The Japanese internet appears to have gone gaga over Clubhouse, the invitation-only audio application that allows users to host and listen to conversations between others. Since debuting in the country earlier this year, it has risen to the top of the free download rankings in Apple’s App Store, recently recording more than 440,000 new downloads in just one week.

While the San Francisco-born app has enjoyed newfound attention all around the world (including in China, where the government recently banned it), its rapid growth in popularity in Japan has been surprising. Besides seemingly becoming the dominant topic of tech discourse, high-profile personalities from all walks of life have flocked to it — including TV personality Naomi Watanabe, YouTuber Fuwa-chan, musician Kenshi Yonezu and entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa, to mention a few. Online media organizations have started unpacking the phenomenon, too.

It’s certainly proving popular as people jump at the chance to follow the platform’s trend-setters, but plenty of other theories have been floated online as to why Clubhouse has resonated so strongly with users. Nostalgia for older social networks has become one of the more compelling ideas. When Clubhouse first became available in Japan, it trended on Twitter alongside mentions of mixi, one of Japan’s earlier experiments in invitation-only social media. Others likened it to another app from the past: Gree.

While it’s probably fair to say that most users aren’t longing for the often janky experience of using mixi, Clubhouse has tapped into the VIP spirit of early social networking, which has been lost in the free-for-all atmosphere of sites such as Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. An article in President Online argued that the exclusivity of Clubhouse generates a feeling among non-users who want to be a part of it.

This, the writer says, is compounded by the fact Clubhouse audio isn’t saved, meaning if you don’t catch a conversation live you likely won’t hear it again. It’s the ultimate example of FOMO — fear of missing out — that inspires so much online activity these days.

President also talked to Sho Sakamoto, a social media consultant who said that the user base for Clubhouse skews older than Twitter and Instagram, and attracts more people who use it for business reasons. That a considerable amount of the users come from the worlds of business, tech and politics seems to underline just how much a role online networking now plays in our lives.

However, Clubhouse offers more than simply providing a forum in which to conduct a mass exchange of business cards. In a story about romantic coupling on Clubhouse, Gendai noted how a large part of the app’s appeal is how it mirrors a radio talk show, albeit one mainly occupied by celebrities. Yet it’s more than that — listening to well-known people talk on Clubhouse can often feel more revealing and intimate than seeing them on a closely controlled TV show, or even reading their Twitter posts. Sure enough, a Clubhouse room will typically hit its 5,000-person cap if a big name is present.

Part of the charm of the experience, both here and abroad, is seeing how people find novel uses for the audio-only format — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which makes it difficult to hold traditional events and meet-ups in physical spaces. Rakugo performers host nightly comedy events on Clubhouse, while DJs and electronic artists such as Takkyu Ishino of Denki Groove have turned the space into a virtual club. Musicians have even come together in rooms to create original songs, with duo Animal Hack putting together a track made entirely on the app.

While many are enjoying a honeymoon phase with the service, a few cracks are starting to appear. Clubhouse states that users can’t record or share what is said on the app, but this hasn’t stopped reporters from sharing what they overhear in the rooms. Media personality Nicole Fujita tweeted about how weekly tabloids were reporting what she says on the platform, and how frustrating it was that the rules seemed to do nothing. This same situation is playing out in the United States as well, and shows one area in which Clubhouse might face problems down the line.

For now, though, people are still enjoying the experience… and clamoring for invites to experience the “next big thing.”

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