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Paul Davison, chief executive officer of Highlight, has always tried to further the boundaries of connection through technology. Photo: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Clubhouse founder likes to test users’ comfort levels. His app has been accused of spreading fake coronavirus news, racism and misogyny

  • US tech entrepreneur Paul Davison develops apps that tread the line between invasive and friendly
  • From Highlight to Roll and Clubhouse, Davison has always tried to take connection to the next level
Apps

The star of the 2012 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, known as a launch pad for internet phenomena, was an app called Highlight.

Paul Davison, then 32, had released the app six weeks earlier with an intriguing proposition. Highlight tracked users’ locations to show them profiles of people nearby with similar interests or shared connections.

That week in Austin, Texas, everyone wanted to try Highlight. Phones kept buzzing with Highlight notifications. Venture capitalists wrote cheques for millions of dollars. But within a year, the app was deemed too invasive to go mainstream and had essentially flatlined.

Now, nine years later, few people have even heard of Highlight. Millions, though, have heard of Clubhouse, which Davison co-founded last year. Clubhouse is in many ways the opposite of Highlight. Clubhouse is a virtual conference hall with different rooms for people to talk about whatever topics they like and invite guests to listen. It only uses audio.

Clubhouse is heavily backed with funding and has signed up more than 10 million followers. Photo: Reuters/Florence Lo

Unlike Highlight, Clubhouse is set to outlast the initial burst of excitement. In the past year, the start-up raised funds at a US$1 billion valuation, signed up more than 10 million users, spread to dozens of countries and hosted talks with some of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Over the past 15 years, Davison has explored the depths of how technology can be used to connect people in new ways.

“That’s definitely his DNA,” said Kamran Ansari, a venture capitalist who met Davison when they were at Stanford University’s business school. 

“His mind doesn’t go to, ‘What if someone is stalking you? Or a criminal is connected to you and sees who you are?’ His mind doesn’t think that way.”

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At times, the results have made people uncomfortable or demonstrated a failure to consider safeguards against potential abuses. Clubhouse has been used to spread misinformation about Covid-19, as well as racism and misogyny. The live and ephemeral nature of the app makes policing it difficult.

In mainland China, all users of Clubhouse were blocked in February, after the boom in open discussions on matters considered highly sensitive by Beijing, such as Chinese policies in the Muslim-majority region of Xinjiang, the relationship between mainland China and Taiwan, and the identity of Chinese in Hong Kong.

All users of Clubhouse in mainland China were blocked after open discussions on matters considered highly sensitive by Beijing, such as Chinese policies in Xinjiang (above). Photo: Costfoto/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A Clubhouse spokeswoman says racism, hate speech, abuse and false information are prohibited on the app and moderation has always been a top priority. Yet, in a sign that Davison may be learning from past privacy controversies, Clubhouse recently backtracked from demanding access to a user’s full contact list.

Davison has always been on a fast track. He went to a high school known for its high achievers in San Diego, where he was a member of a club for “emerging leaders and entrepreneurs”. He went on to Stanford Graduate School of Business and consulting at Bain.

After getting his MBA in 2007, Davison joined Metaweb, a start-up trying to create a database of the world’s information. Davison was driven and intense but “not in a macho way”, says Gavin Chan, who worked with Davison at the start-up. “He’s got more momentum than force. Paul is just always moving forward.”

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By 2010, Davison had moved to Benchmark, one of Metaweb’s venture capital backers. He emerged with a new idea: using a smartphone’s location to connect people in proximity to one another. 

Davison established a company called Math Camp, and its first product was Highlight. To promote it, the company paid young people to show interested people how the app could alert them to the presence of, say, a woman nearby who shares a mutual acquaintance and an interest in opera.

A few months later, Davison wrote an opinion article for CNN arguing against “cyberphobia”. Technologies seem ridiculous or scary at first, he wrote, but that’s just because they’re new. “Knowing more about the world around you just makes life better,” he wrote. “In another decade, we are going to look back and wonder how we ever got by without this.”

