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China tech

China had 'Clubhouse' tech years ago -- so why didn't it take off?

Users say local apps can't match freedom and global reach of US version

China has many Clubhouse-like apps, but users say none can be a "true alternative" to the U.S. platform. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

PALO ALTO, U.S. -- After spending almost eight hours every day on Clubhouse last week, Xie changed her profile picture on the trendy voice-chat app to a QR code for her WeChat account on Monday night.

"Please add me on WeChat, so we can stay connected after Clubhouse is banned," she said in a Clubhouse chatroom where over a hundred users had gathered to discuss signs that the app was suddenly being blocked in mainland China.

Late Monday night, users across China began to report system errors when accessing the U.S.-developed social media app, Nikkei Asia previously reported. A notification appeared when they tried to open the app, saying "a secure connection to the server cannot be made" -- a typical error that occurs when Chinese regulators block a website.

Chatrooms related to the China ban emerged on Clubhouse following the news as Chinese users discussed what alternatives they have if they too lost access to the app.

Some users chose to migrant their contacts to WeChat, but not all think the popular Chinese messaging app will be a suitable replacement for Clubhouse, as they would not be able to talk as freely there -- the Tencent-owned WeChat is known for moderating users' chat content.

"We have many similar social apps in China, but none of them will be a true Clubhouse alternative," Xie told Nikkei Asia on Monday, who requested her full name not be used.

For many Chinese users, the technology behind Clubhouse is not new. The Silicon Valley-headquartered social media app is currently invite-only and allows users to jump into different audio chatrooms to discuss different topics, features that appeared on YY.com, Dizhua, Lizhi and several other voice-based social networking apps in China as early as 2011.

Dizhua, a voice-based chatroom app that was launched in China in early 2019, is viewed as the most similar to Clubhouse. However, the app has been downloaded only 140,000 times to date on Apple's China App Store, compared with Clubhouse's 3.9 million installs by the first week of February, according to data analytics firm SensorTower.

"It's not about Clubhouse's technology being better than other apps. Everybody is using the same [software development kit] for audio," said Kenichiro Hara, a Tokyo-based consumer sector investor at venture capital firm DCM.

"Social apps are all about the network effect. If you come into the app and you don't see any friends, meaning you don't see any contents, then it's not a good app," said Hara. Clubhouse's ability to attract a global user base who can generate quality content to bring more new sign-ups differentiate it from other China-focused apps, he added.

Clubhouse's live streaming audio features are reportedly powered by Agora, a Shanghai-headquartered software company that was founded by the former CTO of YY.com. Agora lists many leading social networking apps in China as its clients.

Clubhouse was released in March 2020, but recently took off in Asia after Tesla chief Elon Musk made his debut on the platform. The company does not break down user numbers by region but said it has been growing "very quickly" in Asia thanks to "people inviting people."

Meanwhile, even though many Chinese apps have technologies that are similar to Clubhouse's, they might not be able to replicate the American app's success on a global level due to Beijing's censorship, industry experts said.

"It's interesting how an American app got so much attention while China has so many similar apps with even better features but none of them became a hit like this," said Cassie Chen, a product manager at a Chinese tech firm. She added that content moderation is the key issue for many of voice-based social apps in China, where political topics like Tiananmen and Xinjiang are forbidden to be discussed.

"The value proposition of Clubhouse is not the technology, it is the freedom of speech and global connections, and that is exactly what those Chinese apps can not copy," Chen said.

Voice-based social apps are not the only innovation that China outpaced Silicon Valley in recent years. Thanks to its rising middle classes with growing spending power, the country has become a world leader in consumer-facing technologies.

"If you look at 1.3 billion people, if you look at the urbanization rate, populations just cramped in cities with a mobile lifestyle. It's going to be the right hotbed for a new type of usage model, new business model," said Jeffrey Lee, a partner at China-focused venture capital firm Northern Light.

"I would say not only Clubhouse ... so many things are copying Chinese companies," he added.

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