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Transforming 2021

Students can't meet in person. Clubhouse might mean they never have to.

The invite-only audio platform is replacing affinity group meetings during the pandemic. It might one day be the new office hours.

Students can't meet in person. Clubhouse might mean they never have to.

The new office hours?

Photo: Jaap Arriens/Getty Images

A year into the pandemic, remote learning continues to isolate students of all ages from physical connection with their peers. But Clubhouse has become one space where students in the doctorate community have started to convene to rediscover some semblance of community learning.

For the most part, K-12 and undergraduate student groups are sticking to specific platforms to separate their work from their social interactions. With Zoom or Google Hangouts used by the vast majority for online learning, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter remain widely used for social communication. But for doctorate students, postdocs, researchers and faculty members, Clubhouse is where conversations and networking take place.

Clubhouse launched in April 2020 as an invite-only, iPhone-only social media app with audio content only. Clubhouse's trajectory has been rapid, and most of the app's growth has come in the past two months, growing from a few thousand users to 6 million as of February 2021. It's become a place where people across various industries, including tech luminaries like Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and Marc Andreessen have made appearances for surprisingly casual and candid conversations. "Voice adds texture and fidelity to conversations that can be lacking in other venues," a spokesperson for Clubhouse told Protocol. "The intonation, inflection and emotion that are conveyed through voice allow people to pick up on nuance and empathize with each other."

"Clubhouse provides a no-pressure, no-video and no dress-up platform for people to have a voice," said Roshni Rao, the director of professional development for doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows at Johns Hopkins University. Unlike Twitter or LinkedIn, where you need to be a person of influence for your voice to be amplified, anyone can start a room on the audio app. "Clubhouse rooms seem very welcoming, inclusive and [have] very little gatekeeping," Rao said.

Rao began using Clubhouse in late January; she believes it fills a void for her students, who were craving community. She joined All Things Academia, a Clubhouse room with 12,500 members and over 21,600 followers targeting members of the graduate student community, and has since moderated her own chat on international scholar experiences, which has helped Rao make connections with her students at Johns Hopkins.

"My office serves over 2,500 Ph.D. students and postdoc students, and so I have to focus on scaling my resources," Rao said. "So collaborations, content and connections are the areas that I focus on."

The low barrier to entry (once an invite is in hand, of course) is enticing. "I have listened to Clubhouse while I've been in the shower or while I'm eating lunch, and it's not like I have to do anything to show up," Rao said. "And if this is how easy it is to get information and to get to connect with people, I don't see it disappearing anytime soon, but rather growing as communities grow."

Rao's discussion on international students' school experiences in the U.S. led her to meet Walter Lee, an associate professor in the engineering department at Virginia Tech and director of research for the school's Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, on Clubhouse. "[Clubhouse] makes it really easy to find people who are listening to or talking about similar topics that you are," Lee told Protocol." And I think the power of that — as a platform — is interesting because it's more about what I want to pay attention to right now, and whoever happens to be in the room is who is just in the room."

For professional development staffers, connecting through Clubhouse is appealing because it facilitated their organic conversation based on their mutual interests — unlike many other other social media platforms where users opt in to see what others post.

Lee joined Clubhouse in August 2020. He has been an active listener, is an administrator in quite a few rooms (where specific topics are discussed) and hosts his own club (where people with similar interests gather). Like Rao, he is also an administrator of the All Things Academia club, where he takes the time to help build the organizational structure and community around higher education on the app.

"Right now, it's so hard for students to make connections on campus, if that's even an option," Lee said. "I think the ability to just pop up and talk to other students and make connections in a drop of a dime seems to be appreciated by the subset of Ph.D. students that I see."

For students like 25-year-old Omkar Bhatavdekar, working with people he has never met before is not uncommon. Bhatavdekar is a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins' chemical and biomolecular engineering department, and began collaborating with Rao last year — although they have never met in person.

"I was instantly attracted to [Clubhouse] because of its simplicity," Bhatavdekar said. "Would I ever present my lab work on Clubhouse? I don't think so, but I think it has a lot of potential to be the better substitute than radio without all the editing."

Bhatavdekar is a member of All Things Academia and religiously attends the chats where the group discusses how to network, or the challenges graduate students face, like navigating the stresses of learning in a new country or getting jobs and residences. But Bhatavdekar said the main draw for him is the geographical diversity and the ease of exchanging with other students that Clubhouse facilitates.

Both Lee and Rao argued that the "next wave" of social media is on the horizon, with audio at the forefront. "I feel like there can be a lot of hassle to set up a Zoom call at times, and I'm limited to 100 people, but I'm thinking about setting up Clubhouse room for office hours just for my students at Johns Hopkins where we can discuss various subjects or hosts guests in the future," Rao said. "And I just think going forward there will have to be some form of etiquette that will have to be implemented — so there's much work to be done in Clubhouse."

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