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Here’s what it’s like on Clubhouse, the hot chat app that’s become a Silicon Valley obsession

March 6, 2021, 1:30 AM UTC

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A user by the name of Carla joined a rambunctious chatroom on Clubhouse, a buzzy audio-only app. The conversation among the 50 people in the room—no faces are visible on the service— was a jumble of topics, some even risqué. 

“When was the last time you had sex?” Carla asked no one in particular.

Meanwhile, in a different room, Paul Singh, an angel investor, gave business advice to more than 400 people, many of whom were tech entrepreneurs or aspired to be. “The world wants to believe it’s really hard to build a company,” he said. But all it comes down to two questions: “Will it work, and how good will it be?”

This contrast between serious business talk, and occasional inappropriate detours, is the norm on Clubhouse—a Wild West of chatter about everything and anything. In the year since it premiered, the app has quickly gained a big following.

People have downloaded Clubhouse more than 12 million times, a huge number for such a young service. The number would be even higher, but the app is available only to people with Apple iOS devices and those who have been invited by others to join.

During its brief history, Clubhouse has become a sort of gathering place for tech elite. In just the past few months, billionaires including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates have all held court.

But Clubhouse has also been criticized for how some people use its service. As on many social media services, hate speech and harassment are common.

A Fortune reporter recently tuned into a number of Clubhouse rooms over several hours to get a taste of what goes on in the cacophony of conversation. What she heard were people around the world sharing their thoughts, their insights, or their art.

On this particular day, participants on the app included Alec Stern, cofounder of email marketing software company Constant Contact, and Rob Angel, inventor of the word guessing game Pictionary. “When I was doing Pictionary, I just got started,” Angel told hundreds. “Why ruin a great idea with a plan?”

Stern chimed in to add to the sentiment: “Look big, act big, become big,” he encouraged the people listening.

In another room, more than 250 people listened to entrepreneurs who extolled the virtues of “creator towns,” small towns that are ideal for entrepreneurs and remote workers. For now, they’re more of a dream than a reality. “As people start looking outside of their boundaries in their Zillow searches they’ll realize they can go buy 10 acres and start doing something with it,” said Al Doan, who is creating businesses out of Hamilton, Mo. “You can’t do that on the coasts, but middle America, we’re still here.”

Some rooms weren’t about business at all.

For example, one room, Happy Hour-After Work Mingle, brought together people from Indonesia to China to New York City to meet new people and talk about their favorite cocktails. What transpired seemed like a team-building exercise in which strangers took turns introducing themselves and occasionally answering questions like what language they dream in.

Another room called the Speakeasy Happy Hour featured tunes from DJ Mick and mixologist Nait Jones. The room had more than 2,000 people, who mostly remained silent while listening to hip-hop remixes.

In a third room, base jumper Dan Schilling, fighter pilot Justin Lee, and NASA astronaut Ron Garan compared space exploration and piloting jets to art and musical performances. Some musicians listening said they related to Schilling’s stories about chair flying, a form of training pilots undergo in which they visualize the steps needed to take to fly a plane. Musicians similarly practice their craft by moving their fingers across the keys of their instruments without actually playing.

“I believe it does the same thing,” Lee said. It takes you “away from that reality.”

Throughout the day thousands of users filtered in and out of rooms, many in English but several in other languages including French, Korean, and Arabic. Some conversations were recurring events—they took place at a fixed time on the same day every week—while others were rooms created on the fly as casual meetups.

When it came to Carla’s intimate question, she did get one answer, seemingly in jest, from a user named Anwar. “Are you in desperate need of something, Carla?” he laughed. Then the room devolved into a cacophony of random and often unrelated comments, an audio version of AOL chatrooms circa 1998.