Guests on Clubhouse can talk about whatever they like in a virtual conference and anyone can listen. Photo: Shutterstock

Yet after a white-hot week in Austin, interest in Highlight cooled. It was unclear what the app should be used for. Dating? Networking? Connecting with friends? Many people were never comfortable with the privacy implications.

Pushing the digital boundaries of what people are comfortable to share became a Davison signature. “He’s just constantly generating ideas,” says Ansari, the venture capitalist who invested in Math Camp. “Very creative, very high energy.”

In 2015, Math Camp released an app called Roll, which asked users to share every photo from their camera roll to a set of friends. The start-up recruited college students to promote it on campus. Carolyn Liu said she was paid around US$1,000 to hand out stickers and urge her classmates to download the app. 

The thing about Clubhouse is, we’re building it for everyone in the world, and the reality is, there are bad actors in the world
Paul Davison, US entrepreneur and founder of Clubhouse

“People got kind of weirded out, but then some people really liked it,” she says. Liu remembers Davison interviewing her about why she and her friends took photos and what they took photos of. “Roll was kind of a flop, but also, you could tell that he was learning along the way,” she adds.

The next year, the company relaunched the automatic-photo-sharing app as Shorts, but many technology enthusiasts were sceptical. “It was pretty aggressive,” says Ansari. A Verge article called it “insane”; Davison responded: “We enjoy thinking about places where we could push people a little bit.”

In 2019 Davison reconnected with an old acquaintance named Rohan Seth, who was looking for help raising money for research into his young daughter’s rare disease. They decided to give social media start-ups “one last try”, they wrote in a company blog post. They introduced Talkshow, which eventually morphed into Clubhouse.

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Clubhouse quickly generated buzz among the insiders selected to try the service, including some top venture capitalists who invested in the parent company Alpha Exploration within a few months. Andreessen Horowitz first bought shares valuing the company at US$100 million and then again at 10 times that price, and Bloomberg has invested in the company.

Critics have said the qualities that make Clubhouse feel casual and personal can facilitate deception. The app’s guidelines effectively forbid recording, which has made Clubhouse a seemingly safe place to spread lies or bully without consequences.

Yet in the absence of any prescriptions, Clubhouse can be a place to hear Elon Musk talk about Bitcoin, get an audio news briefing, listen to musicians sing lullabies or learn how to game the stock market. In one recurring room, people just make whale moaning sounds together.

Clubhouse can be a place to hear Elon Musk (above) talk about Bitcoin, or listen to musicians sing lullabies. Photo: Maja Hitij/Getty Images

Davison shows an increasing awareness that a fast-rising number of users brings some bad ones, but it doesn’t seem to have changed his views on the goodness of people.

“The thing about Clubhouse is, we’re building it for everyone in the world, and the reality is, there are bad actors in the world,” he said in a recent Clubhouse talk. “There are people that aren’t necessarily ill-intentioned but enjoy testing the limits of systems and trying things out.”

When Davison announced that Clubhouse would stop prompting users for full contact list access, he insisted the data request was innocent. “It’s totally optional,” Davison said a Clubhouse talk. “It does make the experience a lot better for you, I think. And it’s not used for anything else. But if you don’t want to, that’s totally fine.”

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Clubhouse is just over a year old. Davison has said he wants to expand the room capacity – usually capped at around 5,000 listeners – to an infinite size, so they can accommodate musicals, news conferences, sports post-game analyses, political rallies and big company all-hands meetings.

“The ways people use Clubhouse are just mind-blowing to me,” Davison told a virtual roomful of listeners.

“If you think about how video evolved, we sort of went from this world where you had broadcast television, and we had four channels, and everyone watched the same thing at seven o’clock on a Thursday, to cable television in the ’90s, where you had 400 channels suddenly, and that led to 24-hour news channels and golf channels and fishing channels and home shopping networks.

“And then we got YouTube, which was crazy,” Davison continued. “And suddenly you got unboxing videos and ASMR and Top 10 videos and crazy things that no one ever would have expected. Because people are amazing, right?”

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