so few avenues for open cross-strait dialogue, these chat rooms feel promising. However, Taiwanese must not let their guard down, especially as Beijing’s “united front” tactics become more sophisticated.
The Chinese Communist Party fully supports people-to-people interaction — as long as it happens on its terms. For example, as part of its “cross-strait exchange base” initiative, the Matsu (馬祖) temple on China’s Meizhou Island (湄洲) has been hosting livestreams with other Matsu temples in Taiwan, drawing tens of thousands of viewers. The Chinese face-swapping app Quyan (去演) has also gained scores of Taiwanese users, who must confirm their e-mail address and biometric data before using it.
Beijing’s goals are twofold: Through these tactics, it not only can draw Taiwanese closer by promoting cultural affinities, but can also extract personal data to build police profiles of Taiwanese without them ever setting foot in China.
For Clubhouse users, the greatest concern might lie in the backend. The company that is thought to provide real-time audio services for the app, Agora, is a Chinese firm with headquarters in Shanghai and Santa Clara, California. While it claims to not store user data, experts have said that it could be subject to Chinese laws requiring cooperation with investigations.
Some pro-Beijing Twitter users have also claimed to be recording conversations and participant details.
It is still too early to know Beijing’s full intentions, but considering its recent tactics meant to digitally lure those it deems politically suspicious, users — especially Taiwanese — must remain aware of the risks.
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