Clubhouse has a safety problem.
The invite-only social media app, which lets people gather in audio-only “rooms” for free-flowing discussions, is in the midst of an explosive growth spurt. With reportedly over 10 million users as of mid-February, the demand for accounts is so high that people are trying to sell them for as much as $100. The real challenge, however, lies in deleting an account — a potentially serious safety concern for users now struggling to do so as they see their professional and personal lives unwillingly mixed.
The problem is twofold. Clubhouse requires users to sign up with phone numbers, and also requires access to users’ entire phone contact lists to send out invites to other people. As the app is still invite-only, this forces people to share their contact lists if they want to invite their friends or colleagues to the platform.
With full access to your contact list, and with a database matching phone numbers to Clubhouse accounts, the app both prompts you to follow users whose phone numbers are in your phone and “lets you see which of your friends are on Clubhouse” — even if those “friends” don’t have clubhouse accounts in their real names.
While valuable from a Silicon Valley-growth perspective, this kind of discoverability can cause serious problems for historically vulnerable populations — for instance, sex workers — who often attempt to keep their work lives separate from their personal lives. As we’ve seen time and time again, people outed as past or present sex workers have faced harassment, been fired, and been made to deal with other real-world consequences.
These potential consequences are unfolding on Clubhouse now.
“My contacts list is very large, I have had the same phone number for about 15 years at this point,” explained Heather Jana, a sex worker and former Clubhouse user, over Signal. (Heather Jana is the name she works under.) “There are all kinds of people in my contacts that I would never want to alert to my presence on social media platforms: family members, exes, former coworkers, etc. People with whom I deliberately do not share the details of my work/sex/social media life, nor do I want to.”
Jana joined Clubhouse on Dec. 30, and was horrified to see old college friends adding her on the app. Notably, her Clubhouse username, which she said she was unable to change, was her sex worker persona — meaning anyone who had her phone number and joined Clubhouse would then be aware of her work.
“I deliberately did NOT have my contacts sharing enabled to prevent this very thing from ever happening,” she explained.
It was only then that Jana realized she couldn’t easily delete her account. As we previously reported, the only way (as of the time of this writing) to delete a Clubhouse account is to email the company with a request. That doesn’t mean the company will respond, however. Clubhouse ignored four written account-deletion requests, starting Feb. 11, from this very reporter before responding on Feb. 26 (and only after being publicly called out on Twitter).
Even then, the Clubhouse support team didn’t delete my account — it asked me to link an email to the account, and provided instructions for doing so in-app that didn’t work. As of the time of this writing, my Clubhouse account still remains on the platform.
Jackie Singh, a former senior cybersecurity staffer in the Biden campaign who was personally targeted last year in a social media-tied doxxing campaign, explained over Twitter direct message the importance of being able to control your own account data.
“Social media companies which fail to promptly honor a person’s request to delete content which is legally theirs are failing in their basic duty to protect their ecosystems from harm,” she noted. “As increasing amounts of our lives are not just transacted, but truly lived online, it will become proportionally increasingly important to recognize the rights that users of online services should have over their own Internet identities and data; in essence, their intellectual property.”
We reached out to the Clubhouse press contact listed on its website twice for comment, but received only automated responses.
“The Clubhouse team is receiving an overwhelming number of media requests,” read the form email in part. “Unfortunately, we are not able to respond to all inquiries.”
Jana, meanwhile, didn’t have the luxury of being able to wait weeks while Clubhouse ignored her multiple account-deletion requests.
“As a sex worker, as well as a woman existing online, the ability to delete my accounts is vital to my safety,” she explained.
Being unable to do so on Clubhouse, as more and more old contacts joined the app and were prompted to follow her sex worker-associated account, proved that point.
“Sex workers operate in a murky legal area (many of us do both online as well as in-person work) and in addition to the legal issues that stem from trying to exist under this model, we also suffer from a huge amount of stigma from all kinds of people who try to deny our existence and our agency,” she noted. “Being outed as a sex worker (even a legal one, i.e. someone who ‘only does Onlyfans’) can mean the loss of a job, the alienation from one’s family, or the removal of children from their parents if CPS happens to get involved.”
On Feb. 25, after four written requests and threatened legal action, Clubhouse finally responded to Jana’s deletion request.
Apologies for the delayed reply, as we’ve gotten a lot of requests in and are working through them! We’ve put this deletion in process; reminder on what this means for your account:
. Once we process your permanent account deletion, your account information (e.g. username, followers, settings) will be erased and not retrievable.
Jana is not the only person upset with Clubhouse’s failure to provide an in-app method to delete accounts. Twitter is filled with Clubhouse users expressing shock and befuddlement at the state of the app.
By the way if you want to delete your Clubhouse account, you have to EMAIL THEM. FYI it’s 2021 lololol
— Payman Benz (@PaymanBenz) February 28, 2021
Why is it taking so long for Clubhouse to delete my account it’s going on 2 weeks now.
— Chiquita (@amourwest) February 25, 2021
Yeah I think I’m done with Clubhouse but it’s super annoying that I have to email them to delete my account…
— Micah Azam Khan (@MicahAzamKhan) February 24, 2021
The Clubhouse subreddit is likewise awash with furious users demanding that Clubhouse delete their accounts.
“Why won’t you let me delete my account?” reads one such post. “Currently there is no way to delete or deactivate this account without emailing support. It has been 7 days without an answer since I have requested by email that this account to be deleted.”
Other posts on the subreddit raise similar concerns. “How do I delete my clubhouse?” asks another. “I need to delete my clubhouse account fast[.]”
“Just a heads up for new users,” reads another post. “Currently no way to delete your account once created. Tried it out for a week, didn’t really like it and the app only allows you to logout. No way to delete. Highly unethical[.]”
Singh, the former Biden senior cybersecurity staffer, emphasized the importance of being able to quickly delete social media accounts.
“When an event occurs which results in a harmful loss of privacy, those affected often have a very limited amount of time to try and contain the spread of information and minimize the damage,” Singh observed. “When these events occur in contexts such as stalking, domestic violence, and other cases of abuse, especially of marginalized people (including sex workers), the consequences can be severe.”
For some Clubhouse users, the concern about not being able to quickly delete their accounts may simply be about privacy for its own sake — i.e., a completely valid desire to not share one’s presence on the app with everyone who’s ever possessed their phone number irrespective of specific safety or professional concerns. For others, like Jana, the issue is more serious.
“From our photos/content being leaked to hiding from abusive ex-partners, there are a MYRIAD OF REASONS why women (and BIPOC, LGBTQ folks, etc) would potentially need to quickly delete our accounts in the event of a privacy violation,” she explained over Signal. “We are quite simply TRYING TO STAY ALIVE, and any app that doesn’t take this into account, even after EVERYTHING we ALREADY KNOW about bullying, harassment, and abuse that happens on other social media platforms, seems… like either a woefully naive and/or tragically bad-faith argument to make.”
SEE ALSO: Does anyone actually like Clubhouse?
Clubhouse, founded in March of 2020, is almost officially one year old — long past the point of having any reasonable excuse to not make it easy for users to delete their accounts (and associated data) quickly and completely. And maybe the company will update the app with a deletion-request feature in the near future.
But as things stand now for sex workers like Jana, the harm caused by this developer oversight is already done.