For many Lebanese iPhone users, a digital invite is the only thing standing between them and a world of dialogue.
Welcome to Clubhouse, where, once you're off the waitlist and on the exclusive voice chat app, you're faced with a plethora of rooms that are open to all, no knocks or keys required.
In every room, users find themselves lost in a sea of names and profile pictures, everyone patiently waiting for their turn to speak.
The audio, invite and iOS-only application was initially launched in April 2020 by entrepreneur Paul Davison and former Google engineer Rohan Seth, and was valued at nearly $100 million merely one month later.
Now, it's worth about $1 billion.
It grew exponentially in February, following a talk on the app by Tesla boss Elon Musk, going from three to five million users "almost overnight", according to Wired.
Among those enthusiastically using the app are the Lebanese, who have not shied away from jumping on the bandwagon, downloading the application and distributing invites among one another.
Under Covid-19 safety measures and restrictions, physical gatherings in streets and lively locales have been replaced with a virtual cafe that's only one tap away. The uniqueness of Clubhouse attracts those looking to connect, engage, discuss, listen and network.
Soon enough, clubs such as ‘Lebanon 2030’, ‘Lebanon 2.0’ and ‘Politics of Lebanon’ were amassing huge numbers of members and hosting rooms on all sorts of topics, from elections to governments and reforms.
Now, Lebanese users of different ideologies are coming together in the realm of one room to engage in effective dialogue.
When reflecting on the state of the crisis-stricken country, the disparities among the Lebanese pale in comparison.
"People understand that Lebanon is in a real crisis and they're all experiencing existential dread," Marwan Matni, Lebanese journalist and political activist, tells The National.
“Everyone is scared of what will happen tomorrow, so they’re engaging in conversations to understand where they are and where they’re going."
Users of all ages, professions, sects, backgrounds, religions and beliefs are meeting up in Clubhouse rooms to share their thoughts on the crises that have plagued Lebanon, caused by years of corruption and mismanagement.
Today, political deadlock has hindered the implementation of an urgent economic rescue plan, the formation of an efficient government and accountability against those who knew about the ammonium nitrate that decimated Beirut on August 4, but did nothing.
It did, however, set in motion grounds for dialogue that are lacking on other media channels.
"Clubhouse enforces respect," says a Lebanese law student and activist who wishes to remain anonymous. "If you don't want to abide by that, it's not the platform for you."
From digital rooms to real-world meet-ups
While other social media platforms can be used by fake profiles, Clubhouse allows for genuine and realistic conversations, explains Roland Abi Najem, a cybersecurity and digital transformation consultant.
“It allows people to express themselves with emotions like they would in real life because their names and voices are public.”
Clubhouse has served as an ‘ice breaker’ between groups that have long learnt to disagree with one another, he adds.
After participating in rooms with groups of different ideologies, Jade Dimien, a member of the Lebanese Forces Central Council, says he focused on finding common ground and sharing "similar values" with others.
“The application has narrowed the differences between groups and showed them the extent of common ground they can share,” he explains.
The app's impact has even extended beyond the digital-scape, with users arranging in-person debates and discussions.
"It's important that we take what we learn in Clubhouse rooms and apply it into the real world," says Dimien, who is from Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city and one of the most impoverished areas on the Mediterranean. He has been actively partaking in rooms discussing solutions and projects for the neglected city.
“These discussions are a huge added value, and hopefully the positive impact will continue to grow with time.”
'Capable of change'
While Clubhouse may not play the same role that social media platforms did in igniting the Arab uprisings, it can help regain faith in Lebanon's protests which first kicked off in mid-October 2019, argue activists.
"After October 17, the ruling class tried its best to downplay the impact of the demonstrations," says Matni. "But Clubhouse can help the Lebanese see that they are capable of change."
The ‘rules’ of Clubhouse play an important part in facilitating dialogue about this, he says.
For example, moderators keep the discussion in check, cycling back to the designated topic and avoiding heated arguments. Even 'trolls' who enter Clubhouse rooms to start trouble have quickly learnt that unless they improve their communication, they won't get the chance to speak.
"They can simply be muted or removed off stage, so it teaches them to change their ways if they really want to talk," says the law student.
People are encouraged to speak one at a time, prompting others to listen. Speakers are then more motivated to present a valid and succinct argument.
“When you’re in a room with people who are listening and forming an opinion based on what you’re saying, you do your best to deliver a logical discussion,” explains Abi Najem.
This approach has broken down barriers and defied the perception of “us vs them”, still very prevalent in Lebanon, and instead brought people closer together, all drawn in by a collective concern for the country and its future.
“If things get worse in Lebanon, it’s not a chapter we can turn over, it’s a turning point,” says Matni. “We have to listen to each other because politicians won’t listen.”
'Politicians can hear you'
Many of Lebanon’s lawmakers and ministers have also joined Clubhouse to share their programmes and visions for the country, especially ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2022.
Despite offering promises for years, politicians were received on the application by citizens who welcomed the two-way communication.
“Regardless of how you feel about the politicians, it’s important to express your views and tell them where they went wrong directly," says Dimien. "Unlike other media outlets, on Clubhouse you know that they can hear you.”