This Thursday morning (11), users of the Clubhouse social network spoke in Arabic about what they wanted. In a very popular room, for example, doctors answered questions about the Covid-19 vaccine. In another, moviegoers chatted behind the scenes of the big screen. There was also a group of people analyzing each other’s dreams. And a room with the title “what are you going to do this weekend”, to really have little conversations. These are specific examples of the explosion of dialogue that is taking place – for the moment in hiding – in this new social network.
Clubhouse is an audio chat application, usually between strangers. You select a room, go in and start listening, maybe also talking, about the topic you choose. This may seem trivial, in societies with free speech and few taboos. In parts of the Middle East, however, this social network has served as an escape valve. In conservative and repressive Saudi Arabia, Clubhouse topped the Apple Store’s social apps list. In Egypt, there are rooms with more than 2,000 participants. In Turkey, where Turkish is spoken, activists have used this network as a tool for protest.
According to a recent Washington Post report, the Syrian diaspora – spread across the world due to the country’s civil war since 2011 – used the Clubhouse to jumpstart their traditional morning conversations. In this social network, they tell jokes, ask for advice on where to buy Levantine food in their new countries and also talk about how the Syrian regime has devastated parts of the country in recent years.
One of the big pitfalls of the Clubhouse, so far, is the fact that the app only works on the iOS system, excluding those who can’t afford an iPhone – in some cases. parts of the Middle East, the vast majority of the population. As the post office reminds us, accessibility is also affected by daily electricity and Internet cuts.
There is, however, an even more serious problem. The unfiltered conversation, sometimes about your politics, already seems to bother authoritarian governments in the region. Users complain about how the app works in the United Arab Emirates, for example. The Egyptian press has previously accused the Clubhouse of supporting terrorist cells, a typical charge leveled against those who disagree with the regime. An article on the Middle East Eye website insists the question is not “if” dictatorships will start monitoring these conversations, but “when”. These governments remember, after all, the role networks like Facebook and Twitter played in mobilizing the 2011 protests, which toppled authoritarian regimes in the region.