Weeks after securing access to Twitter Spaces – the platform’s venture into audio chatrooms – deaf journalist and campaigner Liam O’Dell has managed to get into Clubhouse, the invite-only app and Twitter’s biggest rival.
The title of this article isn’t a compliment. The most immediate criticism upon opening the app – which I am not the first to recognise – is the appalling lack of captions. It’s even more ironic when, as part of the set-up process, one has the option to select ‘disability’ as an area of interest.
At least in the case of Spaces, there’s imperfect automatic captions to allow deaf and hard of hearing people some access to the conversation. Even though Clubhouse only has two full-time staff at present (Rohan Seth and Paul Davison), thus limiting their workflow, that doesn’t excuse them from one simple rule: accessibility should always be considered at the start of an app’s development; it should never be an afterthought.
In a blog post from July 2020, Clubhouse’s co-creators write that “tools to encourage inclusion” is something “top-of-mind” for them ahead of a wider release of the app. “What are the subtle gender, race and other dynamics that can create imbalance on the platform,” they ask, “what tools could we make to highlight when these issues are happening, or to help ensure that more people have a voice?”
Six months on, they still haven’t found one simple answer to these questions.
It’s not just Rohan and Paul who are scratching their heads. As I begin a brief exploration of Clubhouse on Monday, I soon find the app’s interface to be disorientating, overwhelming and needlessly minimalistic. Compared to Spaces, which clearly signposts with text who is a speaker, listener and host, Clubhouse has pulsating circles and an array of confusing symbols. It may well be a case of learning by experience, but if that experience is inaccessible to begin with, how is that even possible?
Similarly, the option to start a room is available to everyone (and can be set to be ‘open’ to everyone, only to those you follow, or ‘closed’ to individuals you choose to invite), but serves little purpose to those new to the platform – I currently have only four followers. You’re then left with the option to create private rooms with mutuals, but even that can be replicated on more established apps such as Messenger and WhatsApp.
At least in the case of Twitter’s Space, everyone is likely to have some following – one that is, I assume, more than single digits if they tweet regularly. If we’re matching up Spaces against Clubhouse, then it’s certainly the former which is better at starting the conversation.
Where Clubhouse succeeds, though, is in its listening experience. In my short time browsing the platform, I was impressed by the panel-like discussions taking place which discussed a whole range of topics. I briefly listened in to one on publishing and another on UK music, while I was gutted that I couldn’t attend a room discussing social media and journalism. Clubhouse has certainly captured the thrill of live, ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ events, which is no doubt helped by the app being exclusive – something which its creators say “it’s not intended to be”. The issue is, however, is that it’s easy for these structured discussions to take place on Spaces when the feature rolls out to more users.
Also, when one considers the likelihood that individuals will stick to a familiar app over one which is emerging, Clubhouse may struggle when it’s eventually up against the social media giant. Its exclusivity may be its initial charm, but when that is no longer a factor, users may well realise that it doesn’t offer them much as speakers, and is an extension of the podcast industry (albeit more raw and spontaneous). If it’s still as horrendously inaccessible upon launch as it is now, then it can expect to take a hit from disabled people, too.
If you missed it, Liam’s review of Twitter Spaces from earlier in the month is still available to read online.