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Where Are the Adults in the Clubhouse?

Then, last week on Twitter, a VC named Balaji Srinivasan wrote a mocking reply to one of Lorenz’s tweets, involving alleged misbehavior of the CEO of the luggage startup Away. Lorenz defended herself and called out what she characterized as previous harassment by Srinivasan and others on a variety of platforms, including Clubhouse. A battle of tweets ensued, and a wider argument erupted around the increasing animus between press and venture capitalists.

The controversy moved to Clubhouse that night, when a roomful of VCs and others continued the discussion. (There is a record of this, courtesy of Motherboard, which obtained a leaked audio.) Lorenz was called to the stage, but before she could speak, the moderator called Srinivasan to the stage. “I literally hadn’t even said two words out of my mouth,” she says. Disgusted, Lorenz left, but the conversation continued, with Lorenz as a subject. When someone pointed out that her departure indicated that she felt the environment was hostile, initially, some people expressed sympathy. But that kind feeling quickly dissipated. A man identified by Motherboard as Srinivasan said, “Is Taylor afraid of a brown man on the street? Then she shouldn’t be afraid of a brown man in Clubhouse.” Another speaker, herself female, accused Lorenz of playing “the woman card.” Overall, the conversation became a free-for-all attack on the press, with speculation that journalists even “covered up” the Covid-19 pandemic. The audio clip generally captures a group of cosseted, somewhat haughty people of privilege, indignant that journalists have the power to criticize them. (When I asked him for comment, Srinivasan wouldn’t answer directly, but he retweeted comments from himself and others, generally tweets charging journalists with acting in bad faith.)

This very public episode exposed that Clubhouse, at least in this nascent state, had given little thought to policing the discussions that occur on its platform. For people learning about Clubhouse for the first time, it was a disastrous introduction. On this week’s popular The Pivot podcast, Scott Galloway, an investor often critical of VC culture, pretty much declared that the Andreessen Horowitz investment in Clubhouse was sunken money. I might not go that far, but I feel that its chances to succeed have plummeted dramatically.

One might have expected the Clubhouse founders to publicly declare that their app is intended to be a place where everyone feels safe, and announce firm protections against harassment, as well as strict moderation guidelines. But they have been silent. Those close to them offer rationalizations along the lines of the following: “We are a new company just trying things out with a limited audience. Overly harsh restrictions on speech might constrain our innovation. In any case, it is way too soon to judge us harshly in this experimental stage.”

That argument reminds me of Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent excuse that Facebook started in a dorm room and thus really can’t be blamed for failing to anticipate some of the global consequences of its policies. (In fact, within six months of its debut, Facebook was in Silicon Valley, funded and advised by some of the top minds in tech.) This doesn’t fly in 2020, when it is apparent to all that tech companies must be aware of potential abuses of their products, and that they will be judged harshly for ignoring this. When does a small company have to make sure its policies are strong enough and sufficiently enforced to prevent toxic consequences? Certainly at the point where its valuation reaches $100 million.

Meanwhile, Clubhouse’s biggest fan will no longer be using her secret handshake to get into the audio sanctuary of the Silicon Valley elite. “I don’t plan on opening the app again,” says Lorenz. “I don’t want to support any network that doesn’t take user safety seriously.”

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