Spring has sprung. Vaccines are being distributed. Plans for reopenings and in-person gatherings have commenced in earnest.

Thus we might be approaching a turning point for Clubhouse, the voice-chat app that exploded in popularity in depths of pandemic winter, filling the void left by myriad canceled conferences and networking events.

The fledgling app, which now boasts 13.4 million users and inspired copy cats by Twitter and Facebook, might either continue to grow, proving that mass conference calls are the social media experience of the future. Or it could peter out as normal human interactions resume, going the way of MySpace before it even gets out of beta.

Enter: “Payments.” In partnership with fintech heavy-hitter Stripe, now the most valuable U.S. startup, Clubhouse unveiled a new feature allowing speakers on the app to receive cash donations. Under the new policy, which is being rolled out for a select number of users at a time, a listen can simply tap a button to send money to an eligible speaker. Stripe tacks on a modest processing fee, but Clubhouse takes nothing.

“This will be the first of many features that allow creators to get paid directly on Clubhouse,” the company said on its blog Monday. “We are excited to see how people use it, and to continue working hard to help the amazing members of the Clubhouse community grow and thrive.”

Stripe founder and CEO Patrick Collison tweeted at the time that it was “cool to see a new social platform focus first on participant income rather than internalized monetization [or] advertising."

Just after the plan was announced, unnamed sources told Bloomberg that the app was in talks to raise funds at a staggering valuation of $4 billion. The news organization later reported, again citing unnamed individuals, that Twitter had previously considered buying Clubhouse for roughly the same price. However, “discussions are no longer ongoing, and it’s unclear why they stalled, the people added,” according to Bloomberg.

Media reports about deals in progress often rely on tips from stakeholders who leak information in hopes of swaying the outcome. It is quite possible these anonymous people, whoever they are, have an interest in stirring enthusiasm for the app and seeing that the capital raise gets done. Perhaps “tipping” for creators was also adopted in furtherance of those goals.

Clubhouse’s fortunes have seemed to rise in tandem with a series of buzzy events early this year, including appearances by Elon Musk, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates. Since that time, interest in the app has been more mixed, according to web traffic data from Thinknum.

After the Payments announcement this week, people conversing on the app expressed hope that the monetization policy would rejuvenate Clubhouse’s user base and spawn new revenue opportunities for creators. But others worried tipping could cheapen the experience, make wealthy users feel awkward about dropping into rooms without paying, or otherwise decrease enjoyment.

In a series of Clubhouse chat rooms Tuesday with names like “CH Monetizing: The Gritty Secrets,” “CH TIPPING — How does this affect taxes,” and “Monetization station: Creating a CH economy,” users discussed a laundry list of possible good, bad and ugly consequences of the change.

One user suggested some “petty-ass dudes” might send $10 or $15 to an ex-girlfriend who was a speaker, making the exchange visible to others in the chat room, solely as a form of harassment.

Another user postulated that celebrities might be turned off from the app because pressure to donate would “make them uncomfortable.” There could also be a “slightly less organic feel” to the conversations on the app, the user said.

It could be “like the Hunger Games,” the user said, suggesting speakers would try to compete to earn the most tips rather than focus on meaningful conversations. “Money will ruin the space, as money always does.”

Some users pointed out that the prospect of tips might lure users to Clubhouse thinking they could rack up easy money — only to be disappointed.

“Sitting around jabbering into a cell phone isn’t work,” one user vented, adding that hosts would have to provide value if they want to earn meaningful revenue.

Others, however, were broadly optimistic that Payments would allow the app to prosper and seed new content-generation efforts. Clubhouse is “releasing the feature to keep the app alive,” one user said. Otherwise “people will burn out.”

With monetary incentives, people may think “let me get back on the app,” the user said.

To be sure, monetizing social media platforms isn’t a new concept. Professional influencers abound on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok. Twitter Spaces and some other Clubhouse clones in development are considering the addition of a tipping feature. It’s also common for speakers at in-person events to be directly compensated for their time.

But there is something a bit weird, perhaps too intimate, about being able to sit in the comfort of your own home and pay someone to lead an entertaining, topical and informative phone conversation. Almost veering toward a modern, socially-distanced twist on Japanese Geisha culture, in which men and women work not as prostitutes, but as engaging and skillful hosts and hostesses. 

Regardless of whether Payments turns out to be a boon for the app or a disaster, Clubhouse still must grapple with underlying investor concerns that it may have been just a short-lived fad, something to be left in a Covid time capsule along with Zoom birthday parties, face shields, and toilet paper shortages.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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