In early February of 2021, Clubhouse—the invitation-only drop-in audio chat app—had reached peak popularity, having grown from 3.5 million to 8.1 million downloads in a matter of weeks. Would-be users were hounding their contacts among its users for account invitations.
At the same time, users were beginning to understand the highlights and drawbacks of the growing Clubhouse community.
At TechnologyAdvice, we quickly saw the value in connecting with others for conducting market research, expanding our professional networks, and building rapport by discussing the growing B2B software industry. As Q1 neared its end, however, the frequency and duration of our use of the app began to diminish.
The decline in use was caused by a few core issues of access and accessibility.
Foremost, our colleagues using Android devices were on the outside looking in, and so we couldn't reach them. Although some of them were able to repurpose old iPhones and iPads, the exclusion of such a large segment of potential users affected the quality of conversations and the number of new discussion topics. The Android version dropped on Google Play on May 9, 2021—more than a year after Clubhouse's debut in the Apple App Store.
Although there is still a sizable group of regular users, and growth continues across the community, Clubhouse's accessibility concerns also need to be addressed.
New-User and Platform Issues
If you haven't used the app before, Clubhouse can be intimidating. Users can select from 14 primary topics and explore live conversations on everything ranging from the arts to world events.
Although there is good representation of secondary topics in which "rooms" can be tagged, it can still be difficult to dive into something specific you had in mind. Navigating the process of finding rooms is largely contingent on your own network. As with other social platforms, users maintain rosters of user accounts they follow; of course, they can accumulate followers themselves.
Between the high level of notifications the app produces and the prevalence of popular account holders, users can feel pushed to join large chats that have already been active for some time, which leaves little opportunity to speak directly with others.
Of course, navigating the app requires tapping in the user interface; and, once in a room, users must rely on audio devices to listen in while also keeping their device handy for hand-raising (to request joining a conversation) as well as for adjusting audio settings, exploring users to connect with, etc. For those reasons, I find the notion that Clubhouse can be a "screen off" listening experience misleading.
Clubhouse Accessibility Concerns and Opportunities
As a growing number of users have made frequent use of the app, the number of concerns for users with physical, visual, and auditory disabilities has grown.
1. Issues Affecting the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community
For users who are part of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC), Clubhouse can be a source of anxiety. Because all audible content shared on the platform relies on other users' audio equipment, connections, and environments, individuals with auditory disabilities are missing out on portions of conversations that provide value for those who don't have those disabilities.
One obvious way this could be addressed would be the addition of closed-captioning technology, allowing DHHC listeners to visually read along with conversations as they take place. As we continue to live through a pandemic during which videoconferencing has never been more prevalent, visual cues are more important than usual.
Visual cues and context simply do not exist in Clubhouse, and there has been little discussion or progress on improving to accommodate audibly disabled individuals.
2. Issues Affecting Those With Speech and Language Impairments
More than 7.5 million Americans in the United States alone have trouble using their voice. For them, the obstacles of being an active member on a speech-based platform such as Clubhouse are significant.
Although accommodations can be made in certain rooms and discussions happening on Clubhouse, those are up to the discretion and consideration of hosts and moderators who are "on stage" in a Clubhouse chat room.
The platform caters to the idea that users want to quickly join a room, listen in, and contribute to an active discussion; but there is no easy way a user with speech or language disabilities can do so. That highlights accessibility issues focused on digital ableism.
"Clubhouse's audio-first dynamic means it could theoretically be an eminently accessible social network for the Blind and low vision. Alas, the lack of support for VoiceOver and adjustable text sizes hinder its potential. And it is not just for visual disabilities; accurate, real-time captioning would be a boon for people with speech impairments—myself included—as well, on both ends of a discussion."
Future Clubhouse Accessibility
Clubhouse may have recently gained access to millions of new users on Android devices, but the growing number of would-be users with disabilities has not been considered.
To date, Clubhouse is said to be proud of its small-team focus and successful delivery of a beta-level product. As the app's scale and reach continue to grow, however, so too do the arguments that it must accommodate potential users being ignored as a result of the lack of accessibility features.
In the app world, it is notoriously difficult to address accessibility as an afterthought. Nevertheless, if Clubhouse wants to serve a growing and diversified audience, it must address those issues.
More Resources on Clubhouse and Accessibility
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